Snails (1942), Switzerland. Photo by Werner Bischof/Magnum


Ancestral dreams

We’re not the only beings that dream. What visions might sleep bring to a cell, an insect, a mollusk, an ape?

by Sidarta Ribeiro + BIO

Snails (1942), Switzerland. Photo by Werner Bischof/Magnum

How many times have you woken up from a dream that has deeply stirred your emotions? Terrifying dreams of chasing and fighting, grandiose experiences of free flight through space, moving or disturbing reunions with loved ones who have drifted away or died… A single dream that is particularly remarkable for its beauty, surprise, power or sadness can completely change your day, your week, your life and even the life of all mankind, such as the dreams associated with the invention of the sewing machine by Elias Howe, or the discovery of the structure of the atom by Niels Bohr.

Even knowing that our dreams are produced by brain reactivations during a specific phase of sleep, REM sleep, we cannot avoid the intimate impact of these experiences. If we can react with such awe and diligence to our own dreams, what can we presume about our ancestors: how did they dream? How much ancestry are we talking about?

Nuna Continental Mass, 1.8 billion years Before Present (BP)

I’m a complex cell that enjoys the warm light and hot water, this wonderful top layer of green life-soup capable of multiplying indefinitely, until the atmosphere itself destroys everything that’s oxidisable, and finally other life forms have a chance to thrive. At night, the darkness, cold and progressive deceleration of molecules. Yang followed by yin followed by yang followed by yin perpetually, until the Sun explodes… The planetary rotation and the dark-light cycle from the beginning, forever inscribed in the phosphorylation cycles within the unicellular organisms that stormed the surface of the planet.

Ocean, 500 million years BP

I am composed of 85 per cent water and a multitude of cells of different types, organised in semi-transparent tissues that form the bell, mouth and venomous tentacles, incredibly connected by a delicate superficial network of neurons capable of coordinating my behaviour as a whole organism. I accelerate and brake physiological processes using neurotransmitter molecules released by information-emitting neurons, and receptor proteins of these neurotransmitters on the membranes of information-receiving neurons. These molecules make it possible to carry out harmonic pulses of cells to swim slowly towards plankton or avoid predators and toxins. At night, the pulse slows down, and the synaptic vesicles are again filled with neurotransmitters for the day ahead. This quiet, deep, regenerating sleep is the legacy I bequeath to all animals after me.

Euramerica, 400 million years BP

My agile behaviours confuse and mislead even much larger organisms. I evade all attacks with my six legs, two wings, 200,000 neurons, 750 eyes, and hundreds of ultra-sensitive hairs capable of detecting minimal changes in air pressure. When incessant attacks keep me from sleeping for some time, I need to make up for the loss with a lot more sleep afterwards. The downside is that I’m insensitive to the movements that precede the attacks. Even though it’s so dangerous to sleep, it’s so worth it. Sleep helps me learn new things. When nothing bothers me, I nap for long minutes. Distant neurons become active together, it’s as if I were awakened inside, but what I find is the same image that is found outside. A spiralling landing ramp, green and marked all the way down by black dots. I make a circular approach, land softly, and start to salivate.

Pangea, 260 million years BP

At night, but also by day, I boldly wander in search of absent-minded prey. Hard or not, I pierce their shells with my beak. By day, hidden in my den on the coral reef, I fall asleep and wake up countless times. Every half an hour, I dream restlessly for about a minute. At that moment, my eyes move in and out of my body, my skin is coloured in frantic waves, and my papillae bristle nervously. Inside me, more freely than in waking, memories reverberate in my many brains and hearts. These memories evoke wild clashes, murderous camouflage and vigorous gallantry. The terrifying shadow of a shark passes overhead. My skin, moulded into rocks and algae, feels the danger passing by. I secrete saliva until attracting a fertile female with its luminous mouth. I show her my light side while my dark side fends off the juicy opponents that have appeared. My soft body starts to want to wake up in the urge to devour them, but she calls me again with her yellow ring. Nothing is more important than this moment. We touch, taste and finally lock in a full-body, ardent kiss.

