Dreams have long been a source of intrigue and mystery to humankind since the beginning of time. When was the first dream? It is speculated by scientists that dreams began 130 million years ago. This theory was explored by observing animals with varying levels of nervous system development. Observation was done by means of brainwave recordings and REM observations. It has been concluded that amphibians, like bullfrogs, do not sleep or dream at all. Reptiles might sleep, and birds have only two different stages of sleep. The chimpanzee is the closest to early mankind’s type of nervous system. The first human dream was probably fairly simple, as Robert L. Van De Castle says in his book Our Dreaming Mind (1994), “when a hairy creature re-experienced briefly during sleep a strong smell that had caused its nostrils to twitch during the preceding day, or the taste of some earlier feast.” Human dreams most likely evolved into more complex imagery as humans evolved in the nervous system and gained more experience as a species.
The idea that sleep is a “little death” is a common notion in cultures all over the world. Almost every primitive religious tradition has some reference to dreams as being a small version of what occurs at actual physical departure from the Earth. A traditional saying among Indigenous Americans is that “to die is to walk the path of the dream without returning.” Having a relationship like this with dreaming changes the very nature of our relationship with death.
The world of dreams is getting more and more mysterious, and we are no closer to mapping the dream worlds than we are of knowing the secrets of the universe. Elsie Sechrist says in her book Dreams: Your Magic Mirror (1968), “The more the unknown continent of sleep is explored, the more it discloses wider and vaster territories to be explored. And the findings discovered tend not only to outdate but to contradict the early work by the first explorers in the field. It is as if one compared the charts of Columbus’ day with the modern maps of America’s Eastern seaboard—the subject is the same but no other similarity exists.” In this field, there is still an infinite amount of exploration to be done.
So how, then, do dreams affect us, and can they improve our waking lives? Dreams are highly underestimated by our society and could be put to better use than they currently are. Dreams can be used more effectively for growth, fulfillment and identifying the self or the many selves within oneself, than they presently are. If an individual uses the dream world to enhance conscious understanding of the self, perhaps the waking life will be lived more effectively and with more joy. This applies to all the shades of dreaming, from simple dream recall to full lucidity in dreams. (Full lucidity means that one has woken up in the dream and realizes it is a dream, yet goes onward in the surroundings of the dream without waking up physically.) Full lucidity is the ideal “sound-stage” for working out our decisions, gaining skills, and exploring Self, God and the universe. Simple recall is limited to one story, but full lucidity is limitless in its uses, outcomes, trials and errors, and capacity for solving problems. Stephen LaBerge and Howard Rheingold state in their book Exploring the World Of Lucid Dreaming (1990), “The world of lucid dreams provides a vaster stage than ordinary life…almost anything imaginable, from the frivolous to the sublime…lucid dreams can help you find your deepest identity—who you really are.”
The dream world, especially the lucid dream world, is our own built-in virtual reality machine. The attempts of computer engineers who are trying to invent virtual reality programs for the computer are falling far short of what we already have built into our consciousness right now. If we could learn to tap into this inner resource of wisdom, experience, and exploration, we could avoid many of the mistakes or problems we encounter in everyday life. In ordinary life there is only one chance to play out an event—and only one conclusion. In the dream world, different versions of an event and its outcomes can be experienced without lasting consequences.
For instance, an individual who has a difficult time speaking publicly could practice dealing with stage fright and the mechanics of delivering a speech in front of thousands of dream characters. If the person first fails this speaking engagement, the stage could be reset and one could try again with a different approach. A person who has to communicate something to another with whom he or she is having a conflict and is unsure about how it will go, can use trial and error attempts in the dream world to find just the right way to communicate without negative outcomes. Another person who is having difficulty with some area of study or creativity could use the dream world to gain access to knowledge or skills that are otherwise unavailable in the waking life.