Henry is sound asleep on the sofa, his head on two throw pillows, snoring like a middle-aged man.
He is my family’s endearing, shamelessly-babied Lab-Pit mix. Three years old and in his mind, he owns this sofa. It exists solely for him.
We don’t tell him otherwise.
Within moments, Henry’s breathing changes. His smoky gray body shakes; his white paws twitch. He whimpers at a higher pitch than he ever does when he’s awake.
“He’s dreaming,” we humans say to each other.
That whimper. It sounds puppy-like. Afraid. Vulnerable. Nothing like the rumbling from deep within his chest when Henry “talks” to us (translating to “Hello, I want something, so drop what you’re doing, pronto, to do my bidding”).
Which leads me to wonder: What is he dreaming about?
He is a rescue dog, found wandering the streets. He was timid for a long time before attaining his current level of confidence (and world domination).
Is he reliving a scene from his early life? Was he mistreated? Abandoned? Did something frighten him badly when he was a puppy?
Do dogs really dream like humans do?
The answer, according to Live Science, is yes: “Dogs likely dream about waking activities much like humans do.”
I am the one chasing a rabbit here: Captivated by the article, I keep on reading beyond dogs to rats to flies—yes, says a cognitive scientist, even flies may dream in some form.
Sounds like something straight out of fantasy . . .
You may visit the site to read about the rats and flies yourself, if you like, but here are the article’s big clinchers for me: That sleep “adds something” to the process of learning and remembering, that sleep is “a sort of categorizing of the day’s activities” and a chance for the brain “to explore in a consequence-free environment”:
The idea is that, in sleep, the brain is trying to find shortcuts or connections between things that you may have experienced but you just hadn’t put them together.
–Cognitive scientist Matthew Wilson, “What Do Dogs Dream About?” Live Science
Categorizing of the day’s activities . . . yes, this often happens to me as I fall asleep. Reliving moments, subconsciously archiving them in specific mental folders for future retrieval as needed. A subliminal attempt at order and organization—how I appreciate that. The brain is an indescribable marvel, the ultimate computer. I envision lines arcing this way and that along a grid, an image of our brains actively searching, reaching, connecting and grouping things, while we rest.
My uncle once told me he could sleep on a problem and before he woke, the solution would materialize in his mind. Some mornings, in the transition between sleeping and waking, I can “see” the day’s events before me, and a detail or an approach will offer itself in a way I hadn’t thought of before. This has a name: liminal dreaming.
But as I am awake, here is where I very consciously, intentionally, connect some psychological dots.
As Henry lay dreaming, prompting me to wonder about his background and the stuff of his dreams, I happened to be reading Ruth Ayres’ new book, Enticing Hard-To-Reach Writers. It is a must-read for educators, whether one teaches writing or not. Ayres has a lot to say, from firsthand experience, about the brains of children who’ve suffered extreme trauma and neglect. She also has a lot to say about the power of writing, of story, to heal and to save . . . I cannot help thinking now of the thirteen Turpin children in the news and the discovery of their “hundreds of journals” which officials speculate may have helped them survive the unimaginable at the hands of their parents. If this is true, we’ll soon know.
But as for my dog, his dream, a website, the book in my hands . . . they all converge on the work of the brain:
When I write, I realize new ideas. I make connections. I figure out what I need to do next. When I write about what’s happening . . . something significant happens: I begin to see things from a new perspective. This is how learning happens. This is how growth happens.
-Ruth Ayres, “Writing Always Gives More Than It Takes,” Enticing Hard-To-Reach Writers
To sleep, to dream, to subconsciously categorize, make connections, problem-solve . . .
To wake, to write, to consciously realize ideas, make connections, problem-solve . . .
Revisit the child in the photo at the top of this post. He’s immersed in water, a symbol of life, an expression of contemplation on his little face. He’s absorbing the experience. The world is big. Sometimes alarming. Not always fair. When he lies down to sleep, what dreams may come? Will they haunt or heal? Hold him back, or help him overcome? He is at the mercy of his dreams. As are we all.
But to wake, to write, is to immerse in thought, to gain unexpected perspective, to remain open to questions, to answers, to possibility, to wonder, to hope. Dreams, in all their mystery, come and go at random; their meanings and value often elude us. When we write—an equally mysterious process—we actually take hold of meaning. We continually unfold it, one layer of thought leading to another, branching off in directions previously unseen. To write is to go both deep and wide, to actively broaden the scope of one’s own world, to expand one’s sphere of interest, to explore what’s within to better relate to what’s without . . . to connect.
I mark the page in my book and reach over to rub my quivering dog.
“Shh, shh, Henry. It’s okay. I’m here.”
At the touch of my hand he eases. He lifts his head, regards me with bleary eyes. His tail thumps. He readjusts, curling himself into a tighter ball there on his sofa.
The sound of satisfaction, of being connected, of being safe.