Why We Dream review: Full of weird and fascinating insights
Alice Robb’s journey through the study of our subconscious fails to address its darker side
‘If you must sleep through a third of your life, as it seems you must, are you willing to sleep through your dreams too?’ Photograph: Peter Cade/Getty Images
Why We Dream: The Science, Creativity and Transformative Power of Dreams
When Alice Robb was on an archaeological dig in Peru, excavating, she ran out of novels to read. Eventually, her friend handed her a book about dreams, Stephen LaBerge’s Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming. Intrigued by the idea of being able to control one’s dreams, Robb spent the ensuing summer months practising LaBerge’s tips, trying over and over to affect changes in her dream-world. LaBerge, who resurfaces throughout this book, asks “If you must sleep through a third of your life, as it seems you must, are you willing to sleep through your dreams too?”
Opening up a rebuttal to the sidelining of the dream-life, Robb’s Why We Dream treats dreams as “a potent, overlooked force”. If we bypass dreams, Robb argues, we are choosing to ignore about five or six years’ worth of experience in our life, time during which our brain is processing, or warning, or exploring. Dream-recall is something that, in general, we are bad at; but Robb insists that it is a skill we might improve through little effort. Even simply reminding ourselves of the intention to remember our dreams might be enough to fill a nightly journal after some time.
Robb’s voice, however, is engaging, funny, and relatable; and as a reader I found myself waiting for her to re-enter the text
A New-Age tinge colours many contemporary popular accounts of dreams, and Robb’s Why We Dream is distinct in its graceful humour regarding such aspects of the terrain. Visiting the Netherlands to attend the annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, she finds an eccentric world of academics and dream-enthusiasts, a world where conference delegates proudly wear T-shirts and bracelets emblazoned with “Am I dreaming?”, a woman in blue fairy-wings sings “I walked with you once upon a dream”, and another attendee retires to her room at night shouting “Elephant-headed god” into the darkness, flapping her arms, so that in her dream she might meet the Hindu god Ganesha. In fact, this is a book peopled by eccentrics. An English psychiatrist who set up the “British Premonitions Bureau”, collecting dream-data from across the country in order to help predict future catastrophes, is just another example.
There is a darker and more difficult aspect to the historical study of dreams which is not fully addressed in this book. Beginning with an account of the ethnographical and anthropological study of dreams in the West, Robb traces their cultural import through many of the usual figures (Freud, Jung) and some lesser known examples. The idea of a racial subconscious, that dreams might be “remnants” of a more “primitive” past lurking behind the rationality of the West, is at the heart of 19th- and 20th-century study of dreams; a discourse which traditionally put races on a sliding scale from “primitive” to “civilised”, and sought the “primitive” remnants in western life as a sort of corrective to modernity. This is not to say that Robb tacitly agrees to these tenets, of course; however, Why We Dream could do more work in exploring the difficult discourses in which the study of dreams in the West is rooted.
A little later, in a chapter entitled “How We Forgot About Dreams”, the “we” is implicitly white and western. What Robb calls an explosion of “cultural openness and spiritual experimentation” in the US during the 1960s and 1970s, which led to a renewed popular focus on dreams, took the form of “Americans . . . organizing full-scale re-enactments of indigenous ceremonies”, and the romanticisation of First Nations cultures and practices. Dreamcatchers, for example, seemed to multiply through white households in reaction to the violence and uncertainty of a government embroiled in foreign aggression and at-home scandal.
Like many popular works of non-fiction, Robb’s Why We Dream toes a careful line between personal anecdote, revelation, and a handling of research and the bulk of information. Robb’s voice, however, is engaging, funny, and relatable; and as a reader I found myself waiting for her to re-enter the text. Some of the chapters here lack an original angle, and lapse into recounting and paraphrasing the research of others. This is not to say that such chapters are uninteresting; however, more detailed insights into the original experiments, or the original texts, would have given some variety to the reading experience. When Robb positions herself within the book, journeying between conferences and dates and holidays, there is a sense of purpose, of exploration; a documentary style which is engaging and fresh. However, that narrative framework is uneven, disappearing and resurfacing only once every few chapters.
Full of weird and fascinating insights into the study of dreams (which, as the book shows, is still an uncertain science), Why We Dream calls our attention back to our sleeping life. In its best passages, it fills in the reader with a sense of urgency and excitement: makes us want to dream, to note our dreams, to pay attention to the imaginary playground we visit each night. In short, it makes us eager to take notice of the fundamental mystery of ourselves, which is no bad thing at all.