Brain movies.

A week or so ago, I shared a strange little dream I had with a friend. I thought she might get a kick out of it. “Wouldn’t it be amazing to videotape our dreams?” she said, and it got me thinking about my own interest in the strange movies our brains conjure while we’re sleeping. For maybe the first time, it hit me that this blog could have easily become a place for me to preserve and discuss dreams instead of the mostly music-related place it’s been for the past four years.

I’ve always been fascinated by dreams, as far back as I can remember. It used to frustrate me that I seemed to have them so infrequently. There would be a few nights in a row of strange, exciting dreams, and then no action at all for a week, or a month, or more. It took years before I learned I was really dreaming every night. It wasn’t the dream activity that was hit-and-miss, but my memory of it.

I would write down the odd dream here and there, but I only bothered with the most interesting ones I remembered in some amount of detail. I didn’t see the point in writing down every little dream fragment that stuck around in my brain. If I couldn’t put the weirdness into some sort of context, it didn’t seem worth the effort.

In late 2005 I began to remember pieces of my dreams a lot more often. That continued into the first half of 2006, until it was unusual for me to go more than a few nights in a row without having at least a few fragments or images stay with me. At the same time, I knew I was losing a lot of good stuff. The more pieces I held onto, the stranger and more interesting the dreams seemed to become, and the more I wanted to remember all the bits that were still beyond my reach.

It was a cumulative process. First I thought I might as well start writing down every little moment of dream information I could remember, no matter how random or vague it seemed. For a while I tried writing “dream poems”. The free-floating language seemed to allow me to capture half-remembered moments and indistinct feelings that were otherwise difficult to put into words. But that lost its appeal pretty fast, and I went back to trying to write things out in as much detail as possible.

It wasn’t until the summer of 2006 that I decided to get more diligent about the whole thing. I went to the trouble of piecing together every single scrap of dream information I’d ever bothered to document in my life, whether it was sitting in an email draft folder or scrawled on a piece of paper. I tried to weave it all into a somewhat coherent collection. I thought it might make for a fun read, and it made sense to me to organize all the dream-related material I had to the best of my ability.

I knew forcing myself to write down whatever I could remember made a difference in how much I was able to retain, but I didn’t see how profound that difference was until I had all the dreams I’d preserved up to that point collected in one place. I was amazed to learn I’d somehow managed to document more than a hundred dreams just in the month of September. That was more in four weeks than I managed to get in the whole three-year period that stretched from 2003 to 2005.

I thought this was near the peak of what I could expect to achieve with my dream recall skills. I was wrong. Over the next few months the volume kept building until it wasn’t uncommon for me to get around three hundred dreams documented in a month, some of them insanely detailed and several thousand words long.

What I learned was this: dream memory is like a muscle. It’s very responsive to being exercised in any significant way. Even if I could remember nothing aside from a moment of dialogue or what one person looked like, writing that down told my brain this was information worth preserving, and my brain said, “Hey, you want more of this stuff? You got it.”

The ability to hold onto my dreams was always there. I just didn’t know how to harness it.

One thing that made a big difference early on was keeping a notebook in bed and writing down key points whenever I woke up, even when it was in the middle of the night and all I wanted to do was go back to sleep. The most important thing to get down was any dialogue I could remember, because that seemed to be the first thing to fade. Six hours and several dreams later, I would remember the gist of what was said and who said it, but I wouldn’t remember the precise words that were used.

Keeping a notebook nearby and scratching out a few lines when you’re half-asleep sounds simple in theory. It was made more complicated when I started having dreams in which I was writing down what I’d just finished dreaming, having fallen back asleep two seconds after thinking, “I need to write this down.”

Because I got it done in a dream and it seemed real enough, I assumed I had it taken care of in the waking world and concentrated on whatever was going on in the other dreams. Then I would wake up to a blank page thinking, “What the hell?! Didn’t I write those dreams down?”

These little fake-outs and false awakenings started to happen all the time, until I got tired of trying to make sense of some of my point-form early morning chicken scratch and started leaving the writing for when I woke up the last time to start my day (or night).

