I am younger in my dreams

Que reste-t-il de ces beaux jours?
Une photo, vieille photo
De ma jeunesse…

-Charles Trenet

I have found myself remembering my dreams more than usual lately, perhaps due to a few months of nightmares that I can’t seem to shake. Obvious ones come in the form of panicked work-dreams — heart-pounding anxiety dreams where I wake panting and needing a cool glass of water to calm me down. Others are more nebulous and unclear in their imagery. And then there are the ghosts.

I will state for the record that in a dream, ghosts are the most terrifying of all possible antagonists. You may have some luck against a zombie invasion using your tact and your skill at orienteering to survive in the wilderness — you may have some luck against vampires given your love of garlic and your ability to fashion rudimentary crosses — but against an entity that can move through walls, takes no physical damage, seeks to harm you, can find you wherever you go, and does not fear death… what can you do? You cannot run nor hide nor fight, and if it’s a silent ghost, you don’t even know why it wants to hurt you.

It will suffice to say that last night’s dream was one of these types. After desperately trying to escape this invisible thing that kept roughing me up for the majority of the dream, I found myself running into family. I collapsed into my mother’s arms, exhausted from running, unable to contain the dream stress anymore, and started sobbing. But the consolation was not to last, as I was soon grabbed again by the ghost and thrown down and belabored yet again.

I woke in a panic, feeling an immense sense of presence, and this is when something weird happened that did not help the situation at all:

I saw my arm, held aloft, pointing directly at my dresser.

It was an image I would have said was real until it started to fade quickly from the shoulder, leaving nothing but the pointing finger, which then quickly faded as well.

I had a hard time not taking this to mean that my dresser was haunted.

I made my way to the kitchen, stood in a daze, drank some water, and felt very shaken, but I pushed myself to keep calm and used the time to analyze what had just happened. Working backwards, the vision of the arm, which at first seemed an ominous cleromancy of localized wickedness, felt more and more a symptom of another, very commonplace thing….

I had been laying on my arm before I woke up. Indeed, as I thought about it, the more I could confirm to myself that the hallucinated arm had disappeared outward just as feeling was returning to my real arm, spreading downward from the shoulder. Stepping back from the situation, I found this to be kind of neat from a cognitive perspective, since it likely relates to the underlying principles behind the mirror box for phantom limb sufferers, as well as the visual representation of self that is tied into our own haptic feedback, as some of my colleagues (Kevin Dieter, et al), demonstrated in this elegant paper.

Returning my thoughts now to the ghost, this too found explanation as I had awakened with a heavy sense of the work I needed to get done — particularly in regard to the papers and grants I need to write. I felt satisfied with the attribution, but grimaced as I realized that my brain had decided to camouflage my usual work-stress dreams in an altogether more unpleasant wrapper. Seriously — not helping, brain.

Both of those seemed adequately explained, but then there was one remaining facet that I — to this moment — continue to puzzle over. In the dream, I and my family members were all quite a bit younger than we currently (actually) are. I would have placed myself as a late teen or early twenty-something, my brother was still a boy, my mother had not started to gray. I might have dismissed this as being part of a single odd dream, but it was actually only the latest example of a very regular pattern in my dreams. In fact, I cannot really remember dreaming of being my own age since my late-teens or early twenties! It’s as if I finished up puberty, and my brain decided to freeze its representations of people right then and there. And, although I haven’t heard of other people discussing this phenomenon, I have started to wonder whether it isn’t at all uncommon. We go through a large degree of bodily change in those years, after all — in order to function properly, our brains must update their representations of the size and location of our limbs so that we aren’t continually running into / knocking over things (as seems to define the movement of teenage boys). But after puberty, there isn’t a huge need to continue updating the body plan. Most changes will be minor and very gradual. Maintenance should generally suffice. Does my brain think that I have the body of a twenty year old? Is this why I have such a hard time accepting the deepening wrinkles that have begun to grace my forehead or the appearance of errant white hairs where previously there were dark lush locks? Is this why it’s so hard for me to accept the yellowing of an old photo from my teen years? Certainly it was taken just yesterday… wasn’t it?

Of course, there are probably other factors at play, as well. Exposure doubtless has a role. The people in my dream are of about the age they were when I left home to go to college. Perhaps a little older. Maybe my internal model of my family members has not gotten enough recent info to produce an updated version. If I pause right now and try to think about how my brother or sister would react to a given situation, I find myself struggling to come up with answers; but if I ask myself how they would have acted when we were younger, I start to produce a lot of ideas. As we are pretty spread out across the country / globe these days, I can’t help wondering if I will die in my old age still thinking of my siblings primarily as children. Is this a facet of other, similar phenomena? Is this partially to blame for the tendency of old people to call their grandchildren by their children’s names? Or the habit of those in their twilight years to expect to see their childhood friends, still as youths, coming to visit them? Do we ever really grow up?

Should we ever want to?

I’m open to suggestions and commentary. Do you dream of yourself as your actual age? Or are you younger in your dreams as well?

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