Conversation with professor Sharon Sliwinski is part fascinating lecture – an incredible introduction to the world of dreams by an author and expert on them – and part gentle therapy session.
What could be more compelling than learning about dreams?
They are the brain’s way of processing experiences, ideas and details. Depending on one’s beliefs, the “slightly nonsensical narratives” are messages from the universe, a Creator, or oneself, Sliwinski says.
Some can change the course of their dreams – escaping just before the peak of a nightmare, for example. Others try to dismiss their dreams as bizarre but meaningless.
Sliwinski sees it differently.
Being attentive to dreams upon waking, or sharing the experience with a trusted person, are both crucial practices that Sliwinski describes as unique communicative gestures.
“We enter this amazing theatre of images and sensations and all kinds of things happen in dreams. For most of us this happens every night, whether we remember or not.” – Sharon Sliwinski, a professor of information and media studies
“I got curious about why this theatre of images is so devalued as a source of information and knowledge,” said Sliwinski, who has also studied photography extensively.
It led her to create the Museum of Dreams, which started as an online archive, a catalogue of dreams inspired by Sliwinski’s 2017 book, Dreaming in Dark Times.
It has since turned into a collaborative project teeming with stories about dream-related art, research and wisdom. It features insights from famous figures to healthcare workers to anthropologists to psychoanalysts.
“Surprise, surprise – many cultures around the world have never stopped using dreams as a resource, both to weather difficult times, and as ways of understanding. In this part of the world, the Anishinaabeg have long used dreams as a form of teaching, as a form of understanding your role in the community, what you should be doing, having connections with the larger world,” Sliwinski said.
The Museum of Dreams project led to a slew of messages from all over the world, from people who had found the website and reached out to Sliwinski for help, to share a story, or to pitch ideas.
Partnering with the Museum of London in the U.K. and with Birkbeck, University of London, Sliwinski created the Guardians of Sleep podcast, which examines the dreams people of that city had during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It features original music composed by Andrew Braun, MA‘22, a graduate from the Faculty of Information and Media Studies who created an entire soundtrack to bring the podcast to life.
Originally, he thought he’d just be creating an opening theme.
“I started watching the raw interviews, I think 20 or 25, and I got really into the whole process. I started tinkering on the piano and eventually I had a huge swath of material from every episode. I kind of had to be systematic about it, because it seemed really scary. How am I going to write a new piece of music for each of these episodes? Especially thinking about dreams and music, it feels like the possibilities are endless.”
Braun said he streamlined the journey by creating “musical boundaries.”
“I picked a key, and I decided everything was going to start with a single note, building out from there. Eventually I had a palette of sounds I used every time.”
The record deal
His music was so powerful – capturing moods and taking the listener along through stories – that it was picked up by Flood Tide Music, with the first volume of the album launching Friday. Sliwinski, Braun and others involved are hosting a free launch party at the Tap Centre for Creativity in downtown London, Ont. on April 28.
Braun, a singer-songwriter and music teacher, said the music will be marketed to a growing audience in search of soothing study or focus music, background noise.
Maybe they’ll even use it to fall asleep.
Braun said he became immersed in the project, which grew and blossomed along the way. Creating the Guardians of Sleep soundtrack also opened him up to the world of dreams, encouraging him to think and reflect on his own nighttime images.
The power of the dreamworld
Dreams are often dismissed by those who prioritize rational thinking, especially among the scientific community, Sliwinski said. But understanding is growing.
“Not getting enough sleep will have all kinds of health effects. Neuroscientists are starting to understand now, that’s partly because loss of sleep is a loss of dreaming. That important form of thinking happens while we’re asleep, which allows us to do this emotional processing.”
So why do those dreams, and that after-hours processing, matter so much?
For Sliwinski, it’s a social and political question that influences the ways we live and the problems we create. Driving change starts with listening to ourselves, she said.
“If we get back in touch with that non-rational resource, it changes our very subjectivity. It changes who we are and how we operate in the world,” Sliwinski said.
Dreams, on the other hand, situate you in relation to others.
“If you are attentive to how your position in the world is related to others, that tends to change everything.”
Interpreting your dreams
It can take practice, especially for those who aren’t used to tuning in to the conversations with their inner world, Sliwinski said. She has simple tips for those who want to dive into the world of dreams and all they can teach:
- Reflect in the morning on what you saw while sleeping, before doing anything else – especially grabbing your phone. “You have to stay close to the world of the dream, let the images come back to you. Don’t let the external world in quite yet.”
- Keep a small notepad beside your bed to make notes before the dreams slip away. Some like to record using an audio app, but be cautious of getting sucked into other applications or habits by your smartphone.
- Practice. It will take some time to cultivate the skills needed to analyze your dreams, but don’t give up. “It’s like writing, like music. You just have to give time and space to that.”