In Your Dreams

Photo illustration by Mark Riechers. Original images by Altınay Dinç and Javardh (CC0)

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Original Air Date: 
February 24, 2024

What’s the last dream you remember having? Some of us dream every night. But we’re in too much of a hurry to remember our dreams or think about them the next day. Others of us are dream-deprived. What if we embrace our dreams — and our night selves —  as a way to understand ourselves better, to connect to each other, even to lead a better life?

house at night

Psychologist Rubin Naiman says we’re not only sleep deprived, we are — perhaps more importantly — dream deprived. He tells us why we should get back to our dream states and stop living in such a wake-centric world.

a boat on water in dreams

Psychologist Kelly Bulkeley has been researching our night thoughts for many years, and keeps a dream journal himself. He talked with Steve Paulson about the spiritual wonder of dreams.

A woman flies

Dreams are funny, confusing and surprising in the world of cartoonist Roz Chast. And they are occasionally disturbing and maybe necessary to process both our everyday and most bizarre thoughts, she tells Shannon Henry Kleiber.


Annabel Abbs-Streets found a way to creatively and spiritually embrace her sleepless hours. She writes about what she discovered in a book called “Sleepless: Unleashing the Subversive Power of the Night Self.”


Show Details 📻
February 24, 2024
Full Transcript 📄

- It's To The Best of Our Knowledge, I'm Anne Strainchamps. Dreams come and go much of the night while we're asleep. Those strange flickering scenes of places that don't exist and things that haven't happened, most of them disappear as soon as we wake up, except for the big dreams.

- A big dream we all have them is a dream that you'll never forget. And I had this dream some years ago, a few weeks after my father passed away.

- This is psychologist and sleep expert, Rubin Naiman. He's a specialist in dreams.

- I was in an airport terminal and I was being chased by a man in a trench coat. I thought he was a Russian spy and he wanted to kill me. Running, running. It was a nightmare. I mean, I was scared to death and I end up running into a men's room, and he follows me. And he puts a gun to my head. And I turn around and I look at his face, it's my father. He reaches over and opens a bathroom stall, which is filled from the floor to the ceiling with chicken manure. And he says to me, "Put that in your pipe and smoke it."

- What do you do with that?

- Well, it's also what did that do with me?

- Yeah, right.

- It shook me up. And, you know, what I realized over time, and there were other related dreams, manure is a form of what we, in dream world, we call it nigredo. It's black, primal substance. It's mud and it's stuff that's pretty distasteful. But when it shows up in a dream, it's new growth. And so what I got was, he was cognizant that I was carrying a lot of stuff psychologically. And put that in your pipe and smoke, it is a metaphor for transforming. It's an alchemical transformation of this dark manure that I needed to keep growing and transform some of the darkness in my life.

- Hmm.

- It was a great blessing.

- I had a recurrent negative dream, dark dream that I never could figure out. I never knew when it would show up again.

- Hmm.

- The actual events changed, but the motif was always the same. I would be in my house and there would be some room that I hadn't really seen. That would lead to the backyard and the backyard it would turn out, had an enormous, enormous pool. Almost a subterranean hidden dark pool of water that was filled with noxious things, beings, poisonous plants, sewage. And there was this feeling of, I don't know what we will ever do with this. Nothing will ever drain this. It's here forever. I don't know what to do with it. And then I would wake up.

- Wow.

- It scared the hell out of me. It still scares me if I have it. I think it's telling me that there are dark, terrible things in my unconscious or subconscious that I'm not dealing with. Some large cancerous lesion hidden somewhere in my body. I don't know what to do with a scary dream like that.

- Well, as you're sharing that, your pool reminded me of the chicken manure. They're both nigredo, they're both shadow images. So Jung wrote a lot about shadow and he said, "Shadow is everything we wish not to be." But you know, the essence of shadow work is we find the most precious gem in this deep, dark, black compressed place. It's just considering the possibility that there may be something at the bottom of that pool that's really beautiful and valuable.

- Maybe instead of running away or slamming the door on the pool, maybe I approach.

- Maybe you go swimming

- Maybe. So I have wanted to talk with Rubin Naiman about dreams for years, eight years in fact. That's how long it's been since I heard him give a talk about why we are desperately in need of a dream renaissance, a collective return to dreaming. I remember some of what he said hit me so strongly that I actually jotted down a couple of quotations and I've been carrying them around in my phone ever since. I wanted to start by asking you about one, which is you said, "We are in the midst of a silent epidemic of REM sleep deprivation. Our culture isn't dreaming enough." Would you still say the same today?

