Dreaming of Henry Rollins

The Rubin Museum has officially kicked off its fourth annual Brainwave series, which pairs artists and scientists in conversations about the brain. This year’s theme focuses on dreams, and last night punk rocker turned spoken-word artist Henry Rollins opened up to neuroscientist David Eagleman, Ph.D. about the violence and anxiety that plague him in his sleep.

According to Eagleman, there is an over-misrepresentation of grief and misery in dreams. And, even more fascinating, dream content does not appear to be dependent on personal circumstance and environment. He noted a study by Susan Malcolm-Smith et al. at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, which compared the number of “threat dreams” experienced by the inhabitants of a sleepy town in Wales and to those of a high-crime area of South Africa. Contrary to predictions by the researchers, the number of threat dreams experienced did not significantly differ based on location.

Some lucky sleepers, Rollins included, have the ability to take control of their nightmares, forcing a more amenable outcome or prompting themselves to wake up. This state of mind, said Eagleman, which is somewhere between consciousness and REM sleep, is called lucid dreaming.

Rollins explained that he is sometimes able to get a “do-over” in dreams where he is back in a familiar dream, but this time has the ability to control the outcome. For those not naturally in possession of this ability, lucid dreaming is actually something that can be learned through training, said Eagleman. Upon assuming control of one’s dreams, “most people fly or have sex,” he quipped.

I’ve experienced the “do-over” type of dreaming that Rollins described, turning potential nightmares into more of an Indiana Jones-esque adventure.  But, my most memorable lucid dream, and possibly my first, is from my childhood. I dreamt that I was in the back of a taxi and decided to change the driver’s hair color several times. Maybe not the most exciting action in a dream world of endless possibilities, but at the time I thought it was pretty amazing.

The Brainwave event ended with a disclaimer by Eagleman that science still doesn’t know exactly how we dream and why, but, he said, it’s clear that the awake state and the asleep state find the brain in two completely different modes that are equally active.

To learn more about dreaming, the Rubin Museum’s Brainwave series runs through April 20.

–Ann L. Whitman


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