This is another repeat post from my old blog, this time from July 2012. It was weird enough that I thought it was worth sharing. (To me, weird = valuable. Your mileage may vary.)
I’ve been having strange experiences with dreaming lately.
In the spring, when I was a few seasons into watching the Tenth-Doctor episodes of Doctor Who, I had a dream about being his companion. Up until then, I had had a totally asexual appreciation of the show. But somehow that dream triggered something akin to my teenage obsession with Mr Spock– I realized with a sort of blinding flash that David Tennant was sexy (something every other geek girl had noticed long ago) and spent the next few months with a very intense crush on him, much to my husband’s irritation.
Then, recently and perhaps unrelatedly, I had a much stranger and more morbid midnight epiphany.
I woke up to the sound of a thunderstorm, with something in my mind that felt like a memory. As far as I could tell, it had nothing to do with the dream I’d been having, which was sexy and Doctor-Who-related. It was vague, but it felt like a memory from real life, not a piece of a dream.
It seemed to be a memory of a time in my childhood or teens, when I was living at my parents’ house. It was composed of images of me going through boxes that belonged to my parents, and finding a box that had been sent to them or given to them by some acquaintance. I don’t specifically remember a name on the box, or any papers inside it– there’s just a feeling associated with it, a feeling that it came from someone who lived somewhere else, maybe one of our European relatives.
And inside the box were some bones and dried tissues that appeared to be human remains.
I don’t remember what part of the body they appeared to be, or how many pieces there were. I don’t remember what I did with them. But there was another strong feeling associated with the memory– a feeling that I did the wrong thing, that I hid them or buried them or threw them away, without talking to my parents about it. I don’t clearly remember why, but there was a feeling of fear, maybe fear that my parents would get in trouble for having them around. I vaguely remember wrapping them up in several layers of paper and tape, or some other sort of covering, before putting them wherever I put them.
Despite how vague this whole thing was, it stuck with me very strongly for at least a few days after it happened. I was thinking about it at work, for most of the next day.
I still don’t know what it was. It could very easily have been a memory of a dream after all– maybe a scary dream I had as a child, so long ago that the memory of it is no more vague than my memories of reality at that time. It felt real, but I know that under certain circumstances the brain can sometimes get confused between dreams and reality.
If it was real, I suppose there are quite a few possible explanations. It wouldn’t be the only time there were human remains in my parents’ house. They’re doctors; they had a real human skull on a shelf in the living room for much of my childhood. I’m not sure why someone else would send them parts of a dead person, but given their professions and widely varied interests, it could have been anything from a medical sample to an archaeological specimen.
Anyway, I find it a very interesting example of how the brain can work so very differently in the middle of the night. When waking up from a dream, people can get so many inspirations, realizations, and new perspectives on the world, even ones unrelated to the dream itself. It must be something about the state of the brain as it shifts from dreaming to waking– maybe it’s overactive at that moment, in prime condition for dredging things up from the subconscious.
I don’t know if my what I dredged up was a false memory, or a repressed memory of a long-ago dream or reality. But another interesting thing: putting together this blog post has changed the quality of what I remember. As I put it into words, it began to feel less vivid as a real memory, and more as if it could have been a dream.
This is actually something I’ve noticed before: putting my memories into words reduces their clarity as memories. It’s as if my brain realizes that describing a memory in words is a way of compressing it to save space in my brain– not lossless compression, but like resizing a family photo to a lower resolution. Actually, more like replacing the family photo with a text file saying “Christmas party, 2009. Left to right: Grandma Ruth, Aunt Carol, Mom, me.”
My brain realizes that once I’ve summarized a memory in words, I don’t need the visual, sensory and emotional detail of the memory anymore, and so it fades. I’ve hears that the people most likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder are the people who think about their traumatic experiences in pictures instead of words. I’m a strange type of person– someone who does much of her thinking in pictures and abstract concepts, but frequently puts them into words later.