- Oh, absolutely. Yeah. We are in the midst of a silent epidemic of dream loss. And in fact, it may well be that most of what we consider sleep loss is actually dream loss.

- Oh wow.

- And the reason for that is most insomnia occurs in the last part of the night, and that's when we're doing most of our dreaming.

- There's so much medical concern about America's sleep problems. The last I checked the CDC says, one out of three of us aren't sleeping enough. But the list of concerns is always the health risks, obesity and heart disease and early aging. You never see not dreaming enough or dream loss on that list, why not?

- That's a great question. Sleep medicine, sleep science has done a tremendous amount in teaching us about sleep. But they have forgotten the sleeper, the subjective experience of sleep. And if you have an evaluation by a sleep doctor, an overnight study or a face-to-face clinical interview, they will rarely ask you about your dreaming. And I think one of the reasons for that is there is a discomfort with the unconscious. And the loss of dreams by the way, the ramifications of that are pretty profound. In addition to some of what we attribute to sleep loss, you talked about cardiovascular problems. There are problems with memory associated with dream loss, but dreaming down regulates negative emotion. And Rosalyn Cartwright, who was a renowned dream researcher, made the point that dreaming was a kind of endogenous psychotherapy.

- Really?

- There's some fascinating parallels between what goes on in what I consider good therapy and what goes on in the dreaming brain or the dreaming psyche at night. And the bottom line is dreaming is an antidepressant, it downregulates mood disorders. So people who dream well are less depressed and they're less anxious during the day.

- Wow. So why would that be? I mean, from a neuroscience perspective, I've heard for years that dreaming is kind of like a meaningless side effect of REM sleep. It's just like the brain hiccup, but you're suggesting dreaming actually has a really important physiological purpose.

- Physiological, yes. And I would say even more important psychological and for lack of a better term, psychospiritual. You know, the backdrop to this is when we downplay the role of dreaming, and we've done that with sleep for a long time, what happens is waking dominates. And we are wake centric. It's similar to ethnocentrism. We believe that waking is the gold standard for consciousness. And if you have waking that is not modulated or tempered in a rhythmic fashion by sleep and dreams, it's runaway. And we are, as a culture, we're hyper aroused. This is sort of hidden in plain view. I was just in California and I used to live there and I love it. But, you know, you can't not speed on the freeway because everybody is going above the speed limit. And I think it's true with the psychological pace of life we're a hyper aroused culture.

- You know, you said there's some evidence that dreaming downregulates negative emotion and that dreaming is kind of the body's own built in form of psychotherapy.

- Yes.

- Which is really interesting because a lot of the medications that people take for depression, notably SSRIs suppress dreams, am I right?

- They do suppress dreaming. Antidepressants, anti-anxiety agents, there are roughly 30 million Americans using each of those. And there may be some overlap alcohol use disorder. We have roughly 10%, 30 million people with that. The use of anticholinergics medications also suppress dreaming. When you total all of that, we're looking at at least tens and tens of millions of people who have compromised dreaming at night.

- Wow. I know you're working on thinking about dream hygiene. That is ways to improve our dream lives. And I imagine those could benefit anybody, whether they're taking SSRIs or not. What are some of the things you'd suggest

- First on the list, not a surprise is that we have to sleep well in order to dream well. There's newer data on this that's fascinating. More important than the total number of hours you sleep is having regularity in your sleep schedule. So that's number one. I think we're sort of hinting at this, but looking at any ways you can replace REM suppressant agents is important. And if you can't, I think developing a personal relationship with dreaming with that part of oneself. And that may involve some dream journaling, maybe getting support in a community dream group. Really interesting things happen. I've run a lot of dream groups over the years and it's fascinating. When people come together, we typically don't bring our world identity. You know, I'm so and so, and I do this and I have three kids. People show up and they start sharing their dreams. And something really interesting happens over time. We have a sense of deep intimacy without knowing who we are in the world. But something else happens. And almost always, in a matter of two or three months, somebody will start to talk about a dream that they had mentioned to the group weeks ago. And, you know, when I talked about this dream, you know, it reminded me of that. And someone else will chime in and say, Hey, by the way, excuse me. That was my dream.

- Huh.

