Most mornings I set my cell phone alarm to sound twice: once an hour before I want to get up and then again when I actually want to get up. When the first alarm sounds, I open my eyes just long enough to leave my dream state; then I turn off the alarm and fall back into sleep. One hour later the second alarm sounds, and this time I awaken for good. I’ve discovered that whenever I wake up in the night and then fall back into sleep, I remember my dreams from this second bout of sleep more vividly than I remember my dreams if I sleep straight through the night. So, by awakening one hour early and then falling right back into sleep, I experience an hour filled with vivid dreams that continually resurface in my mind for the entirety of the next waking day.
When I remember last night’s dreams during the day, rarely do I remember their narrative or flow. Instead, my memories consist of single moments from the dreams, and each of these memories is like a flash, like a snapshot, like a single frame of film that shows itself for one fifteenth of a second before it disappears. Yet the brevity of these memories heightens their effect. In that one fifteenth of a second these memories shock me into an acute awareness of my consciousness. The content of narrative memories of my dreams can be just as powerful as the content of these momentary memories, but narrative memories don’t provide a sudden shock; instead they seamlessly weld together one moment to the next and provide me with a fluid experience of time that soothes me out of consciousness rather than shocks me into a heightened awareness.
At first these memories reminded me of photographs, for they represent one moment isolated from the flow of time. But photographs not only isolate a single moment but also preserve it, sticking it stagnant on the printed page. Photographs allow us to scrutinize a single moment, discerning details that otherwise we would fail to notice. In contrast, these moment-long memories of dreams are not printed in my mind in the way that a photograph is printed on the page. These memories flash and then extinguish themselves; they don’t sit still like a photograph and let me examine them.
So these memories, it seems, are more akin to the flashes of images we see under a strobe light than they are to photographs. As a strobe light flashes we see each moment for as long as the moment exists and don’t have time to examine it. The flashes of a strobe light create a real-time animation with black gaps between each frame. Thus strobe lights break up the flow of time into distinct moments divided by brief periods of blackness. Since I am used to the uninterrupted flow of time that I experience in everyday life, when I am under a strobe light each flash shocks me, bringing me again and again into the present, heightening my awareness of my conscious presence in each moment.
But my memories of dreams are single frames that don’t follow or precede any other frames; they are akin to just one strobe light flash. They arrive suddenly from within me and present themselves in vivid contrast with the external world. And this contrast is that which shocks me. These memories present me with one isolated instant of time, a quick opening and closing of the aperture that admits just enough light to capture one moment. Each memory of a dream feels as if I’m driving a car through a crowded city and I look out my window and see a stranger’s expectant face for one fifteenth of a second before all I have left is the reflection of the back of his head in my rearview mirror.
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