May 22, 2022

Photo of the stars above a rocky mountain and a field of wheat.


I am a terrible story-teller, by dinner party definition. Small talk can spiral out of control. Lovely weather we’re having. Blue was the first color to be synthetically produced. The 9/11 Commission Report opens with “dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States.” The World Meteorological Organization publishes the International Cloud Atlas. 

In medical school, my earliest patient presentations did not go well. The prescribed order became all jumbled in my memory. Name, age, occupation, illness, what comes first as the most important? The attending physician expected “just the facts, ma’am” but they were all facts, they were all important. It was a history and physical of a singular human being.

Perhaps this is why dreams amaze me. In our sleep, we occupy an entirely separate existence. Rules bend, or are upended completely. There are different parameters for time and space; flavors, music, new combinations of emotions that have no name in the waking world.

In The Oracle of the Night, Sidarta Ribeiro writes that all non-aquatic mammals dream, however humans are – as far as we know – the only species to tell our dreams to others. “Dreams almost certainly played a prominent role in the growing capacity for narrating human existence, being a source—renewed nightly—of images, ideas, longings, and fears.” He describes dreaming as preparing for the coming day; a reshuffling of psychic 3x5 cards. Dreamers occupied a special place in societies. Dreaming, in Ribeiro’s words “was the embryo of shamanism, the great-grandfather of religion, medicine, and philosophy.”

Take allopathic medicine, for example. We can see a wound, feel the warmth, smell an infection. Someone who explains this as tiny organisms in a battle with our own cells – how could they be anyone other than a shaman?

We are hard-wired to dream. When we daydream or tell stories, the same place in our brain lights up. Our sleep architecture requires REM sleep for a good night’s rest. I recently underwent a medical treatment that rendered me unable to dream, or at least remember my dreams. In my waking hours, I felt unmoored, unprepared, as if I would forget how to run from a saber tooth tiger or appear in public without pants.

Ribeiro urges us to turn inward, to find meaning from our dreams as we have for most of human history. I invite you, narrative medicine community: take a nap today. Dream. Tell a story. Jumble it up. Be human.

More Dreaming:

Sidarta Ribeiro & Daniel Hahn. “The Oracle of Night.” 

“The Way We Dream,” Throughline, Jan 20, 2022


Brain Institute - Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte 


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