- And it sounds a tad psychotic, doesn't it? But there is something beautiful that happens around empathy. So when you look at dreaming itself, when we are in a dream, we become a lot more permeable. I can be me in the dream and I can be you, right? Independently of whatever we dream about, that experience of dreaming is practice and greater empathy. And it appears that that's carried into waking life. We have data on people who are participants in dream groups, and we know that that increases empathy, listening to each other's dreams. So back to the question of the impact on culture. By God, we're in a pretty divisive time nowadays. And, you know, we look at this as being primarily political and that's how it manifests. But I think, I think when we dream and we share dreams, we look at other, we connect with other dreamers, it takes us to a place of recognizing a deeper commonality among all of us. A deeper humanity, which is, it's hard to define, it's consciousness, you know?

- That's Rubin Naiman, a clinical psychologist and sleep and dream specialist who works at the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. Throughout history and across geographies, dreaming is something regular people and world leaders have in common. Dreams transcend language, age, experience, and religion. Psychologist Kelly Bulky, has been researching our night thoughts for years. And he keeps a dream journal himself. And he told Steve Paulson almost every culture, but our own has recognized dreaming as a source of spiritual wisdom.

- So it was the idea that dreaming is the window onto the soul.

- In some traditions, not all traditions believe in a soul, but if we talk about religions and spiritual traditions around the world, dreams are seen as a means of communicating and interacting with whatever the given culture believes to be sacred or divine.

- A window onto, or a way of connecting with another dimension of reality.

- Yeah.

- And I suppose some people, if they don't like the word soul, they might say it would be tapping into some sort of cosmic consciousness.

- Yeah, well, cosmic consciousness or perceiving deeper layers of reality. There's, in most traditions, stories and teachings and reports of dreams coming to leaders of the tradition, to mystics, to prophets, to kings. But there are also almost always reports as well of ordinary people having dreams and in fact, that's both the spiritual wonder of dreaming and also the danger in some cases that it's accessible to everybody.

- Right. Now, are you talking about certain kinds of dreams, what we would call big dreams?

- Yeah, well, the distinction between big and little dreams, that's a artificial distinction of course. But Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist, came up with that notion to give a way of thinking about the experiential distinction I think most people make between kind of ordinary day-to-day dreams that you probably wouldn't remember more than just beyond waking up, and other dreams that make a much deeper and longer lasting impact on memory. And those big dreams, I think involve a different kind of brain mind background that I think gives us a new way of looking at both dreams and religion.

- Are you saying something different happens at the neurological level with these big dreams?

- Well, I think that we have to infer that based on the observations, that even though these dreams are rare, they have powerful physiological impacts on the dreamers. And the kinds of dreams I'm talking about are intense chasing nightmares, extremely vivid dreams of falling or being paralyzed. Intense sexual dreams, vivid flying dreams, dreams of seeing deceased loved ones returning as if they were alive. I think we have to look at those kinds of dreams and say, just on the face of it, there's very likely something different going on at the level of brain mind functioning in those kinds of dreams. To me, I mean, getting more personal, I mean, that's a core aspect of any healthy religious or spiritual tradition that's stimulating that kind of openness to new ways of looking at things.

- So just following up on this, do you pay a lot of attention to your own dreams?

- Yeah. Oh yeah. I've kept the dream journal for, I don't know, 30 plus years. I'm trying to remember how far back. And most people in the study of dreams from whatever discipline, usually have some kind of personal dream journaling practice.

- These are important to you. This has helped shape your sense of what reality is by looking at your own dreams.

- Yeah, yeah. I mean, certainly I'd be doing something very different with my life if it weren't for dreams in sort of late adolescence, late teens, early twenties, where I was having recurrent nightmares and being chased and attacked and such, and nothing, nothing I could do could help me escape. And I found that just incredibly frustrating. And I read some, some books, I read some Freud, I read some Jung, current dream research science in the brain and such. And what I found was when I began thinking about my dreams with these new ideas in mind, the dreams began to change. The conflicts began to go in different directions, different things began happening. It seemed to me anyway, in response to my conscious attention. And so what I, I had this kind of uncanny feeling that once I began paying attention to my dreams, my dreams began paying more attention to me.

- I wanna come back to this question of the role that dreams have played in the origins of religions. And maybe we could get some examples as well. Are there pivotal people who help to shape particular religions that talked about their own dreams?

- Well, in the Abrahamic tradition of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the founding text, the book of Genesis, includes several vivid dream stories, dreams experienced by Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph that are scriptural texts for the members of all these traditions. And all of those dreams are very clear in indicating that dreaming is one of the ways that God speaks to his people. Islam is particularly interesting because Muhammad, we know a lot about his personal life and history, and he very clearly practiced dream incubation in the caves around places he was living in, present day Saudi Arabia, and had his original revelation, the clarion called to become the prophet while engaged in one of these long periods of time in a cave and...

