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Strange dreams, indeed.

The following is a real dream that a friend told me. Read it carefully and see if you notice what's very, very strange about it.

Harry's Dream: The Scuffle.

I was walking down a street. I met up with a man walking towards me. For some reason we got into a scuffle. We punched and wrestled with each other for a while without anybody getting too hurt or injured. Then we stopped, got up, brushed ourselves off and continued on our separate ways.

After walking a block or so, I realized my wallet was missing! I checked my hip pocket and all of my other pockets, too. Where could it possibly be? I'm sure I had it earlier.

As I stood there thinking about this I turned and saw the man with whom I had just had a punch-up. He was walking away from me up the street. Just then he turned his head and glanced over his shoulder. There was a furtive, suspicious look on his face. When he saw me looking at him, he turned his face away and began to run.

All of a sudden I realized - he's got my wallet! He picked it out of my pocket when we were scuffling! I started running after him.

The problem? No, it's not that Harry's eyes aren't good enough to see some guy's expression a block away. No, it's not that Harry loses things all the time in real life and doesn't need an excuse. Nope, it's not because it's way too mundane to be a real dream.

Let me try to describe the seeming paradox imbedded in this dream.

There's nothing impossible about the story, per se. Such a scenario could happen in real life. You could read such a story in a book or see it in a movie or on tv. For that matter, a story-teller could have improvised it on the spot. What's the big deal?, you say.

But direct your attention to the point in the story where the pickpocket acts guilty and Harry still doesn't know where his wallet is. The author of the story would have to know where the wallet is when he made the pickpocket act guilty - otherwise, the guy wouldn't have acted in such a way. But at this point the main character still doesn't have a clue where the wallet is.

Generally, that's not a problem. It happens all the time in works of fiction. But in this case, the author (dreamer) and the main character in the story (dream) are one-in-the-same person. The paradox here is that a person must both know something and not know it at the same time.

Or looking at it from a slightly different perspective, how can a character in a dream provide you with the explanation of what's going on? (In this case he did it with his behavior, not words.) Come on, it's your dream!

Are you with me? Let's try another one. Here's a dream I had:

The Vacationer.

I am at a gas station in Maryland, or maybe northern Virginia. A guy pulls up in a station wagon. He has his family with him and the car is packed full of suitcases and bags. He is a friendly, gregarious sort. In a loud voice he asks for directions to the airport, letting everybody around know that they are flying to Florida for a vacation. I give him general directions towards Dulles airport.

He drives off in a southerly direction - not west towards Dulles.

The next thing I know, I'm at a gas station further south - maybe North or South Carolina - and he pulls in again. He does the same thing, asking for directions to the airport loud enough so that everybody knows his family is flying to Florida.

I'm completely baffled. Why in the world didn't he head to the airport from that first gas station? He made such a big deal of it, and he was given reasonably good directions.

Once again, he doesn't head toward the airport but takes off south. The above scenario repeats a few more times (maybe not explicitly, but at least as a memory when we meet for the final time.)

Finally, we meet again at a gas station in Georgia, right near the Florida line. This time I ask him, what's going on? He chuckles and with a big smile explains to me that...

Before I tell you what he said, put yourself in the position of the dreamer or story-teller. You've gotten to this point in the story with absolutely no idea why the guy is acting the way he is. And now, without missing a beat, you have to explain it all. No hemming and hawing, no non sequitur aliens-made-me-do-it-type explanations, no spinning off into "Florida turns into a big orange school bus with a purple frog driver" dream craziness.

Can you do it? Now page down for what our happy vacationer said.














...all his requests for directions to the airport were a ruse to put everybody off his trail. He was a lawbreaker of some sort. (I'm presuming it wasn't too serious since he seemed such a nice fellow.) He was also worried that the authorities might nab him at airport, either while giving his name at the ticket counter, or trying to get his baggage through handling.

He had intended from the beginning to drive the whole way - and his plan worked to perfection. Florida was a safe haven for him, and now that he made it there, he was safe.

Once again, a character in the dream had to explain - verbally this time - to the dreamer what was going on. Notice that the resolution isn't just tacked on - it meshes perfectly with the preceding material.

Now consider this dream I had many years ago.

Terror on the Cellar Steps.

Somebody - or something - was making his (its?) way up the cellar steps very slowly and quietly. (It wasn't me, although it seems I was observing this from his point of view.) It was clear that this person or creature was terrifying and must not reach the house from the cellar.

He got within 2 or 3 steps from the top. Someone in the kitchen (was that me?) had the cellar door in one outstretched hand and slowly started a mighty swing that brought the door shut just as the person/creature reached the top.

The sound of the door slamming woke me up.

In actual fact, it really was a slamming door that woke me up. A sister had come home.

What do we make of that? Could it have been just a coincidence? No way. It's hardly likely that a real door would slam at the exact moment a door in my dream slams.

It's far easier to think that I heard a real door slam while I was sleeping and in a moment created a memory of the several minutes worth of dream action leading up to a door slam. Anyhow, that's my best explanation.

Now back to the first 2 dreams. For a while I thought the above phenomenon was at work - dreaming out of order to create the circumstances to explain a situation. Harry dreamed his wallet was missing and then created a memory of the pickpocket and the scuffle.

The problem with that theory is that if Harry created the pickpocket to explain the missing wallet, he would have already known the guy up the street had the wallet. He wouldn't have needed any further suspicious behavior from the man to realize he was the thief. Likewise, if he created a memory of a scuffle to give the pickpocket an opportunity to take the wallet, Harry would have noticed the wallet being nabbed during the scuffle.

So much for the simple "out of order dreaming" explanation.

