Electric Dreams

Evolution of the Dream
(From "How To Fly")

  Linda Lane Magallón 

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Magallón, Linda Lane (2004 July). Evolution of the Dream (From "How to Fly"). Electric Dreams 11(7).

If paleoecological studies identify an ancestral threat that occurred with high frequency in the ancestral environment and posed a significant selective pressure on ancestral humans... then we should find that the same theme is frequently simulated...during dreaming.
 -- Antti Revonsuo

Flying dreams have been found across the world wide and down through recorded history. There are even cave paintings that seem to illustrate the vision of human flight. Of all dreams, flying has one of the best claims to be called "universal," although I doubt that an alien from Alpha Centuri would agree. With our species-specific myopia, we apply such terms with an appalling lack of concern for other corporeal life. It's not clear if the rest of the creatures on this planet have flying dreams. But I'd be willing to bet that birds do. After all, it's their day residue!

But not ours. So why flying dreams? Why not, say, a plethora of dreams about being consumed by fire or burrowing through the soil or any one of a zillion other possibilities? Is there something in our human heritage that reveals the hidden sources of such common dreams? Yes, I believe there is. But even though I'm a researcher of mutual dreams, I don't think we need to hypothesize a "collective unconscious" to explain the phenomenon. This is not a dip in the shallow sea of psychological complexes or a Rorschach rumination. This type of dream is forged in the chain that links us to our basic building blocks. I'm talking about human DNA.

The Aquatic Ape

There is a theory that sometime in the distant past, our ancestors lived in an era of warm, shallow seas. The ice melted, the water rose, creating islands surrounded by ocean. We lived by the ocean; we were formed by the ocean.

There are several living examples of mammals that have returned to the sea: dolphins, porpoises and whales, to name a few. Others live at the water's edge, becoming sleek and building up a layer of fat in order to better adjust to the water temperature and to become buoyant. Now, obviously, we never became mermaids, but, according to this theory, we did shift in that direction.

Like other sea-edge creatures, we straightened out and elongated. We lost most hair, except on our heads, the part we poke out of the water in order to breathe. Two of our limbs, the legs, stretched to touch the bottom while the other two helped us retain our balance in the waves. While we waded and paddled through the surf, seeking crustaceans, fish and more, we probably kept our children close to us. So our infants are comparatively chubbier than other primates. Maybe we even birthed our infants in the water. Even today babies are able to swim, not merely before they're able to walk, but even before they can crawl. Babies have a swimming reflex, and breath-holding and diving reflexes as well. All of us have the ability to close nasal passages and throat and to hold our breaths, a skill needed for deep diving. We weep salt tears and copulate face to face. The seaside habitat may also have helped us develop the soft palate, along with our unique throat, vocal tract and resonant nasal structure, enabling us to enunciate words. And sing.

As we stretched to become Homo Erectus, we had to learn to walk on only two feet. This is fine when we are in the water. But we pay the price when we step onto land. Standing erect means shifting weight from four limbs to two. Large amounts of weight on small amounts of body places stress on knee and hip joints plus lower back. Our upright stance places more gravitational pressure on heart, abdomen and lungs, which have to work harder than before to pump blood and move food and oxygen around the body. Muscles must compensate for our upright posture, creating tension and tension headaches. We literally feel more than we ever did before, more weight, more pressure, more gravity, especially when we become sedentary creatures.

Reefs surrounding tropical islands can keep out the more dangerous ocean predators. Stretching out on our backs in the warm sun, bobbing in the water, is an experience of euphoria, very similar to the warm floating sensation of the womb. But we weren't in the womb, we had movable limbs. We could paddle. We could tread water. We could dive, flying through the water, until the air in our lungs naturally allowed us to ascend like bubbles to the top. To our nirvana of sweet, salty air. Upward was life. But the trip to and from was ecstatic, too. Even better, the buoyancy means we wouldn't have to worry about falling. We were supported, surrounded. Gravity didn't hold it's usual sway. Pain, pressure, stress was replaced by relaxation. We felt good. Floating in the sea, we enjoyed the lull of the waves as our bodies swayed in the surf.

Thus, our instincts to hide or flee were developing concurrently with our ability to float and fly. Our fear of falling was more than a fear of gravity; it was a thwarting of natural support provided by the medium of water.