- This was what has been called his night journey?

- Well, the night journey. So then in the Quran, there's a couple of references to his own dreams, one of which is in Surah 17, it's called the Night Journey. And it's debated among Muslim theologians, whether this was a dream, whether it was a physical journey of his body. They have kind of fundamentalist, metaphorical debates just like Christian theologians do.

- What about if we look at Eastern traditions, whether Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, do dreams play similar roles there?

- It is similar in some ways, but very different in others. It's interesting. And Buddhism like Christianity has a conception dream at its start, just like we find in the New Testament. In the book of Matthew, lots of talk of several dreams in which Joseph and Mary are informed about the special child they're about to bear. In Buddhism, there's a beloved story about Buddha's mother, queen Maya, and how she had a dream in which incredible elephant walks around her and taps her on the stomach with his trunk. And there it is, she's pregnant with, with the Buddha. And this is a case where the tradition recognizes the power of dreaming as a source of new creation. And so this complex of dreaming and pregnancy and birth and a spiritual savior, there's something symbolically satisfying about that, that's at the core of Buddhism. But Buddhism also has one of the toughest stories I think about dreaming in religious history in some ways. When Buddha is, the forties, the Buddha, when he's a prince, he's married, he has a year old son, but he's decided I have to go off and find the path to enlightenment. I have to leave all of this behind. And the night before he leaves, he's decided he's gonna go, his wife has a terrible nightmare of her hair falling out and mountains crumbling around her and everybody dying, and every horrible thing that could happen. And she wakes up and she tells her husband this dream. And by all conventional standards, this would be interpreted as a bad dream, as a bad omen, something bad's gonna happen. And instead Buddha says, that's a great dream. That's a really good dream. That means good things are gonna happen because all that bad stuff is falling away and that's gonna allow new things to happen. And sure enough, the next day off he goes and leaving his wife and and child behind. And so it's a wonderful teaching really in Buddhism because that is the teaching that, yes, to see this world crumble away is indeed a step towards an understanding that this world is not something to which one should attach oneself and that you should grow beyond that, so...

- It may be good for the Buddha, I'm not sure about for his wife.

- Exactly. And so it's a case of paradoxical interpretation where people look at a human and say it's the opposite of what it looks like. It illustrates, I think, in some ways better than anything else, how Buddhism looks to dreaming as a source of insight into the ephemerality of everything.

- That was psychologist Kelly Bulkeley talking with Steve Paulson. Kelly directs the sleep and dream database, and he's the author of "Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion." And more recently, "The Spirituality of Dreaming." It's To The Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

- Ever since I was a kid, I was interested not only in the content of my dreams, but in the fact that one dreamed at all.

- Cartoonist and writer Roz Chast.

- Why didn't I switch off when I fell asleep, like TV channels did at the end of their programming day.

- This is Channel 5, New York, goodnight.

- What was this mishmash of stuff that projected itself inside my head, like my own weird theater that showed nonsensical movies on a nightly basis. I've never had a dream in which I did not appear. Even ones in which I am in disguise or merely an observer of some sort of dream drama. I suspect this is true of everyone. According to many people, dreams as a conversational topic should be avoided, along with aches and pains, only shrinks are interested and maybe not even them. Maybe it's because as Heraclitus once wrote, "The awake share a common world, but in sleep, we each turn to a world of our own." This private world aspect means that something I might learn in a dream, like I can fly by jumping in the air, going horizontal and swimming my way down Broadway, hovering 10 feet off the ground might not be scientifically accurate. There's an added problem... Attempting to tell one's dream as one remembers it is almost impossible. We're imposing our waking consciousness on something that is very different. Dreams are not only notoriously ephemeral, but they have a different kind of logic, a different kind of language. I think of them as raw material.

- And maybe that's the secret behind Roz Chast's uncannily perceptive cartoons. She's the iconic artist of more than a thousand New Yorker cartoons. And her new graphic memoir, "I Must Be Dreaming", gives us a glimpse inside her own, remarkably prolific dream life. Shannon Henry Kleiber, who produced this hour, sat down to talk with her.

- So you were aware of your dreams at a really young age. How young and what were your first dreams?

- I remember having a dream about being just on the verge of biting into an Oreo cookie. And it was very, very real. I must have been about four. And then I woke up and I was sad.

- Because it wasn't real?

- It wasn't real. It was like I was just about to eat this Oreo cookie and it seemed so real. And then I woke up and it was, well, what was that?

