Hello, Matthew: What exactly is your brain doing when you use one of the five senses in a dream? I always figured it was just some outside influence that your brain incorporated into your dream, but that doesn’t explain things like tasting food or feeling pain in a dream. The other night, for example, I dreamed I was being bitten by a dog, & it hurt, but I woke up in the middle of the bite & the pain just vanished. Is it normal to have such vivid dreams, or is my imagination overactive? And either way, what’s going on?
— Dazed Dreamer, via email
Dog bites, space flights, exploding cats — it’s all fair game for dreams. It’s just as normal as anything else for your dream dog to bite your dreaming butt, and for you to feel the pain and wake up from the shock of it, then to remember the bite vividly. As for what’s going on in your brain, that’s a little stickier. Dreams are still scientific mysteries, for the most part. The docs can tell when you’re doing it and what your brain waves look like and what part of your head they’re coming from, but not necessarily what controls dream content.
When you’re dreaming, some parts of your brain are on their toes and ready for action: the cerebral cortex (responsible for learning, thinking, organizing), the limbic system (our emotional center), and part of the visual system. At the same time, your motor nerves are on lunch break; and your prefrontal cortex, responsible for logic and critical thinking, is off doing sudoku puzzles or something. Scientists figure this is why you can dream about your algebra teacher sliding down your chimney at Christmas and releasing a big sack of frogs under your tree. Or those exploding cats.
One thing we do know about dreaming is that it is made up of information from all five senses. (The blind have dreams constructed of their four remaining senses.) Human beans are heavily visual critters, which might be why dreams are dominated by visual information, but the pain of a dog bite or the shock of a car horn might find its way into the goofy dream narrative. From observations of dreamers, brain docs think that an external stimulation during dreaming can muscle its way into your dream content. But you don’t necessarily need real dog teeth to create a dog bite in your dream. Any pain in that area might do it.
As for dream content, well, we here at the Sunny D Institute for Exceptional Thinking (we finally got a sponsor!) subscribe to the notion that we dream about things that have happened in the previous day, plus emotional topics we haven’t thrashed out successfully in our waking state. It all seems to have something to do with storing memories. (People who learn a task and then are deprived of dreaming sleep will forget how to do the task the following day.) What your dog bite “means” is really for you to figure out, but, um, if I were you, I’d keep a close eye on my wallet for the next few days.
Hey-o: Another unrelated 2 questions. Where did “in a New York minute” come from, and how long is one? When the Who sang they could see for miles and miles, how far could they see? That is, if they were lucid and standing on the beach?
— jj, Carlsbad, via email
Gather up the remaining Whos, take them to the beach, get them to point their eyes out to sea, and they could identify a duck swimming along the horizon a little over three miles away. If the Who were standing on a big Dumpster, of course they could see farther. Two Porta Pottis, farther still. This very simplified answer assumes a lot of things that aren’t true, like, Earth is a perfect sphere, there’s no distortion of light along the horizon line, and all Who eyes are exactly six feet above beach level. If you are more ambitious and care to take it Who by Who, the formula is our old friend the Pythagorean theorem, since each Who’s line of sight is perpendicular to Earth’s radius.
A New York minute (mildly unflattering to frenzied New Yorkers) is most likely something cooked up by somebody outside New York. According to The Dictionary of American Regional English, the first print reference to the phrase is from a Texas publication in 1967. New Yorkers don’t even use the expression. The best description of a New York minute that I’ve heard is, that length of time between the traffic light turning green and the first cabbie leaning on his horn to get the guy ahead of him to move. If you’ve never been to New York, that particular time must be measured in nanoseconds. BTW, the term “rush hour” came from New York. Back in the frantic 1890s.