So, in our dreams, we hover in free fall. We enjoy ourselves soaring and diving in an ecstatic echo of the ancient past. We're shocked when we fall. We wonder what happened to that warm, floating sensation that's supposed to buoy us up.

Nice story, isn't it? Unfortunately, recent findings have revealed that it's largely untrue. A good portion doesn't "hold water," but some of it does. Water still played a crucial role in our evolution, as we will see. But first, let's look at its sister theory: the one on very dry land.

Flight or Fight on the Savanna

The most publicized explanation of evolution has life moving ever upward, from the bottom of the sea, out of the ocean, slithering, stalking, gliding, soaring towards the sky. Our mammalian ancestors were humble ground dwellers. At first. But there's a strong indication that, like many of our primate cousins, we took to the trees. And then the climate changed, the trees gave way to grasslands. We had to come down out of the trees and forage for food.

Standing, walking on two feet, is more precarious that four feet. But being out of balance has its advantages if we direct the course of our natural propensity to fall. If we fall headlong, then break the fall with one leg, then another, we move ourselves forward, faster and faster. We run!

The headlong stride is helped by growing longer limbs. Longer legs makes us better runners than short, squat legs. There's less time spent on the ground. The forward momentum helps counter gravity's pull. Arms in good proportion to the length of our legs means that, if we stumble, we can cartwheel or tumble on the ground, then rise and keep going.

Running, running, running, looking desperately for safety up a tree trunk, but finding none on the savanna. Now, that's scary! And so, eons later, we run in our dreams, pursued by frightening critter or human monster, hoping to get airborne, but failing to find an altitude high enough to avoid grasping hands or toothy jaws. Another instinct has been honed to a fever pitch.

Flight or fight doesn't mean literal flying, it means fleeing, getting away as quickly as we can. It's an instinctual preparation of the body for an active motor response to threat. Heart action increases, blood pressure rises, respiratory rate goes up.

Being chased is by far the most typical theme in the recurring dreams of both children and adults today. Flying dreams often begin when a dreamer is being attacked and discovers, with astonishment, that it is possible to escape by flying away. How could we have flown in our ancestral environment? Well, hopefully we could still leap up into some of the dwindling number of trees. And when we stopped running, and our blood pressure fell, we might feel a "floating" sensation.

But the best bet for "flying" is the result of running. When we leave the scary scenario far behind, running becomes, not escape, but enjoyment. Even today, runners can get a "high" by using forward momentum to defy gravity with every flowing interim between steps. So, flee during the day, fly at night.

Ah, the runners of the plains! Makes for another good tale of the origins of our upright stance. Again, not well supported by fossil evidence.

Falling From the Tree Tops

Recent palaeoanthropological discoveries paint a different picture of early apes. Trees actually were part of the picture. In terms of predators, they were a comparatively safe place to spend the night. However, at the top of the forest, we'd be at the mercy of gravity. A momentary lack of vigilance, a single slip, could mean certain death. Hyper-awareness of our location in space would have become, not a conscious act, but a necessary instinct, adjusting our attitude automatically. Baby could rock-a-bye, curled up in a fetal position, in a nest of twigs and leaves, on a tree bough swaying in the wind. But baby would fall when venturing over the edge. Even today, the greatest cause of infant death among our cousin chimpanzees is falling from the treetops.

Our powerful urge-to-life became so deeply embedded in our bodies that the least sensation of falling can rouse us from the sleep state. Fear of plummeting earthward haunts our dreams more than a million years after we were forced to trade arboreal existence for life on the ground. Thus, falling dreams are simulations of an ancient concern, with real consequences. They are easily activated, frequently repeated scripts designed by natural selection to be released in specific conditions. They are biological defense mechanisms the evolved in an environment where the threat of falling recurred over and over again for hundreds of thousands of years.

This very long evolutionary history left a lasting mark on our dream production system. The system will make an attempt to describe current concerns using basic materials imported from our ancestral environment. The script will be reenacted whether or not we have actually encountered situations comparable to our ancient threats. We don't have to literally fall from a tree or cliff to have a falling dream. We just have to feel like we are.

Getting Smart in the Swamp

DNA evidence shows that, some 80,000 years ago, the path of humans took some of them out of Africa, across the Red Sea and into what is now Yemen. Their migration continued along the edge of the Indian Ocean to Australia and beyond. Before boats and rafts assisted in that trek, passage was by wading and swimming through shallow water from one nearby land mass to another. How could this be? Aren't we just land creatures? Perhaps not.