I return to dread in the electrical storm of memories my brain unleashes when I fall asleep

Central Laurasia, 185 million years BP

My life is secret, hidden in the branches, inhabitant of the twilight, among the colossal paws and shadows of all the beasts that own this land. Space is minimal, but I don’t complain because the diet is rich, and I know how to take care of myself. Leaves, fruits and insects, mainly. I have bones to hear well and teeth that can cut any food into little morsels. I know how to wait, I know how to hide, and I know how to get away. I adapt depending on what I need to do. The few dragons that notice my tiny presence mostly choose to ignore me, with the exception of those terrible ones, who stalk without a trace. That’s why I spend so much time in the den, that’s why I sleep so much. Yesterday I went to the river to drink water and a big brown crocodile almost had me for lunch. It appeared out of nowhere, was completely submerged until the attack. I fled to the den and went to sleep in shock and thirst, electrically reverberating the memories of the near-fatal encounter. I return to dread in the electrical storm of memories my brain unleashes when I fall asleep. I dream that I wake up thirsty and need to decide whether I should go back to the river in search of water or avoid that place. Thirst gives me courage and I decide to approach again, but as carefully as possible, advancing small steps every minute, attentive to everything that moves. And then I see those frightening nostrils and eyes, even more frightening because they had always been there. I wake up in a panic, my heart pounding. I need to find water, without which neither I nor my cubs will survive. I go back to sleep, go back to dreaming… This cycle repeats itself for many hours. Finally, with the first rays of sunlight, I awake from my restless sleep and face the difficult decision. With those murderous nostrils still imprinted on my mind, I finally decide to look elsewhere for drinking water.

North America, 66 million years BP

I walk on two legs with my tail outstretched, balancing the swift advance of my huge mouth. I’m not the biggest boggart in the field, but it feels like I am. Nobody faces my sharp teeth. Faced, I say. I close my eyes and see again the fireball that has fallen from the sky. The earth shook more than flaming volcanoes and the sky darkened the endless night. At first, I thought it was a good change, since it became easier to find carcasses to eat. But then everything rotted and it’s been days since I last found anything edible. The odours are unbearable. I close my eyes, my belly growls with hunger and I doze… just to see the fireball again and again.

Australasia, 22 million years BP

Soon after I hatched out, I heard your voice. It was so loud and frightening that I shivered with fear and pleasure at hearing that sound of steady cadence and strong intensity. I kept the indelible memory of that voice and started trying to copy it, trying all day a slow approximation of the model. Flying, eating, and singing. At night, perched and sleeping, I would reactivate the neurons producing that sound in renewed combinations. When I woke up the next day, I was faced with this mystery, as the similarity between my singing and yours had been partially unravelled. And so I progressed through many moons, two steps forward and one step back, arming and disarming in successive approaches my best version of that memorable melody. I spent my life dreaming of your perfection.

The hyenas burned their backs and disappeared into the night. I woke up and they were gone

Southern Africa, 1 million years BP

Children play in the mouth of the ancient cave. They’re hunting bison, one on each side, just as we’ve shown them in the shadows by the fire. From here, the entire valley can be seen. Below, a woolly rhino crosses the river. Up here, each relative helps when they can in looking at the horizon and screening the neighbourhood. With great care, we keep advancing in the stonework, which shuns the hooves and attracts the claws. That’s why even in the day the fire lives. But it’s when the sun dies that it really grows. At the fire circle, relatives tell us about the flights they take at night. I want to learn to fly without fear of the harpy or the lioness. Last night my closed eyes saw the great fire. It was particularly beautiful, very strong and very beautiful, but then suddenly a gust of wind came in and the fire went out. The hyenas came and advanced to the entrance of the cave. The children ran inside and, when it was all about to end, my dead grandfather suddenly appeared. He yelled in a voice of thunder and lit the fire again. The hyenas burned their backs and disappeared into the night. I woke up and they were gone, and so was my grandfather. Only the fire was there.

