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This question can be taken in two, somewhat related, ways;

  • Why do we dream of inventing some practical way of moving through the air? This impulse goes back to the Greek myth of Icarus, at the very least, and persists to the present. As I write this, my wife is in an airplane flying to Las Vegas.
  • Why do we, when dreaming, picture ourselves floating or actually flying from one place unaided?

The former is likely motivated by people’s desire to get from one place to another when speed is of the essence, or some barrier needs to be overcome. (Icarus and Daedalus were imprisoned.) How, or if, it is tied to the latter I can’t begin to guess.

From what I’ve heard and read most people, at some time in their lives, have dreams of latter type. They dream of looking down at themselves and their surroundings, often from a great height, and feeling a sense of exhilaration. I think these dreams are more common in childhood than adulthood, but I have no evidence to support that. (Mine, I think, persisted until I was in my late 30s: I lost the capacity for lucid dreaming, and that was that.)

Why? Is it because we see birds, and envy them for their abilities? I don’t doubt that there are people who would love to be able to swim like dolphins. On the other hand, we see moles; but I’ve never heard of anyone dreaming that they could tunnel through holes in the ground.

In any case, I don’t think that observed modes of locomotion give rise to dreams of magically being able to exist outside the world, which is what flying dreams express. When you dream of flying, you don’t dream of flapping your arms and getting tired, do you?

I wonder if chimps, or dolphins for that matter, dream of flying? Maybe that’s why dolphins swim the way they do: They seem to get enjoyment out of it. It would be interesting to know.

There has been research done on cats that clearly shows what they dream about. By disabling the part of the brain that controls hypotonia (hypotonia keeps your body from acting out your dreams), scientists have been able to watch what happens when cats act out their dreams. It’s about what you’d expect: They fight, they hunt, and generally do what cats do. The only difference is that they tend to bump into things, because their eyes are closed.

Some people, including me, have times when their hypotonia fails them. Sometimes my movements are violent enough to wake me up, and in those few instances I remember what I was dreaming about. Unfortunately, those dreams usually involve an element of violence: I’ve actually caused myself bodily harm, and my wife has suffered as well.

Of course, if I were dreaming about floating through the air I wouldn’t be able to act it out, so hypotonia or not there wouldn’t be anything to see. Sleep clinics and the like are not going to give us any answers.

Getting back to my original question, why do we dream about doing something unrelated to anything we actually can do?

I wonder if this is related to the out-of-body experiences reported by people who “die” and then are resuscitated?

Do you have any ideas?