Life is a Dream

Pedro Calderón de la Barca

Dreams are seemingly all anybody talks about in the Spanish Golden Age drama La vide es sueño (Life is a Dream).  In that classic by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, the crown prince of Poland — Segismundo — has been imprisoned by his father since birth because of a prophecy: Segismundo will be a cruel king.  But his father — King Basilio — wants to know whether or not his son is in fact cruel.  So Segismundo — now a man — is drugged, taken to the palace, and given the throne.  After waking up in power, he attempts to rape a woman, fights her father, and engages a duke in a duel.  A poor servant who points out the faults in Segismundo’s behavior is promptly thrown off of a balcony.  Now sure of the prophecy, King Basilio drugs his son again and returns him to captivity, where confused Segismundo wonders about reality:

What is life? A frenzy.

What is life?  An illusion,

a shadow, a fiction,

and the greatest good is mean:
for all life is a dream,

and dreams themselves are only dreams.

This is part of the most famous monologue in the play and whence its title comes. But after attending the March 20 Brainwave event with Debra Winger and Dr. Robert Stickgold, I re-discovered a brilliant speech by Clotaldo, the guard of Segismundo — and thought about it in the context of modern science:

But as they say dreams are rough copies of the waking soul

Yet uncorrected of the higher Will,

So that men sometimes in their dreams confess

An unsuspected, or forgotten, self;

One must beware to check — ay, if  one may,

Stifle ere born, such passion in ourselves

As makes, we see, such havoc with our sleep,

And ill reacts upon the waking day,

And, by the bye, for one test, Segismund,

Between such swearable realities —

Since Dreaming, Madness, Passion, are akin

In missing each that salutary rein

Of reason, and the guiding will of men.

Preeminent sleep researcher Dr. Stickgold — of Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital — mentioned a fascinating finding: the prefrontal cortex, thought to be the throne of “executive function” — is particularly sensitive to sleep.  Its deactivation is responsible for the bizarreness of dreams.  Indeed, Clotaldo’s observation — philosophical in nature — is essentially the hypothesis that has been proven by sleep researchers (Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2002).  Great minds think alike.

Next, Clotaldo describes the influence that dreams can have on waking life.  In a TedxRiverCity talk, Dr. Stickgold described an experiment by his student Erin Wamsley that showed that sleeping — and more specifically dreaming — improved performance on a task.  Subjects were required to navigate a 3-D maze.  In between trials, half of the subjects took 90-minute naps and half did not.  The nappers were on average one minute faster than non-nappers.  But the coolest finding was that the performance of the nappers who dreamed improved ten times.  It turns out that even off-topic dreams help.  (“A brief nap is beneficial for human route learning,” in press.)  The brain does not rest while the body does; in fact, the whole brain is busy processing information on multiple levels.  As Clotaldo notices, sleeping and waking are not strictly separate.  He does suggest that we should do our best to make them so, however.

Illustration by Jeremy Finch

Finally, Clotaldo draws a parallel between dreaming and two other states: madness and passion.  They are all born from a measure of freedom from the mainly rational self, which makes sure to say safe in order to survive in the world.  During the talk, Ms. Winger — Academy-Award nominated actress, author of the memoir/meditation Undiscovered, and mother of two sons — articulated her experience in the fluid continuum of dreaming and waking, and her frustration with quotidian concerns that keep her from that which is most deep and wonderful.  But all of the worlds — dreaming, and perhaps madness and passion too — are perpetually present.   Dreams do not “turn off,” Ms. Winger noted; the key is to access them while awake.  We might call that creativity.  Indeed, another finding related in the TedxRiverCity video showed that people who slept were two-and-a-half times more likely to perceive an underlying pattern in a memorized list of numbers.  Dr. Stickgold called this a “creative intrusion.”  He has said that he believes the purpose of dreams could be to integrate old and new memories and to imagine possible futures.  Is that not what an artist does?  And so we might add Creativity to Clotaldo’s list — with Madness, Passion, and, of course, Dreaming — of somewhat liberated mind-states.  Not intrusion, of course, but inspiration.  Pedro Calderón de la Barca must have known this.  You can read what his brain produced.

When they find out about their captive prince, the people of Poland liberate Segismundo and he becomes the head of a rebel force.  But he is reluctant to believe what is happening to him is real; he expects to again wake up from this dream of power.   Segismundo frees Clotaldo — who had tried to warm him about himself during the first kingship experiment— and acknowledges the importance of restraint.  Segismundo defeats his father, but mercifully lets him live.  He has a chance to satisfy his lust with the same woman, but does not.  Instead, he selflessly encourages the same dueling duke to marry her.  In the end, Segismundo becomes an enlightened king, devoted to acting well and doing good deeds.  All because of his powerful insight: life is a dream.  How fittingly Buddhist!

About the author

Ben Ehrlich

Ben Ehrlich's new book "The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal" will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016. Ben is a 2015 Salzburg Global Seminar fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

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  • I was dreaming and I heard the name Calderon.. I ‘ve never heard this name before in my life… I was dreaming of my best friend that was inraged at another man . And this other person demanding to know who my best friend was.. asked me who is he ? I said he’s somebody.. I then tell my friend tell him who you are. That’s when he said. I AM CALDERON.. the other guy then embarrasses him as if with respect for the name… I woke with the need to try and understand what it was I dreamt.. like as if I had to know . I feel like it is some kind of sign to me. But what???? My name is Mike Davidson.. many years ago I was fascinated with my dreams. I would try and remember them as soon as I woke up and the more I tried the more they slipped away I didn’t start thinking that I was dreaming the future there would be times I would have deja vu and then I remember that I dreamt that event or where I was at that moment anyways Google Calderon found this comment section and just thought I’d share

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