About 4 million years ago, water flooded the area where our ancestors lived, probably isolating them on several volcanic islands. The old sources of food in the trees and on the ground were soon depleted. We had to learn to survive at the water's edge. Most apes aren't very fond of water; some are clearly afraid of it. But food is a tremendous motivator. Since the main food source was in the water, that was where we had to go.

The earliest hominids were semi-aquatic wading apes, foraging in an environment that included forest, meadow, marshland and possibly the seaside. We were aquarboreal. All apes can stand and walk upright at least some of the time. As tree-dwellers we had already developed hands that can easily grasp limbs and leaves. We could stand on the ground and pick fruit and insects off the lower branches. To wade in water, using hands to gather food, we needed to stand squarely on two feet. Our famous cousin, "Lucy," had extra wide feet (an attribute that frogs and salamanders share).

The riverside swamps and seaside marshes have predators just as dangerous as the grasslands and the forests, but they tend to be of the sneakier type: spiders, snakes, crocodiles. We'd have to be very alert to spot them (crocodiles are quite capable of stealth). Since predators roamed freely, we still had plenty of need to run in panic and leap for the trees. But if our infants fall from the tree tops over waterways, they won't sink, if they're pudgy enough. They can float. This might have been just enough time to grab them before the predators attacked.

For all the dangers and fears, our change in diet turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The food we were gathering (fish and seafood) are linked with brain growth. As we got smarter, we could outwit predators better. Become the hunter instead of the hunted. During arboreal life, we had developed a hyper-awareness of position in three-dimensional space. This served us well when we entered the water. We waded, then swam, then learned to dive. Tree, land or waterways, we're built to move. It's healthy for us. Our children still remember this imperative. They have a lot of spirit and energy to keep in motion.

Eventually, we grew into a new creature with a huge neocortex. Such an advancement results in the development of advanced tool use, intricate social behaviors and a complex spoken language. Finally, we had the ability to *talk* about our dreams. Especially those intensely powerful dreams that have us moving swiftly, fleeing for our lives.

With a plentiful food source there was more time for leisure. Time to lay on our backs and look skyward, at the birds soaring through the air. The sky was freedom; it had few, if any predators to threaten our existence. When we closed our eyes, we could retain the image, the memory of the birds in flight.

Still, it was not an idyllic world. In addition to predators, there was illness and injury. Like other animals, we seek out plants that numb pain (and often give us a high, besides). Floating sensations from mind-bending chemicals imbibed during the day can attach to our memories of flight and build flying dreams at night.

Evolutionary Dreams

In evolutionary terms, therefore, flying has its origins in two main instincts: escape from predators and escape from pain. In those strange dreams that reprise our frights, our fights and our flights. In those euphoric dreams that are lifted by a medicinal high. In either case, the best scenario replaces an extremely bad sensation with a good one. We're motivated to go beyond the panic and agony, all the way to a peak experience. In other words, there's a reward at the end of hurt and fear. In time, we learn we can get the same high sensation without using plants. And  without having to go through the pain and strain.

In our dreams we float in ecstasy or run until we fly. Flying helps us flee, but not from ourselves. Dream flying is bred from an urge to keep the body from harm, to take it along for the ride. Thus flying is the unification of mind, spirit and body. Now that's freedom!

  • Hutchinson, Michael. The Book of Floating. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1984.
  • Kuliukas, Algis. River Apes. www.riverapes.com (3/04).
  • Mavromatis, Andreas. Hypnogogia: The Unique State of Consciousness Between Wakefulness and Sleep. New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1987.
  • Morgan, Elaine.The Aquatic Ape: A Theory of Human Evolution. New York: Stein and Day, 1982.
  • The Real Eve. Discovery Communications, 2002.
  • Revonsuo, Antti. "Did Ancestral Humans Dream For Their Lives?," Sleep and Dreaming: Scientific Advances and Reconsiderations, Pace-Schott, Edward F., Mark Solms, Mark Blagrove and Stevan Harnad (Eds.) Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003, 275-293.
  • Revonsuo, Antti. The Reinterpretation of Dreams: An Evolutionary Hypothesis of the Function of Dream. http://goodelyfe.healingwell.com/dreams/Dr%20ar.htm (3/04).