- It wasn't exactly what you were expecting.

- No.

- Which is something about dreams, right? You don't know exactly what it means.

- You don't know what it means, and you don't know what's gonna happen, which is so bizarre considering that they're coming from inside your own head. It's like I'm making them up, but they're still unfolding in as surprising way as my non dream life unfolds.

- What kind of dreams do you have now? I've heard that you are a worrier. Are you a worrier?

- Oh yeah. I have all kinds of worry dreams. And then I have just completely nonsensical dreams. I think when I started thinking about my dreams, some of them just seemed so funny that they kind of, they weren't funny exactly in the way cartoon is funny, but they were still funny. I mean, I've occasionally woken up laughing from a dream because there's something about it that just makes me laugh. In addition to the fact that it's surprising and kind of peculiar.

- Do you write them down? How do you remember them?

- I have a little pad by my bedside, and if something is really good, I will try to write it down right away. Or I'll tell my husband. 'Cause otherwise, you know, dreams are ephemeral. They really do, just, if you don't, they just evaporate.

- Even before you did this book on dreams, you were very interested in your own dreams.

- Oh, very. You know, at different times in my life, I've kept dream journals. I kept one for a long time when I was a teenager, 15, 16, 17. The dreams that I write down now, I write them down thinking about sort of cartooning them. But these were just like these narratives that just went on for pages and pages and pages. And I look at them now and it's like, oh my God, I really could remember maybe better.

- Wow.

- It's definitely a topic I've been interested in for a very long time, along with different states of consciousness and this state of... Like, I don't really know, it sounds like a sort of stupid thing to say, but I'm not quite sure what this is either.

- Is this real?

- Yeah. Is this real? You know, to be sort of aware and Oh, I'm seeing, well, what is seeing and just sort of odd, nonsensical sort of thoughts.

- Yeah, I love how you bring in Freud and Jung into your book because consciousness and dreams have a history and a psychoanalysis history. So what do you think of both of those?

- The big guys?

- Ideas? Yeah.

- The second part of the book is called "A Brief Tour Through Dream Theory Land." Because I didn't want to write like a long, long, there's tons of books about all these, you know, about Freud, about Jung, about what the ancient Greeks believed, what the Egyptians believed. Wondering what dreams mean, what they are, that goes really far back as written history. I am probably more of a Jungian. There's definitely things I don't think are true. I don't think that dreams are necessarily predictive, but they give us insight into our own consciousness, into what we're thinking about, which is more personal unconscious, which would be Freud. And that they connect us all at some deeper level, which would be more of a Jungian thought.

- The connection part is interesting. So what part of the Jungian thought really resonates with you?

- The collective unconscious. This idea that our consciousnesses are not just these little separate sort of things, but that they're all connected to something bigger that we don't really know. It's interesting 'cause one of the other things that Heraclitus theorized about dreams was that to him, they were evidence that life and death were not opposites, but different points along a continuum. And I thought that was really interesting. And, you know, I don't know, maybe it's wishful thinking, but it resonated with me. I'm not a religious person, but it did resonate with me.

- I like that. And I also like Freud's, he talks about it as the day's residue.

- Oh yeah. Day residue.

- Yeah, day residue.

- Yeah. Yeah. That I have a dream in here. Maybe Danny DeVito or something. Like, I don't know why I'm dreaming, I don't think about him that often, but maybe I saw...

- Danny DeVito popped up into one of your dreams for no particular reason.

- Right, for no particular reason. And it's possible that I was watching TV in an ad for, you know, "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" came on and I wasn't completely aware of taking it in, but somewhere it just went in there and popped out in a dream.

- But I also think you have such an incredible sense of humor and dreams are funny, right? You really bring this up. Why are dreams so funny?

- I think that the combinations of events are sometimes hilarious. And sometimes the word events, it's like, I had a dream where this interior designer told me very seriously, she said, cushions are the juice of the house. And it just almost makes sense. It really doesn't make any sense at all. But it sounds kind of close to something that might make sense. I mean, just look at it a little from the side maybe. You know, but I love stuff like that, you know.

- It's just a little off.

- It's just a little off.

- Yeah. Like why is one thing funny and one thing not funny? Why does something make you laugh? And sometimes it's just that kind of like, just a little bit off. It's just like...

- But still true,

- But still true. And often in this surprising way, dreams are, you know, this gets back to what we were saying at the beginning, that even though they're coming from our own heads, it's still this surprise. Why does my foot have 11 toes, you know? It's like, why did I think that? I don't know.

