I’ve watched the world fall apart countless times as I’ve slept. I’ve stood in the center of a nuclear holocaust, watched buildings crumble to the ground and drown me in their smoke, and shoved my way through crowds as fire licked at my heels. I’ve been strapped to a table as blood was taken from my body to treat a global pandemic. I’ve drowned as missiles fired overhead. I’ve perished in my mind more times than I can count, and I’ve convinced myself that a theme that pervasive and exhausting has to mean something, anything.
I have had these dreams for as long as I can remember; in fact, I’ve had these dreams for longer than I remember. My mother was the one who told me about one of my earliest ones, a recurring nightmare about succumbing to the bubonic plague. Despite her reassurances that this was completely unrealistic due to the advent of modern medicine, the nightmares persisted. As I grew older, my dreams became more complex and strayed further and further away from what I saw and the stories I consumed, which fed the notion that they held the key to some secret area of my subconscious.
And I’m not the only one to think that way. For nearly all of recorded history, human beings have looked to their dreams for deeper meaning. In ancient Greece and Egypt, dreams were interpreted for their prophetic qualities. Temples even included entire dormitories for people to sleep in while they waited for a dream messages. When Catherine de Medici’s son dreamed that he lost the crown jewels, it was interpreted as a sign that his life was in danger and he was advised to avoid any sort of personal risk. (He was still murdered three days later.) Napoleon Bonaparte’s mother supposedly dreamt that she gave birth to an eagle while she was pregnant with him. You don’t need a dream dictionary to connect the dots on that one. Numerous inventors, mathematicians, and artists — including Benjamin Franklin — said they found solutions to problems in their dreams. And still today, we comb our dreams for hidden meaning. If your teeth fall out, you must be going through a big life transition, and if you dream you’re pregnant, you’re brimming with new ideas, right?
So I reached out to experts: a psychologist, a neuroscientist, and a psychoanalyst to see if they could make sense of my apocalypse dreams. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to hear specifically, but I hoped for something akin to a more intrinsic horoscope. I wanted the parts of me that floated just under the surface to be validated by an expert, someone who could decipher the smoke and fire I conjured while I slept. Because what could be more more revealing than a dream?
Um, a lot, turns out. From speaking with Deirdre Barrett, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard’s Department of Psychiatry, I learned that there’s little unique about my dreams, aside from how cinematic they are. “It sounds like the kind of thing that, at a superficial level might, be related to something you watched,” she said about the first dream I recounted, a nightmare where I had to navigate my way through my hometown with my dog as it succumbed to a nuclear war.
But I couldn’t think of anything I watched at the time that would have sparked the dream. And her answer didn’t scratch my itch to know what they meant. Barrett said that in order to glean any type of meaning, I needed to look at what was happening in my life at the time of the dreams.
“I’ve heard what sounds like apocalypse dreams on the surface, and for one person the associations can lead to how afraid they are of losing their job currently, and for another person it can be that they’re still in their teens and their parents are about to get a divorce,” she said. “Obviously it’s going to be a metaphor for some real bad thing or something ending, but the details of what they are seem to relate back to different issues in people’s lives.”
Work and relationships? It just sounded like such a dull explanation for something as cataclysmic as the world going up in flames. Though Barrett and I did talk a bit about what my dreams might mean given the greater context of my life, every conclusion it led to made way too much sense. I was stressed, or disillusioned, or felt too much responsibility was thrust on me. All of this I knew. There were no grand epiphanies or “a-ha!” moments.
I later spoke to Susana Martinez-Conde, a neuroscientist and author of Champions of Illusions. Based on her research, she doesn’t believe dreams have any meaning. “Typically when we dream, we’re processing information that we are exposed to or information that is present,” she said. “So it is not uncommon to have dreams that are related or indirectly related to issues that we’re dealing with when we’re awake.”
But...the apocalypse? I feel like it’s safe to say that the end of the world has been on our minds a lot more recently, but I have never seen anything remotely like it in real life. So how is it possible for my brain to conjure up such terrifying images?
I posed the question to Martinez-Conde. “It’s perhaps more of a philosophical question than a scientific question,” she said. “Can you actually imagine or invent anything really new ever, or is everything going to be based on novel uses of objects or parts of objects that you already know?”
It’s a great question, and one that I’m still mulling over. I would like to think that our sleeping brains are just as creative and imaginative as our waking ones are. If that’s the case, then maybe there really isn’t anything special about my apocalyptic dreams. It’s just that my dreams tend to take on a grittier, more devastating timbre.
After speaking to Susana Martinez-Conde, I came across the website of Ann Cutler, a licensed psychoanalyst. “Are you curious about what your dreams mean?” it said. “Do you wake up some mornings with wonderful or frightening dream images that seem mysterious and indecipherable? Do you think that if only you could interpret what your dreams mean, you’d know more about yourself?”
Yes, yes, and yes.
Under the paragraph it said, “You can unlock the meanings of your dreams. I can help.”
So of course I reached out.
Cutler and I chatted on the phone for little more than half an hour, but even she couldn’t tell me what my dreams meant just by me spitting them out to her. In order for Cutler to do her work, she said she needed to know two things: what else was going on in the person’s life, and what the specific details and symbols mean to the dreamer.
I asked if there is any type of validity in something like a dream dictionary or overarching symbols. “I think that they’re not totally without validity, but they don’t replace, or even come close to the depth of information … that the dreamer’s own association to the images have,” she said. “People who live near the ocean might have frequent dreams with oceans. For a person who might have had a near drowning experience, the ocean might have different connotations.”
It makes so much sense, right? Our brains aren’t all the same, so why would the meanings of our dreams be? And as for dreams about the apocalypse, Cutler said that they’re not uncommon. “They’re sort of anxiety-based dreams in general...those typically result in dreams that have a fairly dramatic component.”
As for that deeper meaning I sought? I finally had some breakthroughs when Cutler asked me what I thought certain aspects of my dream meant...which is when the dreams began to make more sense. The deeper meaning of twin blue doors and a billion-story tower crumbling in the distance? Only I could discern that. It is my own brain, after all.
Dreams are weird. They’re vivid and peculiar and sometimes they’re just so bizarre that we think they have to mean something more. We love explanations and we love to feel special, so of course we want the stuff our brains show us at night to be meaningful. Unfortunately, that's just not the case. Most dreams are pretty literal, if they're substantive at all.
But if I’m being honest, sometimes it’s fun to feel like you’re learning more about yourself, whether it’s valid or not. So I’m going to consult a dream dictionary and check my horoscope anyway.