'Why We Dream' Is A Spirited, Cogent Defense Of Dreams And Dream-Telling "If we fail to take the simple steps to remember and understand our dreams, we are throwing away a gift from our brains without bothering to open it," writes Alice Robb.
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Book Reviews

'Why We Dream' Is A Spirited, Cogent Defense Of Dreams And Dream-Telling

My brother hates hearing about dreams.

Start describing one, and his eyes roll back. Talking about a dream, to him, is like telling a joke with no punch line.

He's not alone. In Why We Dream, her first book, science writer Alice Robb lays out a Who's Who of dream-haters: On This American Life, Sarah Koenig included dreams on a list of seven topics interesting people should never discuss; Dan Piepenbring once apologized in The New Yorker for writing about Nabokov's dreams; the novelist Michael Chabon has gone furthest, banning dream-telling from his breakfast table.

Robb would tell Chabon and the others that they are missing out. Why We Dream is a spirited, cogent defense of dreams and dream-telling.

"If we fail to take the simple steps to remember and understand our dreams," she writes in the introduction, "we are throwing away a gift from our brains without bothering to open it." Devote some time to tracking your dreams, discussing them with your doctor, and investigating them with friends, she continues, and you can become "fluent in the language of dreams."

The language of dreams is not Freudian. Though Robb delivers a solid crash course on Freud and Jung, she's a science writer and her interests tend toward the lab, not the couch. Crucially, she takes no interest in the paranormal, except as entertaining detail. Writing about the history of dream study, Robb notes, "The link between pseudoscience, dreams, and outdated cultural theories took hold of the cultural imagination, making the work even harder for those few, renegade researchers who dared to pursue the unpopular science of dreams." Translation: A therapist who knows how to detect depression through questions about a patient's dream life is hindered, not helped, by that patient's casual knowledge of Freud and his Wolf Man.

Though Robb makes her perspective clear, she is consistently open-minded. Over the course of Why We Dream, she attends an international dream conference, starts a dream group, and attends a lucid-dreaming boot camp in Hawaii that, to a less open-minded reader, sounds like a very scenic hell. She participates in virtual-reality nightmare treatment and writes with empathy about a group of Hmong refugees who, "deprived of their livelihood and the tight-knit communities they had always counted on, ...became so afraid of an evil nightmare spirit they called the dab tsog that their hearts stopped beating in their sleep." These deaths are not perfectly scientifically explicable, but Robb is not interested in perfection. She's interested in the ways science, culture, and personal beliefs can combine to help us understand our dreams' impact on our waking lives.

Much of Why We Dream focuses on difficult topics: depression, the dag tsob, the dreams that often guide hospice patients to peaceful deaths. But dreams have a brighter side, too. There's a strong correlation between creativity and an active dream life, and writers from Maurice Sendak to Stephen King have turned dreams into beloved books. For non-believers, dreams can offer some semblance of a spiritual life: In the 1990s, scholar Kay Turner began collecting women's dreams about the pop singer Madonna, and discovered that many "found emotional support in their Madonna dreams, waking with a sense of peace or resolution that persisted in their real lives."

I know the feeling. When I was a graduate student in creative writing, I dreamed one night that the novelist Zadie Smith pulled me aside at a picnic and offered to be my mentor. Years later, I'm still delighted by the dream offer. Robb would point out that my positive emotions have stuck because I discussed the dream with my writer friends. Sharing dreams with a receptive audience amplifies their benefits: not only does it help the dreamer better understand her dreams, it also facilitates closeness and community-building. In Auschwitz, prisoners recounted their dreams daily, turning them into shared sources of hope and entertainment. In a maximum-security women's prison in South Carolina, social worker Susan Hendricks led a dream group that, she found, enabled inmates to prepare for high-stakes events like parole hearings.

Scientists believe that the purpose of dreams is, in part, preparation. We can rehearse stressful situations in our sleep, work through our fear and anxiety, and be calmed before the situation arises in waking life. Dreams can also speed the grieving process, help trauma sufferers heal, and aid addicts in struggles not to relapse.

We may not know why dreams "traffic in garbled metaphor and disjointed imagery," but by learning to decode them, we can learn to decode ourselves. We can comfort, encourage, and support ourselves, even if we have to dress up as Madonna or Zadie Smith to do it. And by abandoning the Chabon-Koenig belief that dreams are dull, we can better support our loved ones. All we need to do, Robb wants us to know, is pay attention.

Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Washington, D.C.