- It's surprising. Yeah. And it's as much fun as it is, we're talking about dreams and it's really fun. A lot of people don't like to talk about their dreams, right? It's kind of considered, maybe because we're revealing too much about ourselves.

- Oh, maybe. But people reveal all kinds of stuff about themselves that you know, like, I didn't need to know much more than dreams. I actually, I don't exactly know. It is true though, that dreams are famous for notorious, I should say, for being a bad conversational topic. And I think part of it is the way sometimes people tell their dreams is that the way they unfold is not structured the way like a traditional narrative is. It's very, and then, and then and then. And then this happened, but then suddenly I was over there and it can...

- It doesn't tie up in a more, a handy moral or...

- No, nothing. It can be very boringly episodic. I think that there's enough information in a dream that if you want, you can tell it in a way where it is a little bit of a story. The dreams that I wrote up, some of them are four panels or six panels or something like that. I say in the introduction that these are filets of dreams because some parts of a dream I cannot tell. Not because I don't want to, but because it's just too convoluted. It's just too weird. It's just maybe too personal or this is just like a part that I can tell.

- Or you might not remember. I might not remember. Yeah, yeah, it's just...

- So, it's hard to talk about because you can't say, oh, here's this thing I learned, or here's the end of the story or the structure, yeah.

- Right. Or you might just say, and then I was in a room, but it was really weird. And then the person says, well, what do you mean? And you go, I don't know, it was just weird. It was a chair. Well, what did the chair look like? I don't remember, but it was a weird chair.

- This is so perfectly your sense of humor Roz, right?

- Well, there's definitely some kind of intersection with it, for sure.

- Yeah. Because your cartoons, you can look at them and say, oh, this is what this is about. Sort of.

- Sort of. Yeah. Yeah. A little... Yeah.

- Do you have a list of ideas?

- Sort of. I have in my studio something I call the idea box.

- Oh, a box. Wow!

- A box.

- A literal box?

- A literal box. It's a shoe box. And if you looked at it, it would look like an insane person's ravings. Because I do have a little notebook where I sometimes write down ideas that I carry with me in my purse, but sometimes I'm someplace and I don't have that notebook with me. So I'll just take any old piece of paper, like this piece of paper, and I'll jot down something and then it will go in the idea box. Or sometimes when I'm working on one idea, suddenly there's an idea storm and I get these other ideas, but then I don't wanna lose them. So then I write them on a piece of typing paper, whatever paper is handy. It's almost like writing down a dream, you know? There are, there's definitely overlap when working on a project, working on cartoons. I know Murakami, the novelist, Japanese novelists, I quote him in my book, he talks about how writing a novel is like this kind of purposeful dreaming because you're really, you're letting your thoughts just kind of like move through your head with, for him it would be in service to this novel that he has some concept of. And for me, I'm looking for jokes.

- I think that really is a thread in a lot of your cartoons that it's something so many people relate to when they see it, but it's hard to talk about. And you grab that common experience and you illustrate it and people look at it and say, oh yeah.

- It gets back to that thing of what is acceptable to talk about, what is not acceptable. Apparently people can talk about work, they can talk about golf, they can talk about like their children. And those are all like acceptable things. But I don't mind it when people tell me about their, you know, their toenail got infected and then like, I don't know, maybe I'm like ghoulish or something, it's like, ooh...

- That would make a good...

- You know?

- A good picture.

- Yeah. What happened? You know, like how did you toenail get infected? And that happened to a person who lived in my building once and I remember you could hear, you know, it was just like, I guess my criteria for what people can talk about or can't talk about is maybe different from what other people. I don't know.

- We're lucky that you think that way, 'cause then we get to see your cartoons. Well Roz, thank you so much. This is lovely. And do you have any other dream you'd like to just leave us with that you either wrote about in the book or that you've had these days?

- Well, I will tell you a dream in which I saved humanity. There was a water shortage on earth and I had this genetic defect where I made, you know, copious amounts of drool. So I saved people, but you had to take my drool. And what I said to people was, take my drool or die. So yeah.

- I will never forget that.

- Yeah. And cushions are the juice of the house. That's the other very important fact.

- Deep and funny.

- Well, hmm. I don't know about deep, but hopefully funny.

- Both, both. Well thank you Roz.

- Thank you.

- It's lovely to talk with you.

