Consider the surly taxi driver I met in Ukraine who, when asked what he dreamed of at night, responded, “I jump and then I fly—higher than the trees, higher than the trolley wires.”
“I think when I die,” he mused, “that’s what it’s going to be like.”
As an instructor in psychology at the City College of New York, I teach about the power of the subconscious, whose hidden cognition comprises the vast majority of brain activity. Increasingly, research is confirming that we humans are almost entirely subconscious beings, largely oblivious to the mind’s extensive inner workings. Dreams are one of the few exceptions.
I’ve always had an active dream life (just recently, I sent a herd of buffalo rampaging through a deserted Times Square, and performed psychic surgery on a thousand-chambered heart). Curious whether others had similar experiences, I started the World Dream Atlas project, a Facebook page of dreams gathered on my off hours while traveling as a journalist. Over the last 10 months, I’ve collected dreams from hundreds of people in 17 countries.
In class, I teach from a scientific perspective—everything from Freud’s interpretation of dreams as encrypted “emotional and intellectual trains of thought” to Jie Zhang’s theory of dreams as a byproduct of memory-encoding. Each paradigm is different, but most ignore the innate power of dreams. Dreams are typically regarded as part of a subordinate reality that only becomes significant if it can be translated into something rational. But when dreams are experienced on their own terms, they offer a glimpse of how expansive our minds can be outside the strictures of physical reality. They remind us that some of our most meaningful and transformative experiences are, by nature, irrational. Since most academic research on dreams is generated in the West, I ventured overseas for a fuller understanding of that potential.
I have found that, across cultures, dreams often entail a return to mysticism or the divine, and allow people to engage in magical thinking without stigma. But I’ve noticed population-specific trends as well. Violent nightmares are common in the gang-ridden border towns of Mexico and the war zone of eastern Ukraine. Scenes of nuclear war still haunt the “duck-and-cover” generation in both the East and the West. Blessings by gods and goddesses are frequently reported in heavily religious India, whereas in more secular Western populations, those same functions are often performed by celebrities. I’m not the first to document the link between culture and dream content. In one study, the dreams of Palestinian children in violent areas were found to feature more aggression and persecution than those of Palestinian children living in peaceful areas; in another, African American women were shown to have more dreams in which they are victims of circumstance or fate than Mexican American or Anglo American women.
I’ve received my share of rude rebuffs, as well as a few heartbroken looks from people who mistook me for Humans of New York. Still, the most common reaction to my elevator pitch is a smile. People are more open than I ever imagined; it amazes me that I can walk up to someone I’ve never met before and, in a matter of minutes, be talking to them about some of their deepest and most personal reflections, or laughing like old friends.
“I’ve always wanted to go to America. Recently, I dreamed that I went there with my two sisters. We were having so much fun, but then we started fighting each other with pistols. There were many, many guns there, and a lot of blood. America is a very beautiful country, but too many bomb blasts.” – Devpur, India
“I gave birth to a baby, and it was a sandwich! I put it in my backpack. Then suddenly I was like, ‘Oh! I forgot about my baby! I am a horrible mother!’” – Los Angeles, USA
“When I was 16, I dreamed that I won the lottery. Of course, the first thing I did was buy my high school. When my actual alarm clock went off, I kinda half woke up. I thought, ‘I don’t have to go to school, I own the place!’ Then, I rolled over and went back to sleep.” – Vancouver, Canada
Even when someone says no to me, the exchange can be enlightening.
“My dreams?” a woman in Latvia asked. “That’s something very private, isn’t it?”
“It’s OK,” I assured her. “I’m a professional, you see. So it’s rather like undressing for a doctor’s exam. Strictly business.”
“Actually,” she countered, “I’m a stripper, so I have no problem taking off my clothes. But my dreams? That’s very different.”
The first person I ever approached for the project was a cashier in Iceland named Heiða, who happened to be a berdreymin, a term Icelanders use to describe someone who sees the future in dreams. It was a gift, she explained, passed down through generations on her father’s side. Several people I’ve met have relayed experiences of perceived clairvoyance in dreams.
“My nightmares began in November [of 2013]. Nobody was thinking about war then. In my dreams though, I saw it. I was hiding from gunfire with my husband in the ruins of our home. I never believed in dreams before this.” – Semenivka, Ukraine
“My sister has always been ill. She has a genetic disease that kept her in the hospital for much of her life. My mom and my dad were told that if they had another baby, the baby would have a 90 percent chance of getting this disease. When my mom recognized that she was pregnant with me, they were scared that I would get this disease, and they were thinking maybe not to have me. Then my mom had a dream that a priest came up to her. The priest said, ‘You will have a completely healthy girl.’ When my mom woke up, she told my dad, ‘We will have this baby. She will be fine.’ And I am fine. I’m perfectly healthy.” - Berlin, Germany
“I often have dreams that come true. I can look at someone’s eyes and if there is a dark shadow in the eyes, I know that they will die within 24 hours. With earthquakes too, I can feel when they will come within 24 hours. I don’t understand it, but my sisters have the same sense too. I was told that my clan, which is the Raven-Koho clan, has this sense. When somebody dies, it’s up to the Raven-Kohos to comfort the families.” - Juneau, USA
Magical thinking is a common element in dreams throughout the world, and perhaps nowhere more so than in Iceland. In a nation where 54 percentof the population believes in elves, the line dividing reality and unreality can be elusive, as this dream from a man named Hermundur shows.
