It’s 3 o’clock in the morning and I just had the worst nightmare of my life. I’m going to tell you about it, because I think there is something very interesting that we can learn from it. This is what happened. I was at the Grey Cup (for my non-Canadian readers, the Grey Cup is a national championship Canadian football game held every November) with my wife, my daughter, and my parents. My dad paid for the seats (he wanted to treat everyone) and they were very close to the field, not far from the 30 yard line.
Just as we were settling in, we could hear some people a few rows behind us loudly telling everyone around them that they had been mugged on their way to the game and could anyone kindly help them out by sparing a few dollars? No one actually believed them, of course, and a few people made polite, non-committal comments. I, however, decided to turn around and loudly ask, “Did you report it to the police?” Somewhat embarrassed, they replied that they hadn’t reported it yet, but that they were going to report it after the game. So I rolled my eyes and said, “Right,” my voice dripping with sarcasm. I was implying, of course, that they were lying about the whole thing.
It was at this point that I realized that the people I had just insulted were in fact a group of orcs from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
Having realized this, I spent the entire three-hour football game in dreadful anticipation of the beating I would receive from these orcs after the game. Fortunately, I woke up before this happened, and it was fascinating to observe my physiological state when I did. Heart pounding, hands shaking, feeling like a nervous wreck. It’s fascinating to think that a dream can induce the exact same physical changes as a real-life event. So remarkable is the intensity of this emotional experience that it’s understandable that in ancient times people attributed nightmares to the work of malevolent spirits. In fact, the very word nightmare derives from the Anglo-Saxon word “mare”, meaning a devil or goblin who visits sleepers during the night (in case you’re curious, the word is etymologically unrelated to the word for a female horse).
Although contemporary researchers don’t know for certain what nightmares are or why they occur (like so many other aspects of consciousness, there is a lot we don’t know yet), a common theory is that they serve an important psychological function in preparing us to deal with real-life dangers. Prominent dream researcher Antti Revonsuo has suggested that nightmares do the same thing for us that they did for our ancestors: they allow us to experience anxiety, terror, and dread in a safe setting so that we may more readily cope in a real-life situation that evokes such emotions. Whereas our ancestors would have had nightmares unique to their environment and circumstances–running from a sabre-tooth tiger, for instance–nightmares in a modern industrialized setting tend to mirror modern concerns. Instead of your brain trying to prepare your body to run from a sabre-tooth tiger, it prepares you to run from the violent, intoxicated fans you might offend at a football game. Or even better, it warns you not to offend them in the first place.
We are a fascinating and wonderful combination of animal and angel, a multi-cellular organism that shares 98% of its genes with chimpanzees, yet that nonetheless has achieved a degree of consciousness unseen anywhere else in the animal kingdom. In the words of the great neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran: “How can a three-pound mass of jelly that you can hold in your palm imagine angels, contemplate the meaning of infinity, and even question its own place in the cosmos?”
I suppose this is what is ultimately so fascinating about nightmares: although many other animal species have nightmares, only human beings can reflect on them, talk about them, and blog about them.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to try and go back to sleep.