There's a telephone in one of my hands and a big orange crayon in the other. I'm trying to scribble something down on a scrap of paper. Fingers grip palm like tongue touches inside of frozen mouth after a trip to the dentist's office. Everything feels clumsy, fat, gross, and wrong. Is it possible my hand is drunk? No, I'm just dreaming. Oops, now I'm holding the crayon in a fist like a small child would. It's taken an eternity to scribble something down and it's just incomprehensible chicken scratch on the page. What a nightmare!
But in the past few years, as screens have increasingly replaced paper and pen in my life, I've had more and more dreams where I seem able to text and email without the same frustrations. Sometimes I'm so good at emailing in dreams, I wake up thinking I've already written half the messages on my to-do list only to find them all missing from my sent mail folder. I think I see the words scrolling across the screen but it's possible that I only come away with the sense that I did. Compared to the analog edition, for me anyways, dreaming facilities 2.0 seem much improved.
Why can I email better in my dreams than I can write by hand?
Why though, during slumber, can I email better than I can write by hand? I couldn't find any sleep studies that have examined the presence of high tech versus low tech communication in our dreams (With a cursory online search I found at least one other person who can text during dreams: On Yahoo! Answers, Emmy asks what it could possibly mean that she imagined texting her crush mid-sleep. "It means that you really wanna text him," someone replies.) But researchers have documented a difficulty with reading or handwriting in dreams. A majority of people struggle with it, according to Deirdre Barrett, psychologist and author of The Committee of Sleep. She notes trouble writing is so ubiquitous that "it's often recommended as a 'reality check' in trying to become lucid (aware you're dreaming) during the dream."
But my experience finding texting easier than handwriting is a little more idiosyncratic. Usually, in my dreams texting or emailing have the same banal quality as any other chore you have on your mind as you fall asleep. The same way that I'll doze off remembering I have to go to Home Depot the next day and then dream about experiencing terrible customer service there, I'll fall asleep thinking about responding to a message and then dream I texted my friend about that wig she wants to borrow or emailed my brother back about the saga of his ingrown toenail.
There's a neurological explanation, though. "There are subareas in our language centers which are different for handwriting versus typing or reading versus writing," Barrett notes. Howard Engels, a detective novelist, for example, lost the ability to read but still could write after suffering from a stroke. As for the difference between typing and handwriting, Patrick McNamara, an associate professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine, explains that Exner's area in the left hemisphere of the brain is crucial for writing, while tasks like typing depend on the basal ganglia circuits which handle automatized motor tasks. There are still a lot of scientific mysteries surrounding dreaming, but McNamara speculates my trouble writing "may be because Exner's area is down-regulated in terms of activation levels during REM sleep."
That's one explanation based on the hardwiring of our brains, but I sought out another one from someone in the soft (arguably pseudo) -science field of dream interpretation. Ian Wallace, a psychologist and self-proclaimed dream expert, focuses on the symbolic significance of dreams rather than approaching them like objective phenomena. His explanation for the discrepancy I've been experiencing suggests that writing and emailing have fundamentally different symbolic significance.
Programmers were capable of dreaming up computer designs and dreaming websites and software—sometimes by seeing the finished product, sometimes the actual programming language.
GIF by Joe Burger
"Writing symbolizes your opportunity to show different aspects of your character by communicating clearly and ensuring that you make your mark," he notes, "whereas emailing and texting represent a more detached and distant way of communicating your needs to other people." (That I'm more practiced at being a detached and distant communicator is definitely something anyone who's ever dated me could probably attest to.)
Researchers are paying increasing attention to the effect of digital technologies on sleep and dreaming. A number of studies in recent years have examined how nighttime phone usage contributes to sleep disorders. In a recent study of college students, Larry Rosen, a research psychologist at California State University, and a team of researchers also found that anxiety appeared to increase daily smartphone usage and also increased nighttime awakenings, which, in turn, affected sleep problems. There have also been alarmist articles warning about the phenomenon of teens "sleep texting."
Music video for The Sky Behind The Flag, by Owen Pallett, 2015.
There has been other research, however, that looks at the interaction of digital and media and dreaming from a more imaginative perspective. Psychologist Jayne Gackenbach has found that playing more hours of video games correlates with having more lucid dreams. Computer programmers who spent a lot of time in on-screen environments have also reported the code and the software bleeding into their dreams. Researching Committee of Sleep, Barrett spoke with computer programmers who she said were capable of "dreaming up computer designs and dreaming websites and software—sometimes by seeing the finished product, sometimes the actual programming language."
Mobile technology and social media doesn't just affect how we sleep and dream, but has the potential to help us understand better how these digital interfaces are affecting in our subconscious too. Smartphone apps like DreamBoard and Dreamscloud encourage users to self-report their dreams; mobile apps like iSleeping, for example, also provide large data sets of sleep patterns. While there are few studies on how new tech shows up in dreams now, McNamara notes that our phones and the databases they allow are "poised to revolutionize dream research…because we can finally have a large, cross-cultural and cross demographic database to work on." In other words, the kind of tech that some sleep researchers dream of.