"It was totally bizarre."
It was surreal dreams such as these that convinced Dr Robin Hamilton to steer clear of his favourite computer game. He and a fellow medical student at St Mary's Hospital, London, were working full-steam towards important exams when they first latched on to Tetrus, a computer game that involves slotting brightly coloured building blocks into place, as a means of relaxation. For two hours a day, they would plug into Tetrus in between their studies, until the computer game started to invade their sleep.
"My Tetrus dreams didn't bother me at first," says Dr Hamilton, 27, who, eight years on, is a practising ophthalmologist based in Nottingham. "But it's horrible when you start to feel that something is beginning to take over your life. My friend admitted that he had been having the same dreams, so we both decided that after our exams, we wouldn't play Tetrus again. However, I did, a year later, while I was on holiday in Portugal, and I dreamt about it a couple of nights afterwards."
With increasing use of computers in daily life, it seems that more and more people are playing host to technology-related dreams. Personal accounts of computer reveries, both good and bad, appear frequently in the dozens of online dream journals available on the Net.
I personally have only dreamt about my computer once. Typically, the plot line escapes me. All I can remember is a huge, grey computer, about the size of a Sphinx, looming ominously before me.
Curiously, it did not look at all like the seemingly-amiable little iMac I had purchased earlier that day. The letters "www.com" kept flashing in front of me, and - in my dream - I was rooted powerlessly to the spot.
It is hardly surprising that I dreamt about my computer on that particular occasion. Along with a new printer, my computer had cost me a small fortune at a time when I was meant to be saving. Setting it up and getting to grips with it had been no easy task, either.
Mastering the iMac had become an ugly obsession. It had developed a nasty little personality and, at that stage, I would willingly have handed it over for scrap.
What seems strange now is that I spend most of my day at the mercy of my brightly coloured computer, and yet it has only once featured in my dreams.
Angst-filled teenage nightmares of walking down narrow school corridors wearing nothing but a pair of black nylon socks still continue to plague me, but the daily trauma of a frozen cursor and the stress of my hard drive crashing have no place in my nightly dream state.
Psychologists, psychiatrists and scientists will go on debating forever on the issue of whether dreams reflect subconscious forces or, instead, reveal what troubles us in our daily lives. According to Dr Allan Hobson, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School: "Certain activities, like computing, that you think would be in there a lot, aren't. Reading, writing, sitting at one's desk, the kind of things we do all day, almost never get in there."
But for some people, hardly a night goes by when computers do not play a starring role in their dreams. Willa Cline, a Web designer in Missouri and author of a daily dream journal (http://www.willa. com/dreams/dream197.htm), frequently dreams about working on her website. "Over the weekend, I dreamt about working on the computer in Photoshop, manipulating graphics to use on a website. And last week, I dreamt about coding in HTML," she says. "Most people I know who work with computers a lot dream about them. I love computers and I love my work, so I don't mind.
"I don't think it's so much the working on computers that causes us to dream about them, but the depth to which we're involved with them," Cline says. "I don't recall dreaming about computers when I was working as an administrative assistant because, although I worked on a computer all day, I used it as a tool and wasn't really deeply involved in the working of it."
John Suler, a professor of psychology at Rider University in New Jersey, has taken the idea of dreaming about computers a stage further. In his Web textbook about the psychology of cyberspace (http://www. rider.edu/suler/psycyber/psycyber.html), he draws a direct parallel between dreaming and the Web-surfing mind.
"Under the right conditions, cyberspace becomes a dream world, not unlike the world that emerges when we sink into sleep," he says. "The dreamer can rapidly shift from one scenario to another without having to travel any ground. So too in cyberspace the user can transcend the laws of space and physics. One simply has to click on a button to be transported from one location to another."
As happens in our dreams, people and images in cyberspace appear out of nowhere (what Professor Suler refers to as "spontaneous generation"). "Time is irrelevant and when the computer screen freezes, it's not unlike the familiar paralysis nightmares where our legs become sluggish or stuck in the mud, despite our best efforts to run," Professor Suler says. "The common denominator for all these experiences is that people `lose themselves' in the activity."
Dissociation is a common phenomenon in dreams and cyberspace at large. "Every visual element in a dream may be a representation of some aspect of the dreamer's identity. Each character and object in the dream is a split-off or dissociated component of the self - but the dreamer is not fully aware of this," Professor Suler says.
"It's a well-known fact that people use the Internet to express and experiment with various aspects of their identity. Some people deliberately create a specific online personality for themselves. They have some unconscious control over the same kind of wish fulfilment that fuels dreams."
Jerry Gifford, 48, a fence contractor in Kentucky, offers a layman's interpretation of dreams via his website (http://www.angelfire.com/t n/MythsDreamsSymbols/index.htm) A dream enthusiast for the last six years, Gifford bases his interpretations on the teachings of the psychoanalyst Carl Jung and the mythologist Joseph Campbell. He predicts that it won't be long before computers become a potent symbol in our dreams.
"As computers become more important in our lives, we will have more dreams using computers as symbols," Gifford predicts. "And there's no doubt that in time they will become as important to us as our homes and our cars, largely because they will become an everyday experience whose value will be measured in the `experience' as much as their cost. In another five or 10 years, computers will become a collective personal image within the dream."
Taking up Professor Suler's line, it comes as some relief then to learn that we have the same control over our dreams as we have over computers. "When things get too uncomfortable in cyberspace, we can hit the `off' button," he says. "It's the virtual equivalent of the mind's switching off an anxiety dream or a nightmare by waking you up."
Reassuring news then, if dreaming about a tank-sized iMac is not your idea of a good night's sleep.
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