You’d think that would lead to a pretty steep drop-off in detail. And it did, at least for a little while. But then my brain adapted by just storing dream information in my short-term memory for a longer period of time. Sometimes I would even tell someone about an earlier dream I had in a different dream to make sure I remembered it. Pretty soon I was remembering more than I ever had before, even without any between-dream notes to assist me. Sometimes I would get fifteen or eighteen dreams in a single night. They varied in length and subject matter, but there were usually at least a few on any given night that had some real heft and invention to them.

What really helped me take my dream recall skills to the next level was the mantra I developed. I read on the internet about how it helps sometimes to verbalize the desire to remember your dreams as sort of an add-on to keeping a dream journal. I figured it couldn’t hurt. Before falling asleep I would repeat out loud, “I will remember my dreams.” I tried a few variations and settled on repeating those five words eight times, following that with, “I will remember my dreams in vivid detail,” twice, and then going through the whole sequence once more.

It took me maybe thirty seconds to do. Most nights I said it in a whisper. It made such an immediate difference I couldn’t believe it. Keeping the thought that I wanted to remember my dreams in my mind before I fell sleep was easy enough, but I would still have the odd night where I couldn’t remember anything, and it would frustrate the hell out of me. Saying the words out loud seemed to trip a switch somewhere in my brain. The amount of dreams I was able to remember and the detail I was able to hold onto took a giant leap forward.

Lucid dreaming was another story. I gave it an honest try, but I had some real difficulty staying in a dream once it became lucid, and nothing I tried to do to keep myself there seemed to do much good. It was as if the dream didn’t want me anymore once it knew I knew it was a dream, and the sudden increase in visual detail was almost too much to handle. A few times I did manage to keep myself from waking up right after the transition into full-throttle lucidity, but instead of staying lucid, my awareness would fade and the dream would continue with its regularly scheduled business.

After a short period of experimentation, I realized I was losing some good dreams to these failed attempts at developing my half-baked abilities to lucid dream. Aside from some breathtaking moments of vivid imagery, not much of anything compelling happened when I was in a lucid dream. It seemed like too much work for no tangible reward. I found the strange little movies my sleeping mind was capable of creating fascinating all on their own. I didn’t want to lose them in favour of aimless dream space that refused to cooperate with me.

So I decided to go in the other direction. When dream realization would start to creep in, I would push it away. I’ve had a number of dreams over the years involving light switches that don’t do anything, or passages of text I read only to find the words have changed when I give them a second look. Even knowing these are tip-offs doesn’t clue me in when I’m in the dream itself. I just assume a light’s burnt out or a book is possessed.

Dream realization is more of a sneaky feeling that starts to worm its way into my head. It tends to show up when I’m really interested or emotionally involved in what’s going on in a dream, because on some buried level I’m thinking to myself, “I don’t want to wake up. I don’t want this to end yet.”

In my younger days, a lot of dreams would end just as things were getting good or the moment it hit me I was dreaming. For the longest time I couldn’t figure out why that happened. Now that I’d developed a much more intimate relationship with my dreams and the related muscles in my mind were stronger, I found ways to circumvent the problem of dream realization. I learned I could trick my brain into staying in the dream. Sometimes things would change in subtle or not-so-subtle ways, as if the near-termination of sleep caused a ripple effect that skewed the dream universe to some extent, but after a certain point I was almost always able to keep myself from waking up — unless I wanted to wake up.

I still find it funny that I made a concerted effort to push lucidity away when most people would probably embrace it with open arms. I guess I decided my dreams were more interesting when I didn’t feel like I was the one writing the script.

I started to slack off on my dream documenting duties after moving into this house in the summer of 2007, and the detail and volume sometimes took a bit of a hit.

I had a routine I would follow. As soon as I woke up, I typed up everything I could remember dreaming on my laptop after realizing I could type about a hundred times faster than I could write by hand (and oh, my wrist rejoiced). Before going to bed I would return to those dreams and flesh them out. The first run-through was just to get the nuts and bolts down as well as I could. This second time through was when I would edit things to read better and add additional details I remembered in the process. Kind of like taking a sketch and turning it into a finished drawing.

