Mary Wakefield Mary Wakefield

The importance of daydreams


I miss daydreaming. It’s a small problem to have in a pandemic, but it nags at me. Laptop, cooker, home-school, broom. ‘Mum, Mum, Mumma, Mum… You’re not looking, Mum. You have to look!’ The gap between things seems to have disappeared. There’s no time to drift and wander. I look at my phone too much, and sometimes I have the strange feeling my brain is suffocating.

And I might not have thought this worth mentioning were it not for a new book, When Brains Dream, by a pair of American sleep scientists, Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold. Bob and Tony, they call themselves throughout the book, and if they’re right, Bob and Tony have an answer to a problem that’s been puzzling people for 200 years: why do we dream? They explain why we daydream too; why it’s vital for sanity, so for me When Brains Dream has acted as an intervention. No more compulsive swiping between Facebook and MailOnline. Home-schooling can wait. I shall stare out of the window and let my jaw hang slack.

The first satisfying thing about When Brains Dream is that it gives short shrift to Sigmund Freud. I’ve held a grudge against Freud since A-level psychology. All the hours wasted on poor little Hans and his fear of horse penises. There’s no evidence that dreams express repressed desires, which is a relief. The second satisfying thing is that Bob and Tony think my husband, Dom, is wrong too. Like most sensible people, Dom takes the view that dreams are simply a by-product of the process of filing away memories: your sleeping self picking up fag ends. Dreams are just epiphenomenon, or spandrels, serving no evolutionary purpose.

What Bob and Tony have discovered — after what sounds like years of waking people violently from deep REM sleep — is that dreaming isn’t a by-product of memory sorting, it is the process of memory sorting.

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