- That was Roz Chast who has published more than a thousand cartoons in the New Yorker, talking with Shannon Henry Kleiber. Next up, more on how to embrace your night self. It's To The Best of Our Knowledge, from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

- In the space of six weeks, I lost my stepfather and then I lost my father. Then we lost a puppy that died of Parvo virus. And then there was another death, my daughter's friend, 17-year-old boy took his own life. It was just a truly devastating time. And I think we all suffered. But I took it upon myself to try hold the ship together.

- Writer Annabel Abbs Street.

- So during the day I was really, really busy. You know, the household things and the funerals and the obituaries and everything else. But the night suddenly opened up in a way I wasn't expecting. I was very familiar with being awake at night and that dreadful tossing and turning and the anxiety, but went with it. And I just thought, oh, okay, I'm just gonna be awake all night and this is gonna be really grim. I'm gonna have to go and get some sleeping pills and sort this out somehow. So initially I would just lie awake and cry, actually, I'd lie awake and cry. And that was very cathartic. But then the night started to change and I started to find it just the most wonderful place. It was like a different country that I would go to. And I sort of became a different person, which I referred to as my night self. It was her time. And of course she's me, but she's the light version of me.

- Every woman I know has had trouble sleeping at one time or another. When we're pregnant, or nursing, when our kids are sick, when we're stressed at work, when we go through menopause, when the dog throws up on the bed, when we're grieving, sometimes just because the moon is full. Actually, I don't know many women who can reliably count on eight hours of uninterrupted sleep every night. But Annabel Abbs Streets found a way to embrace those sleepless hours. Inspired by the history of women artists and writers, some of whom did their best work during bouts of insomnia. She started using her night hours to draw, to sketch, to write poetry, even to go on night walks. She writes about what she discovered in a book called "Sleepless: Unleashing the Subversive Power of the Night Self."

- We all know that when we wake up at night, we're a little bit different. And most of us are familiar with a sort of a ruminating self, that voice of regret and remorse that goes round and round. But what I had learned from studying all of these women in the past was that they were able to dial down that voice by drawing or writing or star gazing or going out and looking for strange nocturnal insects. So sometimes they only have a period of insomnia. And what's really interesting at Lee Krasner, for example, the painter, when you look at the work that those women create during the night, it was completely different from the work they created when they were working normal hours during daylight. So Lee Krasner is a very good example.

- The widow of Jackson Pollock, right?

- That's right. The widow of Jackson Pollock. So she stopped sleeping for about three years when she was sort of 51. It was probably the menopause. And first of all, she thought, oh, I'll walk my dogs. And she would go out with her dogs and walk and walk and she still couldn't sleep. So she just decided to embrace it. She would paint these huge, huge canvases through the night. But she decided that she couldn't bear to use color when it was sort of dark outside. So she completely changed her palette. And she only painted in three colors, really sort of all shades of white and brown. And she calls these paintings, her night journeys.

- I love that you've talked about that concept, the night self that you came up with, which is such a, a beautiful poetic term, though. I know you also meant it quite literally.

- Yeah, you've got the stillness, you've got the silence, and you've got that sort of sensory deprivation in a way because you can't see. And of course when you can't see your other senses start to bloom. So I really liked exploring the way that my hearing changed, became more acute and my sense of smell became more acute. But of course, I also discovered from this new research that the brain rewires for nocturn, for night. So when the darkness comes, yeah, all sorts of pathways in our brain, some will shut down and some will open up. And that seemed to be why so many of us in the past and so many now, and men and women, often find it a really creative time. So it's not just the silence and the lack of distraction, but it's also that your brain is working in a very different way and making very different connections and sort of dipping in and outta your memory in a way that doesn't always happen during the day.

- I found this so interesting that we are physiologically different at night. There's a cascade of neurochemical changes, but then you also wrote, it seems like the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that monitors and keeps us on task. At night it seems like it's almost like a muscle that gets kind of tired and lets go a little bit, becomes less controlling.

- Yeah, the prefrontal cortex is the most evolved part of the brain. It's a real command and control center. But in women, the prefrontal cortex is bigger and more active.

- Really?

- Yeah. This was discovered I think four, five years ago. A bunch of scientists, you know, did all these studies and measured the female prefrontal cortex. And there it was, you know, particularly active, particularly vigorous, keeping us all in check, which I think is maybe why we have, often, and I'm generalizing here, we'll have a much stronger inner critic. The inner critic that says, you can't do that. That's not your place. That is more marked in women. So at night, when that bit closes down, I think, my suspicion is that for women there are sudden opportunities to think in a less judgmental way, judgmental of ourselves, but also in a less sort of circumscribed way.

