We’ve heard these for a long time: “If you are falling in a dream and you don’t wake up before you hit the ground, you die.” Or, dreaming about something good is wish fulfillment, dreaming about something bad means it is going to happen. What about this one, encountered a lot recently: “You can only dream about people you’ve met at some point in your life.” And then there are people who dream of death and are certain it is so.
First, while we are mythbusting, let’s acknowledge “myth” suffers from bad press. It has gotten a bum rap. In modern times, to call something a myth is almost the same as saying it is an empty lie with no kernel of truth hidden within. At least in the arena of mythology, there are some truths represented that are so fundamental we see them in culture after culture. The God Hermes (Mercury) in Greece (Rome) embodies the same dynamics as “Coyote” in Southwest Native American tradition and “Loki” in Norse myth. Most Shamanic practitioners in varied indigenous cultures (e,g,, Siberian, Inuit and Yupic Eskimo, Korean, Chilean Yaghan people, and Shinto) also carry that trickster or shape-shifting quality. The I Ching or Chinese Book of Changes is actually a study in noticing the difference between masculine and feminine qualities, and applying it in such a disciplined way that it rings true in the 21st century AD as to qualities in politics, marriage, pride, family, and power. If the Greek Pantheon and the I Ching had nothing in its core that was true, it would have marched to obsolescence faster than “Windows 95 for Dummies” or the 8 track tape player in your 1978 Pontiac Firebird.
With dreams, it has been a question at least since Homer’s time, which ones are true and which ones are hollow? Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, has a dream that he is about to return after a 20 year absence. She does not now whether to trust it, tell Odysseus in disguise,
For two are the gates of shadowy dreams, and one is fashioned of horn and one of ivory. Those dreams that pass through the gate of sawn ivory deceive men, bringing words that find no fulfilment. But those that come forth through the gate of polished horn bring true issues to pass, when any mortal sees them. But in my case it was not from thence, methinks, that my strange dream came.
So the ‘gates of horn and ivory’ have become a watchword for saying some portentous dreams ring true and others do not. So let’s take just a few myths about dreamtime and see if we can set the record straight:
Myth # 5: Everyone dreams every night, we just don’t always remember those dreams:
Fact or Fiction? Fact. Dream recall depends on a variety of factors, there are high recallers and low recallers. But REM sleep studies show nearly everyone has the brain activity each night associated with dreaming. This is actually one of those myths that has emerged from the last 60 years of sleep study into the popular consciousness.
Myth # 4: Every person or object in a dream is a part of the self of the dreamer
Yes, No, or Maybe so? As a therapist, this myth has lots of appeal and it is hard not to count the number of times using this as a theoretical framework allowed a dreamer to achieve some tremendous inner work. The working theory is that dreamtime is the stage, and every actor and prop is a part of the dreamer’s personality. But to endorse this entirely is to limit dreams in a number of ways. First, it compacts dreams solely into the psychological realm. The problem here is that if you are dreaming of experiencing a pain in the neck and a character in the dream is your mother-in-law, it’s a short step to a psychological solution. But what if (and this happens a great deal) the physical symptom in the dream is related to the body, and not a psychological representation? It is also important to rule out or confirm the physical basis for dreams. And if you believe dreams can have spiritual dimensions larger than just the dreamer and their inner life, psychologizing the dream short changes the dreamer of larger meaning. If Robert Louis Stevenson had psychologized his “Mr. Hyde” character simply as part of his shadow that needed greater psychological light, we would have missed out on a great novella. Instead, he took the dream behind the Dr. Jekyll story, and followed his muse. So to pretend the model works sometimes is helpful, but there is no hard and fast rule here.
Myth # 3: A dream that feels real is true, and those that seem crazy are just hogwash.
Yea or Nay? This one may seem intuitive, but in fact it may be the opposite that is true. Real-life, specific events that unfold in dreamtime with realistic detail generally do not come true, and often actually point to larger and more general patterns. Unless you are Edgar Cayce, the specific dream situations or outcomes fail more often than not. Those dreams that seem to last all night and involve half of the planet, when unpacked, sometimes seem to have some simple and concrete take-home messages for the dreamer. The bizarre just needs some translation to the mundane.
Myth # 2: If you dream your own death, you actually die in your sleep:
Yes or No? What I always (and I do not use that word lightly,) always think when I hear that is: How would we know? “Yep,” says our pal Lazarus, “I am one of those guys who had that dream, that-s how I died!” The reverse is true: We hear many dreams of people who were falling and hit the ground and, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, woke up still alive the next day. And people who dreamed they contracted cancer and did not, or the dream I had about age 20 that I was crop dusting and got caught in a pesticide updraft, and had three weeks to live. I am not a pilot, but I woke up being grateful for my family and the little things in life! Nearly every family has someone within it who is known for having prophetic dreams of death of relatives or loved ones; those often seem to be family matriarchs and somewhat spiritual people – at least in the reports I have had – and there is a noetic quality about those dreams that is more peaceful than the panicked or upset and urgent dreams based in fear. For a good study of dreams of people at end of life care, consult Marie Louise von Franz On Dreams and Death, or Patricia Bulkley’s essay in Among All These Dreamers on pre-death spiritual experiences.
Myth # 1:
Eating spicy foods ensures you will have a nightmare:
Truth or Consequence? In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge is first visited by the Ghost of Jacob Marley. He goes straight to explaining away Marley’s presence. “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” There was also a Gomer Pyle Episode in which Gomer’s consumption of Welsh Rarebit caused him to sleepwalk and level his true feelings to people.
So part of the answer here may be that indigestion may arouse people in the night, which can help with dream recall, but your combination pizza (to paraphrase Kelly Bulkeley) has no more to do with your dream content than the mailman has to do with the content of the mail he brought you today. So it may be a mixed bag; spicy foods may get you up in the night, and whether your dream had negative or positive content, you are more likely to recall it because you were in and out of sleep. There is no proven substance to the belief it will induce nightmares.