Southeast Asia, 45,000 years BP

Life in this valley wouldn’t be so good without these caves. We came from afar, walking, gathering and hunting, following the trail of wild pigs and dwarf buffaloes, fleeing the cold and hunger. Here we stop and stay, as the valley opens up and vegetation protects us. We marked the entrance stones with our hands painted orange-red, and then I sketched, in a rounded figure of the same colour, a hunt without flaws, without mistakes and without fear. We were excited by the frenzy of pursuit, and I didn’t sleep until the moon died. While our elders kept the fire and vigil, with the younger ones I entered sleep. I wandered out of the body towards the forest that hides everything good and bad. I could hear the shuffling of wild pigs running through the woods, but I didn’t see them, fearing that they would lure me to meet the tiger that always stalks. Although I was scared, I savoured the prey’s agitated breath, until I reached a beach with tepid waters and many islands in the distance. A fallen coconut tree floated on the shore, swaying with the tide. Suddenly, half-buried in the sand, I noticed a thin hook carved from a shell. When I caught it in my hand, it had in its curve a fat little fish still alive, pierced through the mouth. I started to eat, but soon stopped because I felt the stare. At the northern end of the beach the tiger glimpsed, coming towards me. I looked at him, sped up, mounted the coconut tree, and rowed quickly towards the horizon.

Western Europe, 32,000 years BP

We arrived yesterday from the long march from above the mountains of heaven. The ice corridors are still full of others, with their different scents. There aren’t reindeer skins for everyone, the progress is slow and difficult, but that’s all good. What would be really bad would be to find one of those lionesses. We had the arrival party at dusk yesterday, after making sure the bears had fully vacated the cave. The skull of our people’s bear was placed on a rock facing the main entrance. Our grandmother sang for us to share the dry sweet meat of the auroch, dancing with that swish she got after breaking her foot on the march, so many moons before now. Our grandfather played his five-hole vulture-bone flute. Today, I woke up early, bathed in the river and crawled into the warm belly of the earth and did the magic that was conducive to the abundance of slaughter and love with the prey. With full strokes and my crooked finger, I drew tomorrow in motion, then made the shadows dance and listened to the sound of horses’ hooves. Smoke clouded the view and my eyes rolled inward as our elders arrived to sing and dance too. I unfolded myself and we travelled towards what will still be. For every finger on my hand, we marched one day. After the siege, a full day of ambush. The mammoth was warned by its mother and was waiting for us in a rage, but it had no eyes on its back nor did the wind allow it to smell our odour. The spears were launched with precision. When we finally broke its massive skull with a heavy rock, only two relatives had been crushed. A naked woman with a bison’s torso appeared on top of the quarry – and from her fertile sex a lion boy was born. At that moment, the mammoth opened its eyes again and greeted our grandparents’ grandparents, proud of the people that are. When I woke up, I told them everything so that no one would forget.

Mongolia, Central Asia, 18,000 years BP

The ice recedes and the green expands. Finding prey has never been easier, but wolves are everywhere. They steal our game and we steal theirs. They devour our cubs and we devour theirs. They take good care of the puppies, like us. They’re like us, they keep stalking us, bastards. At night they howl and piss off, my relatives throw stones. Then they settle down. Looking at the Moon and chanting loud, we unfolded and saw the glistening cliffs of ice, lake and clouds. I flew in the flight of all souls but then I stood out and fell from above by myself. When I went down, I turned into a stone and got out of the uncle’s hand and flew right into a puppy’s forehead. But the damned one dodged, smart as a flash. He walked over with a waving tail and licked the stone from the palm of my hand. I tasted salt and earth. I woke up. I looked at the puppies, playing at chasing us. I offered them a piece of horse thigh. At first, they were suspicious, making strange noises, but then they all came. I sorted the sweetest ones for breeding.

My stepfather dreamed of a powerful angel who convinced him to stay with my mother despite the pregnancy

Mesopotamia, 5,000 years BP

I’m shepherd, king and husband of the goddess of love. One night I dreamed that the reeds rose against me, a single stalk shook its head, and the trees climbed over me. Water had been poured on my holy brazier, the lid of my holy churn had been removed, my holy cup was overturned, my herding staff disappeared. An owl killed a lamb, a hawk caught a sparrow, sheep scratched the ground with their legs. No milk was being served, the cups were overturned, the sheepfold was haunted, and I was dead. I consulted my sister about the meaning of this dream, and she warned me that it was the worst possible. She begged me to flee immediately from the strange men who sought to reach me. It didn’t take me long to flee, but it was too late. The demons sought me out while I hid my head in the grass. They tried to bribe my sister into revealing my hiding place, but she refused to cooperate. Next, they put pressure on a friend of mine, who betrayed me. I was captured, humiliated and beaten. I begged my brother-in-law, the Sun god, to turn my hands and feet into quick paws. My tears were accepted as an offering and I fled like a gazelle, but I was cornered again, and thrice escaped until I was captured beyond any help. When my nightmare ended, the cups were lying on their sides, the sheepfold was haunted, and I was dead.

