Salvador Dali, the 20th century Spanish painter, is internationally famous for his bizarre and surrealist style. The Persistence of Memory, depicting a barren landscape strewn with melting clocks, is one of his most famous works. But what is less famous – and far less appreciated – is the creative process that allowed Dali to produce his unusual masterpieces.
The time in which Dali created some of his most renowned works is known as his paranoiac-critical period. This isn’t a random term invented by art historians to confuse the rest of us – it’s drawn from the more familiar word paranoia. Dali, an enthusiast of psychology as well as art, believed that a state of paranoia was conducive to creativity. This wasn’t the state of anxiety we usually associate with the word; the surrealists saw it as a sharpening of the senses, and a stimulation of the brain’s ability to free-associate. It allowed a person to perceive connections they wouldn’t be able to perceive otherwise. Sensing the artistic potential of this state, Dali invented a way to tap into it whenever he wanted.
He would sit in a comfortable armchair with his left arm dangling over the armrest. Pinched between the finger and thumb of his left hand was a spoon; on the floor directly underneath his hand was a plate. Reclining in the armchair, he would allow himself to gradually drift off to sleep. Then, when muscle paralysis caused his fingers to loosen their grip, the spoon would fall and clatter on the plate. He would hear the sound and wake up instantly – and return from a journey through his unconscious mind.
The whole experiment might look strange from the outside, but it’s the frame of seconds between Dali drifting off and Dali dropping the spoon that really matters. This is the phase of consciousness between dreams and waking, called the hypnagogic state. It’s the period of sleep in which we can experience and remember our dreams. Dali wasn’t taking micro naps for no reason – he was tripping on his own unconscious creativity. By diving into that pond for just the span of a few seconds, he was able to remember the things he saw there more vividly.
Afterwards, he would hit the canvas. Dali used this method throughout his paranoiac-critical period, tapping into his unconscious world for artistic inspiration. It’s a remarkable story, and a testament to the strange inner workings of the human brain. If there are clocks melting in my brain, I haven’t seen them. But that doesn’t change the fact that Dali saw them in his.
Our brains – and the unconscious world of dreams – have been subjects of debate in academia for decades. The unconscious is an especially tricky subject to tackle, because unlike most objects of study in science, it’s completely invisible. We can ask people to describe their dreams, or study brain imaging patterns, but the actual content of a person’s dreams is for their eyes only. This is more than a little mysterious, and begs the question: What, if anything, is the purpose of our dreams?
A 2015 paper published by the American Psychological Association, “Dreaming and Waking Cognition,” attempts to answer this question. The authors reference an earlier study in which French language students were asked to monitor and record their dreams for the duration of a six-week immersion course. At the conclusion of the six weeks, the students who demonstrated greater mastery of the language also happened to be the ones who frequently reported dreaming in French.
According to the authors of the APA study, this suggests that dreams play an active role in the task of memory consolidation. They help us process and retain information we obtain in the conscious world. The French language study supports this theory; if the students who most often dreamt in French also performed better in the class, it stands to reason that their dreams helped them understand the subject matter on a higher level than their peers.
What this says holistically about our brains and the nature of dreams is less apparent. Modern science is quick to dismiss anything that can’t be accounted for in empirical, practical terms – and the memory consolidation argument offers a tidy, practical function for our dreams. However, it does not (as the authors of the study suggest) disprove the idea that dreams have a symbolic subtext.
The idea that our dreams hide deeper meaning, and that this meaning can be understood through interpretation, was originally popularized by Freud. Today, it has become the subject of a thriving publishing market for dream reference handbooks and interpretive guides. An Amazon.com search for “dreams” yields dozens of bestselling titles, from the Dreamer’s Dictionary to Ten Thousand Dreams Interpreted, promising readers insight into the symbolic nature of their dreams. Browsing these titles online or at your local bookstore is a great way to study the popular, unscientific attitude toward dreams. Beyond the gates of academia, the general public is gripped by an obsessive desire to understand and attribute meaning to their unconscious experiences.
Of course, the likelihood that a dream about falling has the same root cause and implications for a 40-year-old in Denver as a teenager in New York City is incredibly low. This is the same fallacy promoting things like horoscopes and fortune cookies. We’re easily fooled by generalizations, because they leave just enough room for us to project our own beliefs and experiences into them. But it seems equally unlikely that dreams have no interpretive value whatsoever.
Imagine we discovered an artifact of alien technology, embedded in a rock that somehow became trapped in our orbit. We could run this device through a gamut of tests and experiments, blasting it with x-rays and shoving it under microscopes, and still know next to nothing about it. For all we know, it could be powered by an energy source we haven’t discovered yet…or aren’t evolved enough to understand.
Now imagine we somehow managed to turn the thing on, and when we did, a little camera lens popped out. Would the leading scientists of Earth throw their hands up in triumph and declare, “We figured it out! It’s a camera!”? Of course not. To say that an object so foreign and complex was designed exclusively for the first thing we learned about it would be an assumption of epic proportions. Our own man-made smartphones are cameras in addition to about a thousand other possible applications.
The scientific approach is to keep on digging. If Dali’s renderings of alien worlds and morphing landscapes stand for anything, it’s the extreme subjectivity of human unconsciousness. Our dreams may have practical applications for memory and learning, but knowing this doesn’t qualify us to say we understand them. The fact that we are driven to interpret our dreams in the first place, to seek a deeper meaning beneath their surface, is proof of a greater significance in and of itself. Significance, meaning, and value are all words for the same thing. Whatever that thing is is entirely up to you.