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Common Dreams (1925)

Dr. James J. Walsh

(Photo Credit: Michael Chen)

The Article in Full

A travelling salesman recently consulted me after dreaming that he had fallen 15 stories from the roof of a high office building. He had awakened just before he struck the ground. The man frequently dreamed of falling, it seemed, and he had heard it said that if ever one hit bottom in a falling dream, the shock would mean instant death. Was it true?

Of course such an idea is ridiculous, but then, thousands of people believe that fairy tale. I should like to have reassured my patient with indisputable facts, but his question could be answered only with direct testimony. If any man has died from the shock of landing at the bottom of a dream precipice, he has not had the chance to tell us about it.

My traveling man's dream was easily explained. It was nature's alarm clock to let him know that his legs were getting an insufficient supply of blood. He had eaten a heavy meal just before retiring, and the weight was pressing on the big artery over the spine, interfering slightly with the blood going to the limbs. This produced the same sensation experienced in descending in a fast elevator. Gravity being interfered with, he was catching up with the blood being pumped into his legs. The result was a feeling of being without foundation.

I asked him, too, about the condition of his bedsprings, for probably more than half of all falling dreams are incited by the dreamer turning over and sliding into a depression in the bed. Further, I learned that about a week previously, my patient had been watching a daredevil perform hair-raising stunts on the edge of the roof of a high office building. He had been deeply impressed by the danger of these spectacular feats. Then when he experienced the falling sensation, the thoughts recently associated with it came readily in the form of a dream.

Many persons are afraid of their dreams. Superstition has more power in this field than in almost any other. It is because human knowledge of dreams has come so slowly. For thousands of years scientists have been attempting to pry beneath the darkened glass that has obscured this mysterious function of the human mind, and even yet, they sometimes have to answer, "I do not know."

In the last 20 years we have made me progress in understanding dreams the in many centuries before. We are at last seeing possible answers to the recurring questions of mankind: "What are dreams? What causes them? What do they mean?"

Our most recent and significant experiments all point toward external causes for dreams. Thought processes, it is assumed, are going on all the time in our brains, at night, as well as during the day. The more complex functions, such as judgment and reasoning, ordinarily do not take place in sleep, allowing thinking to take the form of loose associations.

Recently science has taken dreams into the laboratory in an attempt to analyse them and determine their causes. Experiments with drugs show a definite relationship between external causes and dreams. They show definitely that dreams can be made to order.

One physician gave a woman patient a grain a day of extract of the pituitary body to build up her blood pressure. After 10 days she began having very pleasant and satisfying dreams. Before, her dreams had been trivial, but now she began traveling to foreign lands, as she had always wanted to do. Everywhere she went, she saw beautiful landscapes in colors.

When the treatment was altered and adrenaline, another gland extract, was substituted, at once a change came over the nature of her dreams. They lost their colors and became terrifying, filled with violent quarrels. Chemists and physicians know that in normal anger or fear the human body secretes adrenaline from the suprarenal glands. This secretion makes our hair stand on end, a cold sweat appear, and the skin look like goose flesh. The experiment I have just mentioned showed that adrenaline treatments produced the same effect in the patient's dreams. An overdose of insulin, the newly discovered gland secretion, was found to produce the same feeling of fear.

Maurey, a noted French psychologist, first suggested that a physical cause was responsible for dreams. He told of one of his own dreams as an example. Just before going to bed he had been reading about the horrors of the French Revolution. When he fell asleep, he dreamed that he, too, was taken to the guillotine. His head was fitted on the block. Down came the gleaming, keen-edged knife, swiftly and more swiftly. Then, to his intense agony, it hit him and he woke in a cold sweat, to find that a light curtain rod had fallen and struck him squarely across the neck.

The falling rod did not just happen to hit him at the dramatic moment. The rod hit him first, he reasoned, and as the sensation penetrated his consciousness the events about which he had been reading recently flashed into his mind. Thus it is that most, if not all, of our dreams can be traced to an external physical cause coupled with an association of ideas born of our waking experience.

Examination of thousands of dreams experienced by thousands dreamers, has enabled us to learn that the most common dreams are eight in number. And every one of these can be traced to some physical cause.

The most common dream of all is said to be that of wandering about with insufficient clothing. In this, almost always the dreamer wakes to find that the bed-clothing has fallen from him, leaving some part of his body uncovered.

Most of us have dreamed of running after something, a trolley-car, for example. It is terrible, for in the dream your feet are fastened to the ground. Exerting every muscle and breathing as hard as you can, you make no progress. The car disappears in the distance. Then you wake, to find that your nose is stuffed up with cold and you are out of breath - again an actual physical sensation.

Another common dream is that of flying. Its cause is similar to that of falling. When you sleep, your diaphragm is less active and more breathing is done by the chest. Some slight interference with normal respiration causes consciousness of the chest moving up and down in quick, rhythmic movements. You have been lying in one position so long that the skin has become numb and no contact is felt with the bed. Feeling light and without contact with the earth, you dream of flying.

Since the invention of airplanes, dreams of flying have increased. Our dreams may use any material stored up in our brains. All of us have many images of airplanes and other aircraft at call. With dirigibles now soaring over our heads, dreamers will add rides in airships to their list of interesting experiences.

The dream of food, another common experience, usually can be traced to the sensation of hunger. I attach so much importance to this stimulus that when a man asks, "Why do I dream?" I often reply with the question, "When, or what did you eat?"

