Sidarta Ribeiro, in The Oracle of Night: The History and Science of Dreams, has written a book that artfully blends multiple disciplines of human experience, from sociology to biochemistry, in pursuit of its fundamental question: Why do we dream?
Ribeiro argues against the scientific “default” interpretation that dreams are random firings of neurons without meaning. Instead, Ribeiro finds meaning in dreams as nighttime simulations of the possible, finding hope in human control of that meaning. It’s a compelling argument as far as it goes.
But let’s go further. Dreams can be interpreted not merely as human projection but also as divine gift. Anyone who prays expecting an answer may ask how that answer might come, and in scripture God speaks through some dreams.
If we ask what dreams might mean as gifts of God, The Oracle of Night becomes a work of science that points beyond itself, all the way to the discipline of theology.
Many dreams described in the book are meaningful gifts. The only question is from whom the meaning comes. One example is the song “Yesterday,” originally by Paul McCartney and covered by thousands of others. In 2016, “Yesterday” was fourth on the BBC’s list of “The World’s Richest Songs,” having brought in 19.5 million in royalties.1 But at first, McCartney himself felt like it was someone else’s song.
In Chapter 12, “Sleeping to Create,” Ribeiro quotes McCartney:
“I woke up with a lovely tune in my head. I thought, ‘That’s great! I wonder what it is?’ … For about a month, I went round to people in the music business and asked them whether they had ever heard it before. … It became like handing something in to the police. I thought that if nobody claimed it after a few weeks, then I would have it.”2
This song was given by the dream, but McCartney captured it because of his years of music-making.3 How many songs did McCartney wake up with that weren’t worth remembering? He selected this tune, whether consciously or unconsciously, and participated in its creation. When he woke and ran to a piano, his hands flew to its unusual chord progressions automatically.
Then the cycle of variation and selection continued. McCartney’s song was slightly different each time he sang it, then more different each time another artist covered it.4 These variations begin with random fluctuations, but the randomness is imposed on an ordered shape or form and selected by a conscious agent. Even mistakes can become part of the whole. The result is not white noise, but living, breathing musical tradition in which we participate, with meaning.
Ribeiro follows McCartney’s example of “oneiric influence” with two religious examples: Albrecht Dürer’s watercolor of a dream he had as “a reverberation of the religious uncertainties of the Protestant Reformation,” and Marc Chagall’s pictures of Jacob dreaming of the ladder to heaven. Then Ribeiro changes the subject to human control, describing how Salvador Dalí used dreams to inspire his paintings.
God with a capital “G” appears in Ribeiro’s book more times than usual for a non-polemic science book, but still only a few times.5 At the end, Ribeiro details the techniques that we, like Dalí, might use to manipulate our dreams, including a section on lucid dreaming.6 But what if the experience of dreaming is interpreted, not as a simulation to control, but as a gift to receive?
I only ask because of Ribeiro’s own success in skeptically challenging the easy (but wrong) scientific answer that dreams are 1.) random and 2.) void of meaning. Ribeiro dismantles this view, held by the Nobelist Francis Crick, twice in the book.7 Technically speaking, he dismantles the second assertion but not the first:
“Perhaps it’s true that the electrical activity that reaches the cerebral cortex during sleep is diffuse, not very specific, maybe even random, as Francis Crick suggested. But that is not enough for us to conclude that it wipes away cortical memories the way rain erases a sandcastle on the beach. … It might even be the case that the drops of rain fall onto the valley at random, but it is the shape of the rock that determines their course.”
The “rock” in this metaphor is the memory contained in a pattern of firing neurons that survives the act of forgetting during sleep and is reinforced by the dream. Some memories persist beyond conscious control, much like musical earworms that repeat over and over, in the same way that “Yesterday” may still be playing in your head right now.
Ribeiro describes a model of dreams in which neuronal firing sifts through memories, rehearsing the past and simulating the future without risk, reinforcing a few memories while forgetting many more. Ribeiro’s metaphor moves beyond Crick’s 20th-century bias toward randomness to a 21st-century embrace of meaning derived from human experience and control.
In dreams, a welter of memories, or “day residue,” are rehearsed and recombined into possible futures. A few of these are selected by the brain, especially if they involve threat or reward (and therefore the neurotransmitter dopamine8). This is a process of “neural Darwinism”9 that physically strengthens neuronal connections, as “neurons that fire together wire together.”10
Your brain is remodeled by its dreams, but this remodeling is imperfect. “Each time a memory is re-remembered, it is partially reconstructed.”11 Ribeiro writes that dreams, like the memories that make them up, are “more a jam session than an exact copy, more vinyl than MP3.”12
Like random mutations that alter genes, random biochemical fluctuations can alter memories, and these happen all the time in dreams. Dreams recombine memories, making hotspots of variation analogous to recombination hotspots in genomes. This can lead to unconscious creations, like McCartney’s melody, that are part de novo, part selection, part inspiration, and part participation.
