Waking To Dream

“Here is a definition of the word beauty I like: the quality present in a thing that gives intense pleasure and deep satisfaction to the mind through the manifestation of a meaningful pattern or design.”
– Her, Other Bodies

Why do we need to dream? In Jonah Lehrer’s beautiful essay of the same name, dreams are much more than “neural babble, but are instead layered with significance and substance.” The essay speculates that dreams serve three essential functions:

  • Strengthening important memories by replaying them and linking them to similar past experiences
  • Consolidating memories by deciding what events from the day to forget
  • Juxtaposing new memories with seemingly unlike older memories to see if unexpected patterns and connections emerge (hence, bizarro dreams)

This last potential function is inherently connected to creativity. Our capacity as artists to see unexpected patterns and connect unlike things through juxtaposition is at the heart of the creative process. The essay shares several studies that link sleep to enhanced creativity.

And as Jonah Lehrer will be the keynote speaker for the upcoming TCG 2010 National Conference (disclosure: my employer), I wondered if we could travel a little further down this hypothetical road and imagine how theatre connects to dreaming and memory.

It begins with the evolutionary hypothesis that pattern recognition is essential to survival. Our capacity to notice unexpected patterns allowed us to better predict future outcomes. Over time, that capacity to understand patterns became so deeply ingrained in our consciousness (perhaps even giving rise to consciousness) that this capacity became pleasurable. It became what we call beauty.

Our capacity for beauty, for pleasure in the manifestation of a meaningful pattern or design, is linked directly to our capacity to survive. With apologies to Oscar Wilde, all art may be useless, but our hunger and capacity for it is essential.

Back to Jonah Lehrer and dreaming. One thing may have stuck in your mind while reading the above – if dreaming is so important, why do we have to be unconscious while it happens? Lehrer speculates that the conscious mind cannot relinquish enough control to discover unexpected patterns and let go of useless memories.

So evolution told our consciousness to take a nap. The wild and bizarre juxtapositions of dreams are necessary for pattern recognition and memory maintenance; our consciousness would hold on to the wrong things (if it was willing to relinquish any memories at all) and see only predictable patterns.

It’s a strange thing: evolution would rather have us sleeping and completely defenseless than have our conscious minds solely responsible for the patterns of our memory. Sleep is like a stern parent, sending the conscious mind to bed so the difficult work and hard choices of assembling the self can begin.

Is it any wonder then we choose to sit in the dark and watch the pattern of a play unfold before us? It is a waking dream, where the artist assumes the role of our unconscious, but allows us to stay up late, juxtaposing unexpected connections and revealing unseen patterns, expanding our capacity to predict what may happen, helping us to remember the right things, and let go of the rest.

“…in time of lilacs who proclaim
the aim of waking is to dream
remember so (forgetting seem)…”
-e.e. cummings

Leave a comment