- You know, you're making me think that we have in some ways forgotten how to sleep. We have one contemporary modern idea of sleep. You go into a room, you lie in a bed, you close your eyes, you fall asleep, and you wake up when it's morning. And if you don't sleep that way, you go get a drug that will help you sleep that way. And it seems like in the past, people had much richer, more varied set of relationships with the night and with sleep.

- I think they did. So I spoke to quite a few anthropologists while I was working on the book. And I spoke to one man who had lived in the Amazon for 12 years with a small community of indigenous people. And his experience of sleep with them was completely different. So everyone slept together, no one sleeps on their own. And he was saying the idea, the western idea, that you go into a bedroom on your own, as most of us do, or with a partner if you are lucky, that just wouldn't happen. So everyone sleeps together, all communally. And so you are always hearing the sounds of people breathing, all the wind 'cause you're not inside. And then the other thing he said, which I found fascinating, was that whenever he woke up, he said there were always a group of people, different people, depending on the hour, but there were always a group of people who are sitting up by the fire having a hot drink, and just talking very quietly. He said, no one sleeps in this eight hour stretch.

- You know, it's interesting how afraid we are of the dark. And I understand that. I mean, probably going way back evolutionarily. The predators come out in the dark. You don't wanna be out there.

- Yeah. So there are ways of experiencing the night. So I would take out a mattress onto my roof. I've got a little tiny slip of roof just outside my bedroom that I could pull one of my kids' mattresses. I could get it out of the window and make myself, I made myself proper little bed, mattress, duvet, pillows. And I would sleep out off and on through the summer. Which makes me sound quite a strange person. But I absolutely loved sleeping under the stars.

- Were you able to sleep when you were outside? What was the experience of being awake outside in the dark?

- It was the most, you should try it, Anne. It's the most magical experience. So long as you feel safe. What I found was that you fall asleep very quickly. Your mind is instantly in a different mode. So instead of lying there and sort of thinking, oh, what must I do tomorrow, or ruminating, you just look up at the stars and it's so magical and you start spotting stars and you fall asleep very quickly. So that would happen to me. I fall asleep ridiculously early. And then you wake up because it's outside and suddenly it's cold or dewy or whatever. You wake up and you look up at the stars and you think, gosh, this was the sky that my grandmother and great-grandmother and great-great-great grandfather, they all saw these same stars and the moon in this phase. And the stars, they've just been there for millennia. And there's something very, very reassuring and comforting about that. Yes, my night self is here and the night is with me.

- I know you began to really call into question how much we've come to rely on artificial light and how much of the night we've lost. Have you ever tried doing without it for periods of time? Or are there ever times when you think I just, I need the lights off?

- Yes, yes, yes. I do like to have very, very low lights in the evening. Ideally just candles. But I'm sitting almost in the dark now. The tragedy of course is that most people will never see the night sky that I was able to sleep under on my little mattress. Because for most people, if you live in a city you can no longer see stars. And some cities, the light pollution is so bad you can barely see the moon. My grandparents didn't have electricity in the 1950s, so it's less than a hundred years that we've had this very bright level of artificial light. And I was really intrigued, going back and reading all these accounts of women. I was, I was, I was amazed at how many of them went out walking at night on their own.

- Really? That seems risky.

- Yes!

- We think that's very risky. But they weren't privy to the endless headlines and stories. And of course some of them are almost sort of pre-gone really, and they would often go out and go for a moon. Even Jane Austen said our favorite walks were at night under a full moon.

- Wow.

- So I think that the more light we have in our lives, the less comfortable we are being in darkness.

- And maybe the less creative we are if darkness seems to enhance creativity because we actually think differently in the dark.

- And possibly it's why so many of us are craving a more, a more spiritual life, because that would've just been there. You know, my grandmother would've gone out and looked out of her window every night and seen the Milky Way.

- Yeah. This has been lovely talking with you. Thank you. And I will go out for a night walk tonight because of this conversation. So thank you.

- Aw. Well I hope you enjoy it.

- Thanks. And that was Annabel Abbs Street. Her book is "Sleepless: Unleashing the Subversive Power of the Night Self". To The Best of Our Knowledge is produced in Madison, Wisconsin by Shannon Henry Kleiber, Charles Monroe-Kane, Mark Riechers and Angela Bautista. Our technical director and sound designer is Joe Hardtke with Sarah Hopefl, sprinkling a little extra Pixie dust. Additional music this week by SRAT and Blue Dot Sessions. Our executive producer is Steve Paulson. And I'm Anne Strainchamps. Happy dreaming.

- PRX.

Last modified: 
February 28, 2024