Water in the wheelhouse; how dreams are formed

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Water in the wheelhouse; how dreams are formed

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
and a wave broke over the railing.
And ev’ry man knew, as the captain did too
’twas the witch of November come stealin’.

— from the song Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald by by Gordon Lightfoot, 1976

This page relates to my article You only live twice, which unlocks the door to immortality. (Hey, think big!)

Here is a report I heard on the radio of a dream. As such, it is third-hand info, but I cannot think of a better illustration of the nature of dreams and of how the common view of dreams as memories of imagined experiences while asleep is wrong.

The dreamer was of manning the helm (steering wheel) of a ship or boat in a storm. Progressively larger swells caused seawater to crash onto the deck until a wave came over the wheelhouse and onto the face of the dreamer, who then woke. He reflexively reached to his face to wipe the water away – and his hand came away wet!

Condensation had run down the inside of a window next to him and splashed on the window sill…

SS Edmund Fitzgerald

SS Edmund Fitzgerald

Clearly, the actual sequence of events was as follows:

  1. Condensation runs down the inside of a window next to the sleeping person and hits the window sill, splashing the face of the sleeper, waking him.
  2. He reflexively reaches to his face to wipe the water away – and his hand comes away wet.
  3. His waking mind constructs the boat in a storm narrative (in moving images, presumably) to account for the sensation of water hitting him in the face. (I speculate that he had been reading about or looking at a ship or boat in a storm the previous day.)
  4. The narrative ‘feels’ like a memory because (speculating a bit here) how else could it be reasonably interpreted? Of course, all experiences are memories, whether recent (a fraction of a second) or long ago. In addition, the common explanation of dreams is that they happen during sleep. It seems to me that could also cause us to interpret it that way.

The witch of November is not the only thief of our grasp on reality, apparently. Legendary Belgian cartoonist Hergé (Georges Remi) referred to the phenomenon in The Broken Ear (1935-37):

…Tintin dreams of an Arumbaya stealing into his bedroom and stinging him with a poison dart, only to wake up suddenly and find it was a mosquito bite…

— from Tintin, the Complete Companion by Michael Farr, 2001 page 67

We should not trust the ‘time stamp’ of when we wake (supposedly after the dream) or of anything else about a dream. We don’t imagine the content of the dream is real, so why should we trust our sense of the order of events connected with it?

Irrevocably alone

This perhaps does not really belong on a page about dreams, but I felt the need to include it somewhere. Maybe here is as good a place as any because there is a parallel between the aloneness of a dream and the aloneness of solo flight. Beryl Markham flew the Atlantic on her own from England to the USA in 1936. This is a snippet from her account of that journey.

Being alone in an aeroplane for even so short a time as a night and a day, irrevocably alone, with nothing to observe but your instruments and your own hands in semidarkness, nothing to contemplate but the size of your small courage, nothing to wonder about but the beliefs, the faces, and the hopes rooted in your mind–such an experience can be as startling as the first awareness of a stranger walking by your side at night. You are the stranger.

— from West With the Night by Beryl Markham, 1942

External link

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald documentary film snippets set to the Gordon Lightfoot song. Not a dream, unfortunately.

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