Dream Catchers

These days, most people tend to dismiss the Dream Catchers as a kind of sad cult.  Certainly, their rituals, strange terminology and mystical beliefs about the true self being unleashed only in sleep (that of 'perfect autonomous creation, uninhibited by the boundaries of physicality') are eerie, to say the least. But it's easy to forget that underlying the brief popularity of this movement was a sound argument. We spend a very large portion of our lives asleep, and a substantial portion of that in something akin to a conscious state, so why should this not be thought of as an equally valid and important part of lived experience?

Improving our dreams, so the idea goes, is as much an improvement of our lives as improving waking reality. You may have a great job, a happy family life etc etc but what good is any of that if you spend several hours a day being haunted by monsters, appearing naked at work in front of colleagues, or constantly losing and regaining your teeth? The 2010s saw a surge in interest in improving your sleep as a way of feeling better while awake, but it wasn’t until the next decade that interest grew in improving sleep for its own sake. A huge literature emerged on 'tips and techniques' to improve your dreams, there were endless talkshow debates, pages of magazines were filled, the British tabloids showing a particular interest in the subject. Most of this we of course now recognise as pseudoscientific junk, but it had tremendous purchase at the time. So much so that there was a crackdown by HMRC on dream therapists, once it was realised how much revenue was being lost to those who weren't paying their taxes properly. "Nobody dreams about VAT", a well known government minister once quipped. 

But for all the junk science and spurious, unregulated medical supplements, it's easy to see why so many were taken in by the idea that dreams mattered. In an age of increasing economic inequality, to many there was something emancipatory to this idea: perhaps there may be those with better careers, who own rather than rent, who have more fulfilling romantic encounters, but no waking money or good fortune can buy a pleasant dream. 

Some saw a sinister side to this early on. If, so the idea went, we gave equal weight to our waking and sleeping lives, might we simply lose focus on the present? Or was there something deeply regressive about this new interest in dreams? Might they come function in much the same way Nietzsche described Christianity, a system of morality where we focus not on the cruelties and injustices of the physical world, but instead take refuge in something else, something beyond? 

The irony of all of this was that it turned out that a good waking life was the only reliable predictor of a happy dreamer anyway. On this question all serious statistical studies were unanimous. The wealthier had better dreams and dramatically fewer nightmares, those who were worse off, particularly those in precarious work situations had a far worse night's sleep. As one columnist for the New Statesman put it: "inequalities in the afternoon reproduce themselves at midnight".

Certainly, only a small minority ever became fully fledged Dream Catchers, even at the zenith of public interest in the subject as a whole. Their asceticism, endless meditation and frankly bizarre ideas about sexuality were off putting to most. But it's easy to forget that their emergence was part of a quite widespread, if brief, fad for a novel kind of self improvement. 

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