A summary of what psychology and cognitive theory have to say about the extravagant occurrence of flying in dreams.
“One of the characteristics of the dream is that nothing surprises us in it. With no regret, we agree to live in it with strangers, completely cut off from our habits and friends,” Jean Cocteau once said. And in dreams we can even talk to the dead or rise from the ground without provoking shock or waking ourselves up. The nature of the dream is that all is there naturally; and that is why we begin, among other things, to fly.
If, as Jung and Freud believed, dreams represent our unfulfilled desires, then dreaming of flying is of little transcendence: flight has always been humankind’s great desire. In fact, according to a study at MIT, the frequency of dreams of flying has increased significantly since the 1950s when aviation technology revolutionized the world. That’s to say, flight has become more and more embedded in our psyches as one of the possibilities open to us and thus, it’s on hand as a resource when we begin to dream. Freudian theory also suggests that a dream of flying is a recollection of childhood memories: games of being launched into the air or rocked, things that children quite enjoy. But also, and above all, Freud argued that the dream of flight is the result of nocturnal erections (male and female), which explains the feeling of the “overcoming of gravity.” More recent cognitive psychology, however, argues that dreaming of flying is not necessarily a product of a “continuity hypothesis” (which suggests that our dream experiences are but an odd mix of our experiences of waking life). Rather, such dreams reveal something about our minds and the way we think.
Dr. Michael Schredl, psychologist at the Mental Health Institute of Mannheim, is more interested in what these dreams say about the dreamer. Needless to say, though there’s no more inexact discipline within psychology than the interpretation of dreams, there are certain “measurable” cognitive characteristics that shed light on this phenomenon, and Schredl is one of the leaders in this research. In a series of studies, the psychologist sought to connect the prevalence of dreams of flying with particular personality traits or life decisions. Collecting data since 1956 and conducting extensive surveys, his conclusion is that people with “more positive mental states” in waking life tend to fly in their dreams.
Another of his conclusions, and perhaps the most logical of all, is that flying in dreams is the perfect metaphor for life circumstances: the dreamer can overcome difficulties, rise above them or avoid them and escape. Bachelard said that no one can explain metaphors of height and elevation, but that they can, in fact, explain everything. But among all these extravagant postulations about dreams of flying is one that rises above them all: the lucid dream.
Flying in dreams is one of the most potent ways to make us realize we’re dreaming. While it’s true that, as Cocteau said, nothing surprises us when we’re in a dream, if one thing will do it, it’s the sudden realization that we’ve risen above the ground. This of course works in the opposite way to what’s been described above: if you realize you’re dreaming, if you “wake up in the dream,” one of the first things you’ll do is take flight. The romance between lucid dreaming and flying is proverbial. And if this weren’t enough, flying is one of few dream events that won’t wither on the sheets upon awakening. According to cognitive psychology and anecdotal evidence, we almost always remember our dreams when we dream we fly.
Image credits: ‘Sleep Elevations’ by Maia Flore