Palestine, 2,022 years ago

Countless times we were guarded and protected by guidance received in dreams. My stepfather dreamed of a very powerful angel who convinced him to stay with my mother despite the pregnancy, for in those dreams it was revealed that my father was a divine dove and that my stepfather should adopt me as his son. That same angel guided him in dreams to flee before the chase and execution of children started. In the shadow of the pyramids, my mother was finally able to rest, and divine grace allowed us to be in peace at last. These were just the angel’s first visits. Dream is necessity.

Bavaria, 403 years ago

On the banks of the great river, I had three unforgettable dreams in the same night. In the first one, I was harassed by ghosts and carried away by a whirlwind. I tried greedily to escape this torment, but I was unable to support my own body and I walked stumbling. Then a person appeared and informed me that a certain someone had a gift to offer me. I thought it must be a fruit from faraway lands, and then I noticed that the people gathered around it were all upright, while I could barely stand upright. I awoke with a start and prayed to God to ward off any harm that had come from that nightmare. Shortly afterward I fell asleep, dreamed of thunder, and woke with a start, but this time I used reason to make sure I was really awake, opening and closing my eyes over and over until I was calm. Once again, I fell asleep, and then had a transforming dream, completely different from the previous ones. In a quiet, contemplative setting, I found a book called ‘Dictionary’ on a table – and behind it a collection of poems. I opened a page at random and found a verse in Latin by the poet Ausonius: Which path should I follow in life? A stranger suddenly appeared and showed a fragment of verse: Yes and no. I tried to indicate where in the book the poem could be found, but the volume disappeared and then mysteriously reappeared. I had the feeling that some knowledge had been lost, until I told the man that I would show him a better poem starting with the same verse. At that point the man, the book and then the whole dream disappeared. I was deeply impressed. I prayed and asked the Virgin Mary’s protection on my pilgrimage on foot from Italy to France. I feel that the dream points to the unification of all sciences through the same language and the same method.

Buenos Aires, 82 years ago

I never thought it would be possible to keep dreams alive after blindness began, but it is. I dream in excruciating colours, shapes and movements, similar in every way to the flashes of my childhood. Fortunately, as time went by, I became detached from the artificiality of nocturnal sleep, until the cataract completely freed my dream process. Sitting in the comfortable armchair, I start dreaming of a man in his smallest details. It’s not the first time, on the contrary. But this time it’s different. The grey man I dreamed of, from heart to brain, warmed up and lit up in red, yellow and white. In the centre of the light, I saw the demiurge’s mirrored eye and realised that now, finally, that man would burn in the flames. Immediately thereafter, I threw myself over the embers and screamed in pain.

London, 57 years ago

Last year, on one occasion, I went to sleep next to my girlfriend, with nothing special on my mind. I can’t tell what happened in my brain that night, but I was suddenly awakened to the nonstop reverberation of this simple melody, adorably infectious. I ran to the piano and began to reconstruct the experience. The melody echoed something I’d heard before, maybe Nat King Cole, but when everyone woke up no one knew what song it was. I showed it to my partners, other musicians, my arranger, but nobody knew the song. I spent several weeks investigating the source of inspiration, but no one could say where the melody came from. As a joke, I called it ‘scrambled eggs’. After nearly a year, a beach holiday finally gave me the chance to finish it. Yesterday, we recorded it, and I feel it can help a lot of people.

Northern Amazon, now

My people arrived by tapir tracks, it was thousands of years ago that we arrived here. The white man, only long after, he arrived, and came only to destroy, extract, poison and burn everything. And spread epidemics. It is because of the shamans that the sky you see up there doesn’t just fall on your head. Just because of the hard work of the shamans. They are the ones who sing and dance to hold the sky high, so that it doesn’t fall on our heads. In the shaman’s ritual, I received the sacred snuff and saw the spirits of parrots, macaws, ants, monkeys, hawks and wasps descend and perform their presentation dance. Then they took me flying over the clouds to watch the forest burn, and the fire rose to burn all the trees and climbed through the sky and burned everything to coal and that was it.

To read more about dreaming, visit Psyche, a digital magazine from Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts.