Making Sense of Our Dreams: The Case of the Self-Replicating Snake

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I’ve had a complicated relationship with snakes my entire life. My first encounter with one was at age six.

     It’s this mixing or consolidation of current memories with prior information and knowledge that many believe is responsible for the memory-boosts that occur after a good night’s sleep.

-Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark

There was a large maple tree in our front yard with shrubbery surrounding it on all sides. That tree was my favorite hideout. I’d climb up a few limbs, find a good spot, and let my imagination run wild.

One day my brother and sister noticed a nest of garden snakes that had invaded the shrubbery around my tree. My father responded to the scene immediately. All three of us―my brother, sister, and I―stood and watched, as our father caught every single one of the snakes with his bare hands, stuffing them in Mason jars for later transplantation to a more remote area of the property.

The surreal image of these neon green serpents slithering down the hill of our front lawn, as my father chased and grasped at them, burned an everlasting memory upon my brain.

Some years later, following periods of both fascination and fear of snakes, I began having a recurring dream, which continued to pop up sporadically from adolescence to young adulthood. It would always start with me noticing a single snake on the ground. Initially, my reaction in the dream was one of casual surprise, which then steadily escalated into overwhelming terror, as I noticed not one but two snakes, then three, then four, until there were too many to even count, surrounding me on all sides.

I once confessed this dream to my brother, only to learn that he also had the same recurring dream. We then consulted our sister and found that she too had similar recurring dreams about snakes.

This phenomenon is referred to as mutual dreaming, which involves two or more people who have the same or highly similar dreams.

Though this phenomenon has been described anecdotally among family members, friends, and even strangers, questions about how it works and what it means remain largely unanswered.

Of course, in the case of my siblings and me, this shared preoccupation with snakes is perhaps not surprising, given that we all witnessed the same emotionally-evocative scene as children.

For me personally, though, I noticed that I often had the “snake dream” shortly after an event that reminded me of my personal vulnerability. For example, I once had it after a near miss in a traffic incident.

Perhaps these dreams were a reminder to me in adolescence and young adulthood that we live in a dangerous world, and nobody’s there to catch the dangerous snakes that inhabit it for me anymore.EXCLUSIVE: Daily Dream Diary: Keep a Record of Your Unconscious Thoughts

As dreams so often do, this one clearly expressed my concerns about life at the time, which were transformed into a symbolic language that drew upon themes and imagery from childhood.

It’s this mixing or consolidation of current memories with prior information and knowledge that many believe is responsible for the memory-boosts that occur after a good night’s sleep. And there is some preliminary evidence suggesting that people are more likely to retain information when it appears in a dream.

As best we can tell then, dreams represent a mental rehashing of recent events and an attempt to understand them in the context of prior memories and understandings of the world. Of course, dream material is often experienced as bizarre and nonsensical, making it difficult to piece together the puzzle of a dream using our logical, waking minds.

Despite the challenge of such a task, if you’d like to get more practice putting the puzzle of your dreams together and learning more about your inner self, you might consider recording your dreams using a diary like the one provided here.

If you’re able to remember and record a dream or two, please let us know how it goes. We want to hear from you in the comments box below!

Further Reading:
















de Koninck, J., Christ, G., Hébert, G., & Rinfret, N. (1990). Language learning efficiency, dreams and REM sleep. Psychiatric Journal of the University of Ottawa, 15, 91-92.

McNamara, P., Dietrich-Egensteiner, L., & Teed, B. (2017). Mutual dreaming. Dreaming, 27, 87-101.

Llewellyn, S. (2015). Dream to Predict? REM Dreaming as Prospective Coding. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1961.

Payne, J. D. (2010). Memory consolidation, the diurnal rhythm of cortisol, and the nature of dreams: A new hypothesis. International Review of Neurobiology, 92, 101-134.

Wamsley, E. J., & Stickgold, R. (2011). Memory, sleep, and dreaming: Experiencing consolidation. Sleep Medicine Clinics, 6, 97-108.

Wamsley, E. J., Tucker, M., Payne, J. D., Benavides, J. A., & Stickgold, R. (2010). Dreaming of a learning task is associated with enhanced sleep-dependent memory consolidation. Current Biology, 20, 850-855.


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