The default scientific assumption, like Crick’s, is that randomness must be meaningless. But ordered selection imparts meaning to randomness, whether in the evolution of species13 or in dreams. Like Ribeiro suggests, we can select and even control some outcomes, imparting meaning.
If we can do it, then God can too. God’s living and active voice speaks through scripture, nature, and experience. Dreams can combine all of these elements! As the song “Rainbow Connection” asks, “Have you been half asleep and have you heard voices? I’ve heard them calling my name.” God can speak through many such voices, but we have to discern and select which are God’s and which are the world’s.
God can also speak at many levels of volume: with thunder, with a still, small voice, or maybe even more quietly, by emphasizing one of many options from a randomly associating mind. It’s possible God worked in the third way in the formation of scripture itself.
In a recent lecture,14 my colleague Rob Wall spoke of the Holy Spirit, at work in the composition, canonization, and communication of scripture, as an invisible but powerful agent of selection. Rob’s point was that scripture was “God-breathed” not just when ink met parchment, but also when texts were weighed, selected, and canonized, and whenever readers receive the Word with the flash of recognition.
The Word of God is active in past, present, and future tense, strengthening our synapses and transforming our thoughts. As Rich Mullins sang in “Creed”: “I did not make it, no, it is making me.” Whether God breathed scripture as selection out of chaos or formation ex nihilo—through editing or dictation—makes no difference to its use for teaching, rebuking, and training. God speaks as God wills.
David Foster Wallace described all writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, as similar acts of either formation or selection. As Wallace wrote, both fiction and non-fiction are balancing acts “executed on tightropes, over abysses—it’s the abysses that are different. Fiction’s abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction’s abyss is Total Noise.”15
God might act as a fiction author, forming and speaking sounds out of silence. God might act as a non-fiction author, selecting and editing order out of chaos.16 Isn’t it interesting that scripture, in Wall’s view, was written in the same way as a non-fiction text? To me, this underscores scripture’s own reality.
One of the epigraphs to The Oracle of Night is a quote by Fernando Pessoa: “To read is to dream by another’s hand.”17To read and receive the Word of God, where God is both author and editor, is therefore to dream by God’s hand, and to let God’s living Spirit shape and transform your thoughts into the cruciform, kenotic pattern of Christ.
- Sidarta Ribeiro, The Oracle of Night: The History and Science of Dreams, trans. Daniel Hahn (New York: Pantheon Books, 2021), 218
- In fact, the Beatles were used by Malcolm Gladwell as a prime example of how a person needs to work for 10,000 hours to become an expert at something.
- Compare this to the zebra finch, who repeats a song in order to remember it, with extremely high fidelity, replaying as accurately as an MP3. (p.187)
- The history of dreams in the Bible and the church are discussed on pages 67-75, Abraham’s command to sacrifice Isaac is interpreted as a dream on page 155, and page 332 describes “neo-Pentecostal religions” promoting “ecstatic encounters with the Holy Spirit” as an affirmative answer to the question in Chapter 17’s title: “Does Dreaming Have a Future?”
- Ribeiro, The Oracle of Night, 365-368
- Ribeiro, The Oracle of Night, 27 & 287; see also Ribeiro’s argument against Daniel Dennett’s skepticism about the reality of dreams and consciousness on p. 334.
- Ribeiro, The Oracle of Night, 254: “Dreaming is desire because both are dopamine.”
- Ribeiro, The Oracle of Night, 303
- Ribeiro, The Oracle of Night, 178
- Ribeiro, The Oracle of Night, 330
- Ribeiro, The Oracle of Night, 186
- I speak to how the environment can predictably select activities from variable genes in my book A World from Dust.
- “’For It Seemed Good to the Holy Spirit and to Us’: A Wesleyan Pneumatology of Scripture,” the Paul T. Walls Lecture in Wesleyan Theology, Seattle Pacific University, November 10, 2021.
- David Foster Wallace, “Deciderization 2007–A Special Report.” Both Flesh and Not: Essays (2007): 299-317.
- This phrase comes from a chemistry Nobelist’s view on how random fluctuations can lead to dynamic molecular order in nature, see Prigogine, Ilya, and Isabelle Stengers. Order Out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature (New York, Bantam, 1984).
- P. vii, attributed to Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet