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Blog 8: Waking dreams

4th June 2020

Most of our dreams never reach consciousness. We don’t remember them. But there is a difference between remembering and retention. I argue we retain dreams, to work as part of the 95% brain activity, which is unconscious. These retained dreams may influence our decisions and action during waking hours. In the iceberg analogy, dreams lie below our conscious mind in wakefulness.

Dreams retained in the unconscious?

But if you look closely at the photo above there’s a boundary or zone which lies between the conscious tip of the iceberg and the great mass of unconscious brain activity below. We can think of this as the in-between “waking-dream” in Keats’ poem. In this zone, dreams can get access to consciousness either because, as in Mary Shelley’s case, they are dreamt at the threshold of falling asleep- when dreams are usually called hypnagogic hallucinations. Or because the dream is recalled upon wakening – as Elias Howe’s was reputed to be.

Dreams are creative because they associate things which we wouldn’t, in wakefulness, think of as linked- like Bagpuss and glaucoma. But making that particular connection isn’t likely to result in a scientific discovery or creative  art. As in most dreams, the association is a personal one – it’s meaningful to the dreamer but unlikely to be significant to anyone else. Luckily for us, as a society, some dreams associations do have wider meaning and resonance- like Mary Shelley’s  associations between manufacturing a creature and bringing it alive in Frankenstein. Or broad scientific or technical significance, like Elias Howe’s association between spears and needles, which gave him the idea of an automatic sewing machine.

But do we have to be on the boundary between sleep and wake to access this waking-dream state, to produce great creative work? Seemingly not, because, reputedly, Keats wrote his notes for Ode to a Nightingale in 2-3 hours one morning, after breakfast, in the spring of 1819, while sitting in his Hampstead garden under a plum tree, where a nightingale had built a nest.

He was clearly alert for the presence of nightingales. The portrait below depicts him listening to one on Hampstead Heath.

Keats and that nightingale

Severn, Joseph; Keats Listening to a Nightingale on Hampstead Heath; City of London Corporation;

The Ode links things which most of us wouldn’t think of as associated: the nightingale with death; music with immortality; and the timeless nature of birdsong with human mortality.

These are all creative, non-obvious associations.  Keats didn’t pen the Ode while falling asleep or immediately after waking , but was he in a waking-dream when he wrote it mid-morning?

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