Ernest Shackleton, the British explorer, has told me about many of his dreams in the South Polar regions - most of them about food, all of them due to acute hunger. Once, with two companions, he was separated from the rest of his party. Each of the half starved men had three large crackers a day. They ate these slowly, reaching out after every crumb. One night, then, Shackleton dreamed that he was at the Lord Mayor's Banquet in London. All the viands for the entire meal were on the table at once, quite contrary to the usual custom. Shackleton was just ready to take the first mouthful, when he woke to find himself with a painfully empty stomach, on an iceberg in a frozen land.

An old Persian legend tells of a man called Barmecide who used to torture victims, kept three days without food or water, by setting before them empty dishes and asking them to partake of the appetizing delicacies that he described. Most of those who "feast with the Barmecide" in their dreams could avoid this unpleasant experience by drinking a glass of warm milk before retiring.

Dreams of murder and death usually are traceable to indigestion. A piece of cheese has been responsible for many a nightmare. In such a dream one feels something seriously wrong, and in tempting to find an explanation for it, memory brings out from the store house, the brain, the most terrifying images laid up there. So, too, any alteration of the blood supply to the teeth, or dental decay, may bring a dream that you are in the dentist's chair.

If, in early life, you have taken your school work seriously, you probably dream often of taking examinations. Men have told me that as much as 50 years after graduation, they have dreamed of examinations, and of being asked questions they cannot answer. This often is caused by anxiety over the next day's tasks. There is a sensation of unrest, and the dreamer, seeking some reason for it, associates it with an occasion when such uneasiness was felt - examination day at school. This type of dream is frequently experienced by doctors, lawyers, and other professional people who often are asked many questions.

The amazing ability of the memory to produce long forgotten thoughts and images was vividly demonstrated in an experience of a friend of Samuel Butler, English novelist. This occurred in his waking hours, but it has particular bearing on dreams.

The young man, 25 years old, tore the quick of his finger on a sliver. As he felt the pain, he remembered that he had had the same sensation at another time. It was when he was seven years old. He had poked his finger in a hole in the bed, in which a bolt had once fitted, and in doing this he had hurt his finger. He remembered that at the time he had picked up a piece of paper and had stuffed it in the hole.

Then his thoughts started on a different channel. About that time a five-pound note had been lost in the house and never found. Suddenly now, 18 years later, there came the thought, "Perhaps that bit of paper I stuffed into the hole was the missing money." The grown man was so curious that he boarded a train and went to the house in which he had lived as child. The bed was still there, but a bolt had been fitted into the hole. He removed the bolt, and there at the bottom of the hole was the missing note!

Thus was a long and complicated train of thought started by a sensation. In our dreams we sometimes find similar complexity. So many things happen, and they are so interesting, that we often remark upon awaking from a dream, "It was a regular play."

Often in such dreams, the dreamer finds himself taking the part of one of the leading characters. He is brilliant, much more clever than when awake, and talks with great wit. But it is significant that he never can remember this witty conversation after waking. He simply has a pleasurable sensation of having been important and clever. Thin is due to illusion. The same effect would be produced by a large quantity of champaign.

Books of dream poems have been written in which thoughts occurring in dreams are printed in black and white, but these were the result of somnambulism, which in often confused with dreaming.

Somnambulism, which is automatic activity of the brain, explains how men in their sleep sometimes work out problems which they were unable to work while awake. This automatic functioning, which is identical with reasoning done in the daytime, except that it is done in an unconscious state, is sometimes very dangerous. Working in the night as well as in the day, the brain gets no rest and is soon overtaxed.

The clarity of a dream depends altogether on the time it takes one to wake up. As thoughts gather around a sensation, they result in a curious conglomeration, which you straighten out after waking, unconsciously adding fitting elements to them. After a man tells a dream three of four times, it can hardly be recognized as the same narrative. Ordinarily, a dream lasts half a minute or so, although I have heard persons declare seriously that they have "dreamed or hours."

An old man told me recently of dream of being chased. He was back in the valley in which he had lived as a child. He ran for hours, terrified and shrieking, yet his pursuers gained on him. At last he felt he was lost, and fell to the ground. His wife was shaking him. "Calvin," she said, "you have been asleep for two minutes, and you have been struggling like a madman for the last half minute."

Do dreams mean anything? Thousands of dreambooks have been written and no doubt interest in the subject will persist until the end of time, but if I had to answer the question with "yes" or "no," I should choose an emphatic "no." Since dreams are incited by physical causes they often tell of disturbances in the body. Some of these are obvious to the dreamer and some are not. A dream may reveal the presence of an illness of which the dreamer is unaware, since in sleep all of the senses are extremely acute. One of my patients, for example, had a series of dreams that a wildcat was clawing at his throat. I discovered that his was suffering from cancer of the throat.

But only in the disclosure of physical disorders or similar things, do dreams have meaning. I have no faith in what are commonly known as "prophetic dreams," those that tell one where to find lost finger-rings and missing wills.

I was talking recently with two sisters about dreams. One of them said "Oh, sister knows all about dreams. They were making a race book down at her office, and one of the horses was named 'Superbum.' Grace had a dream in which she saw bowls of soup. She went down the next morning and bet her money on Superbum, and, do you know she won, 15 to one?"

What could I say? Soup and Superbum! Surely an omen! All that I can say now is that that young woman is going lose hundreds of dollars in her lifetime if she keeps on placing her bets according to her dreams.

For every dream of prophecy that comes true, there are 999 that do not. Scarcely a ship sails out to sea without carrying on board at least one passenger who has dreamed that that particular ship will be wrecked during the voyage. What chance has one to prove dreams false prophets when such is the case?

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