Life is largely a matter of expectation.
I have fallen asleep.
I did it with purpose—not on purpose, which would just mean that I lay down on my couch intending to sleep for a bit longer than usual today. Rather, the whole thing, passive though it was, was imbued with purpose from when I first lay down to when it began to feel like a dream.
That’s the only way I can describe it, since my sense-impressions all seem to be completely normal, with the exception of sight, which is absent. No visuals. It’s a problem that dogged my early days of lucid dreaming, always when I made the transition from wakefulness to dreaming in this way—at least in the beginning. And while I did eventually solve the problem, it still happens every now and then, and my old solution doesn’t work as reliably as it once did.
But while not being able to see is annoying, it doesn’t actually present an obstacle to getting around. This place is a creation of my own mind, and that means I don’t have to see it to know what’s there.
I get up and posit that I am in my bedroom back in my M— house— the fourth of a series of childhood homes, and the one that best deserves the name. There’s not much fun in exploring a dream I can’t see, but I figure I may as well go out onto the roof. I walk through the doorway, put my hand on the railing I know will be there, and follow it down the hallway to my parents’ bedroom, where the door is—just as I expected—open.
From there, I head towards the window. On my left, I can hear the sound of a standing fan, its head turning from side to side as I walk past. I pause in front of the window and fiddle with the curtains, trying to find the opening.
But as I draw them aside, I suddenly find myself looking out over a wooded area. I can see again! I jump through the windowpane as if it were a thin film of liquid, land on the slope and start walking, doing my best to immerse myself in this new dream-environment with the array of senses now available to me.
Not only can I see, but the forest I now find myself in is incredibly detailed, and a beautiful place. It always astonishes me how real everything looks in dreams like this—more real than real. As I walk through the forest, I am no longer aware of creating my surroundings the way I was back in the house. It’s happening on its own now, and as far as I can tell, the place is completely unfamiliar.
It seems to be summer here, just as it is in waking life. Ahead of me, a narrow dirt road comes into view, deeply cut into the surrounding forest. If this place were subject to time and the laws of physics, I’d imagine it would take a couple hundred years of dedicated travel for it to have gotten that deep. The overhanging banks slope down to it, and far above, the tree-tops on either side meet, giving it a tunnel-like appearance.
From down the road, to my left, I hear a sound that I instantly recognize: bridle bells. Is a horse-drawn carriage approaching? This looks like just the sort of place where you could find one. I step closer to the road to get a better look.
But it’s not a carriage I see – it’s a riderless horse running past. It’s the rider I see next—a young man lying on the road some distance back, unmoving.
That’s when the ‘emergency medical training’ schema violently shoves the ‘having a lucid dream’ schema to one side. But something is not quite right. My brain seems to have filed this situation under “traffic accident,” and I find it immensely puzzling that my training on this point was silent on what to do about the horse. But actually, that doesn’t seem to be a problem. The road steepens sharply up ahead, and it’s too muddy for the horse to get to the top at the pace it’s now going. It has turned and is walking back. And I see for the first time another group of people is here, too, several men and a child. Were they there the whole time, or is this scene actually unfolding around me? It’s impossible to say.
I approach them, trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s difficult to understand what the people I’m speaking to are saying, as if they’re speaking a language I don’t know well, or as if something was wrong with my ability to comprehend speech. The man had stolen something, I learn. His pursuers have now caught up with him—they are here too, now, I see. His friends—the men I’m talking to, it turns out—seem oddly nonchalant about what’s going on. They’re making no move to help him—nobody is—and this is making me angry. I head towards the new group of people, but turn around too quickly, and my vision fades again. I don’t let this stop me, although my efforts don’t seem to be getting me anywhere.
After a while, my vision returns, fading in and out, but now we seem to be in a hallway somewhere. I’m no longer sure what’s going on. Maybe it’s time to let this one go and dream a different dream. But amid the background conversation, someone calls my name, and I wake up.
There’s expectation, and then there’s expectation. At least, that’s what we have to admit if we are to claim that expectation plays a major role in shaping our dreams and explain how we can still sometimes be wrong.
In the dream above, why was I right about the sound being bridle bells but not about a carriage coming? The house was there because I expected it to be, and the forest was there in spite of my not expecting anything to be there—but why?
One way of understanding the difference is by considering how expectation works in our waking lives. It couldn’t be entirely the same, for obvious reasons, but it can provide us with a rough division that seems to reveal important distinctions in the dreams as well: head vs. gut.
Say somebody asks me what I expect the weather to be like tomorrow. Given that I live somewhere where there is real uncertainty involved, I might be able to offer a good guess, but probably not as good as someone who had lived here all his life, or whose livelihood depended on reading weather conditions well. That’s an expectation of the ‘head’ sort, which it is easy enough to find examples of since we’re able to generate them on demand.
The ‘gut’ sort of expectation, though, is a bit trickier because we usually only notice them when they’re at odds with the ‘head’ sort. The most salient instances of this are pathological—phobias would be one of the best-known ones. But it would be misleading to use a pathological example when this is something that’s not only not abnormal but ubiquitous, and so I’ll use an example of my own
Once, I was driving through the Great Plains after having lived on an island for the past few months. Every time I turned a bend in the road, I expected to catch a glimpse of the sea—and every time, there was an odd, empty feeling when it only turned out to be more land. On a conscious level, this expectation made no sense: I knew perfectly well where I was, and that there wasn’t a sea for hundreds of miles around—or, alternatively, for a few million years. But still, something inside me was insisting that there was something unrealistic about going so many miles in a single direction and not reaching the shore.
The interesting thing is that in my lucid dreams for months afterwards, even while living in thoroughly landlocked regions, I usually did end up reaching the shore, and sooner rather than later. I still see far more water than I’d (consciously) expect in my dreams, even the non-lucid ones. Although I get the impression that it’s common for people’s dream-environments to be waterier than you’d (consciously) expect—at least, if you were looking for a strict continuity between dreams and waking life. But this expectation does not seem to be a reasonable one: in order for this to be a valid inference, we must suppose that all of a dreamer’s ‘gut’ expectations are consistently being met in their waking lives when, in fact, they seem capable of persisting even when they’re at odds with both head expectations and reality. If no divergence were possible, it would be hard to explain why cognitive behavior therapy is both in demand and, in many applications, effective.
And, considering the matter on a deeper level, it would require taking it for granted that there is no divergence between what we expect from our dreams and what we expect from our waking lives. As a lucid dreamer, consciously developing a new set of expectations is often necessary before you can accomplish things that you can’t in your waking life—such as passing through solid objects and transforming the environment around you. It is unrealistic to expect that you can walk through walls in dreams the way it is unrealistic to expect you can go mile after mile without seeing the sea at some point—i.e., not unrealistic at all because you are unconsciously holding premises that do not apply to your current situation.
This is something that seems logical enough—but, as with every question involving dreams, it leads to other questions that aren’t so easy to answer. Why would expectation ever produce an unfamiliar place when you start off in a familiar one? The traditional answer to that one is that important cognitive functions are off-line in the dreaming state—an answer which, even if correct, is as correct as it would be if I said that the reason my iPhone is getting so slow is because the electrons aren’t flowing the way they ought to. Being correct is one thing, and understanding is another, and I’m afraid that that physiologically-oriented dream science is mostly practiced by people phoning it in.
And what about that “more real than real” quality that seems to distinguish some lucid dreams? It took me a while, but I think I’ve figured out what that difference is: in such dreams, everything around me appears as distinct as things do in waking life when I’m looking right at them, even things on the periphery of my vision and in the distance. Which makes sense, as I’m not actually using my eyes, but also raises further questions. If I’m modeling an environment out of my experience of the waking world, why would it be subject to fewer perceptual limitations?
That’s one question I’m going to have to leave open—which may be annoying, but may also be good practice for the next time we find ourselves awake in our dreams.