“I was staying in a room with no windows. It was pitch black inside. The darkness was so heavy, I could not breathe—like being in a coffin. Suddenly, I saw this small light [come] out of the door and [start] to float around. It came very close to me. Inside of this light was a tiny, tiny person. I was watching this light until I fell asleep.” – Reykjavik, Iceland
Hermundur speculated that the fairy he saw came to comfort him in his loneliness. Dream visitations by benevolent mystical beings seem to be archetypal, with personal belief and culture often determining what form the figures take.
“I see the Lord in my dreams. He comes as a bright light. A big angel covers me and my kids and 14 grandkids with his wings.” – Tijuana, Mexico
“I dreamed that I went to Switzerland and visited the graves of Charlie Chaplin and his wife, Oona. Charlie and Oona rose out of their graves. ‘Ashok,’ they said, ‘You’re doing good in this world.’ Then they embraced me, and I wept.” – Adipur, India
“I’m in love with the main singer from Camera Obscura: Tracyanne. She’s in a lot of my dreams. She doesn’t do much. She just kind of exists in my periphery, and grants me her approval.” – New York, USA
Such phantom visitations are perhaps most beneficial for those coping with the death of a loved one. I’m repeatedly told about visions of the dead and the positive effect they have on the grieving process. The encounters are often brief, and the apparitions impervious to touch or inaccessible in other ways. Still, the deceased usually appear content and vivacious. Most dreamers report a feeling of closure.
“A month after my wife died, she came to me in a dream. She was only there for two minutes. She looked very good, very healthy. She embraced me, and asked if I would take care of our two grandchildren. I promised that I would.” – Devpur, India
“In my last dream, I met my father who passed away some time ago. We used to fish together when I was a kid, and in the dream I wanted to ask him when we could go on one last fishing trip. I didn’t get to ask because the dream ended too fast. I had always wanted to go fishing with him one last time as an adult, but we never had the chance. Even though we didn’t go fishing in the dream, it was still very good to see him.” – Warsaw, Poland
“My mom passed away seven years ago. I had just heard about a study that ranked the happiest and most depressing cities in the U.S. The most depressing place to live was Detroit, and the happiest was Boulder, Colorado. Anyway, a few nights later, I had a dream that I was Skyping with my mom. I was crying because I hadn’t seen her in forever. I said, ‘Where have you been? I’ve missed you! I’ve been worried sick!’ And she looked at me, and she goes, ‘I’m in Boulder, Colorado.’” – New York, USA
Of course, death can also haunt sleep, as it often does for veterans, trauma victims, and the elderly.
“I am 103 years old, so I don’t sleep well. But when I do, I see the dead—dead bodies, known and unknown.” – Rajuri, India
“When I killed my first person, I couldn’t sleep for three days. He wasn’t very close. He was 40 meters away from me, but I saw how he died. In my dreams, I always see the fighting. My wife Oksana is a sniper. She also sees such dreams. Oksana wraps her arms around herself and curls up. She pushes into me, trying to get as close as she can. We both dream of our friends who were killed. In our dreams, they are still fighting alongside of us.” – Horlivka, Ukraine/Donetsk People’s Republic
“I’m a Vietnam veteran, and all we did was what you call ‘hit and run.’ I was a river raider down in the delta. Many times I went to sleep in that muddy water. I didn’t think I was coming back. After I came home, I used to just wake up at night thinking I was about to shoot somebody. I did a lot of killing. Kill and stack the bodies. That’s all we did.” – New Orleans, USA
Among the dreams I’ve encountered, some of the most fascinating have been those involving mystical states of consciousness, or a lucid manipulation of the dream space by the dreamer. They suggest an existential freedom far beyond that enjoyed in waking life.
“I entered a room of people watching a wall of TV monitors. They talked to me and answered my questions. I was so surprised that they had real personalities—they were independent of me. They explained that they travel in dreams. ‘You went too deep,’ they warned. ‘You shouldn’t be here very long.’” - Kiev, Ukraine
“I often dream that the Goddess Amba Ma is watching me. In the temple, in the home, she stands there silently. I know it’s her because she has many arms and her face looks just like her pictures. The first time she came, I was afraid. Now, when I see her I’m happy. Sometimes, I begin to shake and I can feel her enter my body.” – Ahmedabad, India
“Sometimes when I’m falling asleep, I have this strange feeling of being huge and tiny at the same time. I can best explain it as a grain of sand up against a gigantic boulder—and being both at once. You feel the smallness and the bigness at the same time; the smallness feels greater when it is up against the vastness of its opposing size, and the boulder’s bigness feels even more massive compared to the tininess of the grain of sand.” – Berlin, Germany
I have always found the surreal aesthetics of dreams appealing, but it took 10 months of collecting them to understand why. I used to think of their inherent mystery—of all mystery really—as a simple lack of information. Mystery was a vacuum to be filled by knowledge. I see things differently now. I believe that mystery is an active and substantial force in its own right.
“There’s just one dream that I remember from many, many years ago. I’d lose the magic if I told you, so I can’t. I can show you this tattoo though. The tattoo is part of it.” – Austin, USA