Another possibility is that we have 2 different parts of the brain acting independently. One part is the story-teller and the other part spectates. This is hard to swallow because I don't see any hint of such a phenomenon during regular waking hours. Plus, the spectating part of the brain doesn't just observe; it feels like it is part of the action, and actually in control of much of it.

Any other ideas out there? I'm totally baffled.

The phenomenon I'm describing is fairly common for me. For example, someone in my dream will tell a joke or ask a riddle. I'm thinking, "Gee, I haven't a clue." Without missing a beat the person gives a clever and sensible punchline, and I find myself dreaming (generally just before waking), "Oh, so that's it!"

Does anyone else have these sorts of dreams? Take notice of the ones you remember to see if they fit the mold. If you find one, why not stick it on your web site and send me a message? Thanks.

So far, not a single person has agreed with me that there is any problem here whatsoever. But I am willing to risk worldwide ridicule by posing this question - a small price to pay in the quest for scientific knowledge. Marilyn vos Savant wouldn't tackle this conundrum; nor would "Straight Dope" Cecil. Somebody please explain to me how a character in my dream can tell me something I don't know. It's my dream, darn it!

Appendix: More dreams

Rather than work newly occurring examples of relevant and curious dreams into the above essay, I'll just dump them here.

The Jumbo Jet Crash

Jun 2001. I dreamed I heard an airplane taking off from an airport not far away, maybe a half-mile or so, just beyond a wooded area. I turned in that direction, and sure enough, a jumbo jet emerged above the trees. Whenever I dream about airplanes the thought comes to mind about whether it will crash. (I've crashed a lot of planes in my dreams - usually accompanied by a horrible feeling that it was my fault, even though I can't quite put my finger on why I believe that.) Sure enough, this jumbo jet started a turn, which seemed to indicate (to me) that it was in trouble. Then it continued in a big circle, losing altitude slightly. About half a minute after take-off, and about a quarter of the way into its second circle it went down behind some trees - and made such a loud crash that it half woke me up. That's probably why the dream was so clearly etched in my memory the next morning.

The next day I looked out my front window and saw that the tree across the street right near the curb had a big chunk of its bark ripped off. The bare area was about 1 foot wide by 3 feet high, starting right near the ground. A hundred feet up the road was an unfamiliar car. It was facing the tree - and its front was smashed badly all the way across.

Try as I might, I couldn't reconcile the damage on the tree with the damage on the car. The torn off bark was on the side of the tree closest to the curb, so it would be nearly impossible for a car to hit it head on in that direction with any speed. And if it did, the car would have a big indentation in its front - not smashed in all the way across. Or, if a car scraped across the front of the tree, it wouldn't have its whole front smashed up.

A few days later I asked a neighbor about the damaged tree and she said, yes, the smashed car caused it, but not directly. It had slammed into a parked car that was sitting where the smashed one is now. The parked car was propelled forward and that one scraped the tree.

Of course, that's all very interesting, but doesn't have anything to do with my dream. Then she confirmed my suspicion (which hardly needed confirmation) that all of this happened on the night I had my dream about the airplane crash. And, yes, it made a very loud crash - which even woke up one of her daughters who came out quickly to see what had happened. I can't believe for a moment that the crash and the dream on the same night were coincidental. I have absolutely no doubt that this is another case where a stimulus - a loud noise - gave rise to a retroactive dream which seemed to precede and lead up to the stimulus.

I suppose the tree will eventually become famous for the part it played in future breakthroughs in the study of the workings of the human brain. For now, you can still visit it for free. It's at 9313 Wyatt Drive, in Lanham, in Prince George's County, Maryland. The scar will be there for a long, long time. The way things look, the smashed car will be, too. (Nope, gone - July 2001.)

Dinner Talk

(I didn't note the date, 2000.) I dreamed that I was in a restaurant at a table with about five or six friends. Maybe some of them were family members. We had just finished the meal. The waitress returned and stood nearby, smiling pleasantly. (She was played by one of my aunts, who shall remain nameless here.) One of my buddies at the table was preaching against sin and explaining the importance of being born again (as this buddy is inclined to do in real life.) No one joined in the discussion one way or the other; either telling him to knock it off, or offering him hearty agreement. (Again, this is how it goes in real life.) Then the waitress, I suppose sensing everyone's mild discomfort, and that we'd really like to be on our way, reminded my buddy as gently as possible, "Even church doesn't end with the bible." To make sure she was understood, she repeated herself using the exact same words, "Even church doesn't end with the bible."

I sat there thinking, "What in the world does she mean by that???"

Here again is an opportunity for you to "fill in the blank" before reading ahead. Can you, without missing a beat, explain what the waitress meant by, "Even church doesn't end with the bible"?














Evidently seeing my buddy's confused look, the waitress explained that at the end of a church service everyone leaves on an upbeat note, with lively music and everyone exchanging greetings and smiles and handshakes. (She didn't belabor her explanation, but the obvious point being that everyone doesn't get up and leave church immediately after a bible-thumping, fire-and-brimstone sermon.)

A bit of a stretch? Maybe, but still millions of times more sensible than anything I could have thought up on the spot while wide awake. In fact, the cleverness of her remark amazes me, going way beyond the minimum required to try to get my buddy to wind it up. If I had written the script (ha ha), she would have probably tried to joke it off lightly, saying something like, "Now, now, sir, I don't think we need to worry ourselves with all that right now. We probably can't save the world from this restaurant table, anyhow!"

But her 7-word analogy (assuming it had been understood without explanation) communicated an awareness of the bigger issue - that the diners surely would like to finish up their meal and leave on a relaxed, happy note. It showed a knack for the poetic that I sure don't have in real life - never mind that I don't recall ever giving thought to the matter of church services ending right after the sermon. Who's writing these dreams for me???


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