Monday, May 09, 2005

Dream puzzles

Warning: intense navel-gazing ahead.

Amongst other recent musings, AJ describes a dream he had:

I hardly ever remember my dreams, but yesterday I took a pretty long nap, and woke up right after having a dream in which the above situation occurred. I was talking to someone in a very crowded room and he had a cute little kid with him, and he acted very strangely when I asked how old the kid was. It was only later in the dream, after this interaction, that I realized why.

The reason is not important, but this experience totally fascinated me. While dreaming, my own brain constructed a scenario complex and subtle enough that even it couldn't figure it out until later. I don't know much about dreams (since I never remember them), but it kind of blew my mind. Has this happened to you before? I guess I always imagined dreams as a sensory and emotional adventure, reflecting my own thoughts, and not such much a real-world experience involving interactions with other people who actually appear to have independent thoughts and behaviors.

As it happens, this morning I awoke from a funny dream too:

I was in some kind of ersatz Old West scenario, and a cowboy and his cowgirl sister had guns (old-fashioned revolvers, of course) pointed at me. Somehow I had gotten into a situation with the cowboy and he was threatening to kill me unless I solved a puzzle, which he had written, anachronistically, on a whiteboard. The puzzle:

"Complete the following two words, using words meaning two different kinds of harm:
S____ and S____."

Funnily enough, this puzzle would be easy to solve for a waking person, especially if you had people pointing guns at you.* But I couldn't, in my dream state, figure out the answer (although I do remember being annoyed that HURT was spelled with a U instead of an I). Instead, I stalled for time, then waited till the cowboy was distracted and slapped his gun hand away. The rest of the dream was just a fight scene, and I didn't figure out the answer until I was awake and in the shower.

It's pretty cool that my dreaming brain constructed a puzzle that my dreaming consciousness could not solve, but I don't think it's that surprising. If I may speculate half-assedly for a moment, it seems to me that in our waking lives, we skate on the thin ice of our consciousness, but beneath there's a whole rushing river of subconsciousness, doing enormously complex stuff which is usually beyond the reach of our direct perception. But when we dream, two things happen: first, our subconscious mind feeds sensory input directly into our conscious mind; and second, our conscious reasoning skills are much weaker, since the brain is resting or reorganizing the parts that normally do the work of consciousness. So our subconscious minds may always be constructing puzzles, but it's only during dreams that they can feed directly into our conscious minds, and our weakened conscious minds cannot solve them.

* KILL and PAIN: two different kinds of harm that, prefixed with S, form the words SKILL and SPAIN respectively.

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