It wasn’t unusual for my dreams to multiply in length when I did this. What began as four or five pages could turn into ten or twelve by the time I was finished. This precision work was crucial to getting the most out of a dream, and I found writing in the present tense was the only way to really do a good dream justice.

The move was exhausting. Mostly it was an emotional thing. My sleep was a great ragged mess thanks to the six months or so spent living attached to a drug house. I had mountains of music I needed to work on, and I kind of lost the plot for a while. I started to forget about the pre-sleep mantra. Some days I wouldn’t give my dreams that essential second run-through. Sometimes I would only scratch out a few brief details. I would mean to flesh it all out later on, but then I wouldn’t get around to it. Later in the day the details would fade and I would be left with a few sketchy lines I wasn’t able to expand on.

And yet, as hard as I fell off the wagon, when I put even half the amount of work in I used to, even without the mantra, even with my sleep flailing back and forth between “near-normal” and “completely fucked up”, I was still able to get just about as much detail as I did back in my prime. Those muscles were still there when I chose to flex them. The numbers dropped off quite a bit, and my days of remembering eighteen dreams in one night were behind me, but the quality and depth of the dreams I did hold onto made up for it in spades.

There was a time when I really did wish there was a way to record my dreams on video somehow, so I could just save them and watch them at my leisure. I’ve come around to thinking maybe it’s better this way. There are certain images or landscapes I’m incapable of describing in a way that does them justice. I don’t have the drawing skills to sketch all the striking faces I’ve never seen outside of my dreams. There are feelings and associations that are difficult to articulate, and inflections the written word strains to recreate. It can be difficult to convey the way time and reality seem to bend and flit in and out according to a logic that only exists in dreams.

But maybe there’s something compelling in trying to capture things that resist being captured. In retelling certain dreams and attempting to untangle them to the best of my ability, I think I’ve managed some moments of writing that put to shame anything I ever did within the realm of fiction back when I fancied myself a writer of stories, before music became the place most of my creative energy chose to go. There have been dreams that have moved, frightened, aroused, amused, disturbed, inspired, puzzled, astonished, and taught me as much as any great work of art I’ve ever experienced in the waking world.

Over the past few years I’ve neglected my dream journal in some pretty shameful ways. I don’t think I’ve gone a night without remembering at least a bit of what I dreamed since September of 2006 (unless I didn’t get any sleep at all and there was no dreaming going on), but it’s been a long time since I put in the work necessary to keep the detail and volume where it used to be with any kind of consistency. Right around the time I started this blog, I came to a fork in the road, and I had to make a choice: keep being borderline obsessive with my dream journal to the detriment of all other creative adventures, or focus on music and try to restore some balance to that part of my life.

I chose to give myself over to the music. And I haven’t looked back.

I think there has to be a happy medium between the two, though. The desire is still there to return to that place I used to be, where I was wrestling ten or fifteen single-spaced typed pages out of a single night of dreaming. Maybe I’ll get back there. There are a lot of dreams left to be dreamed, and some of them are too good to just slip away.

For now, I’m starting to wade through a few thousand pages of the dreams I’ve accumulated up to this point, finding them as fascinating as ever, watching recurring themes emerge only to mutate, blur, and find themselves replaced by new themes (or, in some cases, seeing them stick around more or less unchanged). I’m also adding things like paragraph breaks to make the huge blocks of text easier on the eyes. Maybe when I’m done I’ll have a volume or two bound into a book for my own personal enjoyment — my own bible of dreams.


    1. I’ve documented all the nightmares I’ve been able to remember, pretty much…I’ve always found those some of the most fascinating dreams, because some of the things that scare me in dreams are very odd to me once I’m awake. Then again, some of them are just plain disturbing. But I felt it was important to have a record of everything, good and bad.

  1. Johnny, have you ever looked at Win Wenger’s stuff? I think a lot of the techniques you have are similar to his, so I think you’d find it interesting to look him up.

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