Wake Up! It’s the Cornish Owlman

Oneirology: the scientific study of dreams.  At the very least, it is a word that can get you out of a tricky vowel situation in Scrabble… It is an -ology that has also a somewhat tarnished reputation, rightly so, in the history of scientific psychology. This blog is about dreams – not the Captain Sensible or Daniel Levinson kind – but the ones we have (or quite often don’t have) when we’re asleep.

What am I not going to talk about? Well, I am not going to discuss psychological and neuroscientific study into the benefits of sleep: take home message – in fact, the only message – “You need sleep”. It’s not exactly rocket science, and you can almost hear cognitive psychology scraping the bottom of the barrel: this is an area of research so uniquely dull that it induces in those reading about it precisely the state of consciousness that it seeks to understand. Policy implications? Applications? We’ll get back to you on that…


Cognitive psychology is in danger of going the same way as behaviourism. There’s been cosying up with basic neuroscience but we all know who wears the trousers in that relationship! Not all, but much current cognitive psychology is so  deeply in the hock of an ideological/ methodological dogma, fixated on statistical replication that, ultimately, it risks losing sight of its purpose. When push comes to shove, all psychology is about people, and when it ceases to be aware of that it loses its usefulness. And people have dreams, and they usually want to know what their dreams mean, even if they don’t really mean anything. So let’s start with the briefest history of dream analysis.

Of course, dream interpretation goes back to ancient times when Jason Donovan and Philip Schofield sorted out an Egyptian famine for Elvis (if you don’t get that reference, don’t even try…). But in modern psychology, it all starts with Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. Then there was Jung and his symbols. Basically, in any dream: flying = sex; driving = sex; long, cylindrical objects = sex; round objects = sex; sex = something to do with your relationship with your mum… You get the picture.

We all dream, sometimes several times a night. We don’t always remember them. As you probably already know dreams are a feature of REM (or NREM) sleep and there’s a whole bundle of facts about that here. Fun dream facts: (1) the average person spends about six years in a lifetime dreaming, (2) most dreams last between 5 and 20 minutes, (3) dolphins don’t dream as much as humans and the most prolific dreamers are armadillos and opossums, (4) in most of our dreams, we are not aware we are dreaming, however in lucid dreams you are aware. (5) An oneironaut is someone who dreams lucidly. Now that is fun!

There are lots and lots of theories about why we dream. Most modern and scientifically sound ones emphasise the need for mental down time, emotion resolution, or view dreams as epiphenomena, accidental consequences of brain activity while the conscious control part is “switched off” during sleep. Imaging studies have helped to understand some of the mechanisms at play during dreaming but there are fundamental difficulties with research into dreaming: sleep “labs” are rather artificial environments and, in the end, much of this internal experience is dependent on self-report and, in turn, on memory. In that respect it has been argued that remembering or re-telling the dream is part of a process of conscious analysis which is useful in itself, if not dependent on the dream.

What about nightmares? There are the “wake up in a cold sweat remembering you forgot to answer yesterday’s email” ones – I have had a few of those and they can also occur during waking hours! Or the slightly more obscure and vivid ones, when you’re asleep? I mean the ones where you are in mortal peril or truly creepy ones featuring things like The Cornish Owlman. Yikes! Never mind that the Cornish Owlman who “terrorised the village of Mawnan” in the late 1970s and early 1980s, emitting, a “loud, owl-like sound” turned out just to be an owl. It’s still proper scary.

Tom_Paine's_nightly_pest Owlman

Dreams, nightmares… there is no doubt, as I said before, that we need sleep. Myself, I don’t think interpreting a dream has ever really helped me and there is scant evidence that it has for anyone else (beyond, again, self-report which is vulnerable to the memory issues I mentioned before). To quote Dumbledore, “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live”! But there is fun in interpreting your dreams. And people have dreams and often they want to know what they mean. So perhaps that is the purpose of dreams after all: to give us something unfathomable and intangible to remember, or try to remember, to remind us all that life and us can be a very uncertain, weird and sometimes scary affair.