About 20 years ago I was studying Literature at University as one of my degree modules and an exam was coming up. I’d been thinking about the significance of dreams in Shakespeare’s work, looking particularly at A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
In this play, a nobleman tells Theseus, Duke of Athens, that he wishes his daughter, Hermia, to marry Demetrius. Hermia, who has a mind of her own (how awful!) is rebellious and says she will marry Lysander. Theseus tells Hermia that if she disobeys her father’s wishes, she could be sent to a convent, or even executed.
Hermia and Lysander run away to escape Hermia’s arranged marriage to Demetrius. They get lost in the woods, and night falls. While Hermia is sleeping under a tree, she has a nightmare. She dreams that a snake is attacking her and eating her heart. She’s trying to pluck this serpent from her chest and she wakes up in terror.
This is the scene I was lying in bed thinking about on the night before my exam. I was going over the scene in my mind and trying to visualise it. I pictured what it would have felt like for Hermia, with the snake trying to eat her heart out. I was thinking about her trying to fight the snake off her chest, my vivid imagination bringing the scene to life.
It was then that Ian, asleep next to me, began thumping his chest violently again and again. I nudged him and asked wtf he was doing. He mumbled something about trying to fend off a snake.
Next morning, we saw that in the region of his heart there was a big purple bruise, which he must have done in his attempt to pluck from his chest this snake which he’d dreamt was attacking him.
I told him what I’d been thinking about at the time when he’d started with this dream.
‘Oh, I might have known, this is your fault,’ he said.
‘How is it my fault?
‘Well you must have transferred your thoughts into my brain.’ He said this half-jokingly, but we were both really puzzled.
The more we thought about it we could only conclude that this is what had happened. Somehow his brain, while he was asleep, had picked up my thoughts as I’d been enacting the scene in my mind. This had caused him to dream that a snake was crawling on his chest and attacking him. But how can this happen? Surely unspoken thoughts can’t be transferred to another person like that. Can they?