February 22, 2008 11:48 AM   Subscribe

Why can I never dial a phone in my dreams? I'm looking for possible biological/neurological explanations, like the hypnic jerk instead of dream interpretation (i.e.: "You feel you have trouble communicating").

Like many people, I imagine, I've noticed a pattern in my dreams: whenever I go to use a phone, I can never dial the numbers correctly. It doesn't matter whether it's a nightmare ("912, 611, 931 - CRAP!") or a normal, non-anxious scenario where I just happen to be trying to call someone. Since this seems to be a common trope in dreams, I'm wondering if anyone has ever read any theories about physical reasons why our dreaming minds would balk at trying to recreate the scenario/sensation of identifying and pressing exact numbers.

It's kind of a long shot, but this is where my brain goes during my post-dream, early morning insomnia, and it's been bugging me all day.
posted by bibliowench to Science & Nature (24 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Why do you assume it is all of our brains and not just yours? Maybe that little tidbit is the exact reason for your dreams, you know? Not being able to connect or whatnot, whatever your issue is that your own brain is trying to point out to you in a dream is the message.
posted by 45moore45 at 11:53 AM on February 22, 2008

Best answer: Very interesting.

After watching Waking Life, I became interested in learning more about lucid dreaming.

Essentially, the trick to lucid dreaming appears to have something to do with training yourself to run tests in your dreams and understand that based on the results of that test, to understand that you are dreaming. One you know you are dreaming, you are lucid and can control the dream.

If I remember correctly, the two tests used in the movie are:
  1. Turning on a light switch and noticing that it doesn't really do much to change the lighting of the place you are in.
  2. Trying to read a book. You know you have a book in your hand, you can open it and flip pages, you might be able to read the title, but when it comes to reading the book itself, you just can't.
Again, as far as I know, both techniques are exploiting physiology, having to do with how dream images are created and inserted into your brain.

So maybe dialing a phone is similar to reading?
posted by gregvr at 11:55 AM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: 45moore45, anecdotal evidence.

I've heard other people describe the same things, and when I did a Google search, I found questions like this one and comments in threads like this.

Plus, I don't have any trouble connecting. :)
posted by bibliowench at 11:58 AM on February 22, 2008

Phones just don't work in dreams. That's a very common dreamsign. Same thing with digital clocks, also referenced in Waking Life.

If you find that you can't dial your phone for any reason, remember to ask yourself if you're dreaming. You just might be.
posted by bink at 12:01 PM on February 22, 2008

I'm inclined to think that it's a psychological quirk rather than a biological hypnic jerk-style one. That said, I've heard that it's fairly common that people are unable to read in their dreams; it could be something similar to that. Our brains don't process complex patterns and logic quite the same way when we're dreaming, so New York is next door to Tokyo and our cats start talking to us and we don't think it's weird.

That's the best I've got and I have no idea if it's helpful, but I hope it is.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:04 PM on February 22, 2008

BTW, re the light switch trick, I once tried that in a dream and discovered the switch was made of candy. Thus began the raddest lucid dream I ever had in which the entire world was made of cake and I walked around eating everything. Recurring dream scenarios, like dialing the phone, are an excellent opportunity to experiment with lucid dreaming. If something happens enough times in your dreams, you will start to automatically suspect that you're dreaming when it happens again.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:10 PM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I saw Waking Life, and I can read digital clocks in dreams. I've never tried using a phone.

If you want my theory of what these things have in common; they may involve parts of the brain not involved in dreaming. I myself rarely hear people talking in dreams, but I know what they are saying. I think it means the dream is bypassing the part of my brain devoted to language processing. (Written language is actually more common for me. I can often recall what written or printed words looked like, but I very rarely remember what someone's voice sounded like in a dream. There are other things I do that indicate I am more visually oriented than average.)

Dialing a phone involves some things like number recall, motor memory, and these may be parts of your brain that are not active at the time of your dream. It's speculation, but it sort of makes sense to me.
posted by RobotHero at 12:22 PM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have never been able to read in dream until recently, however I still cannot write nor can I read handwriting.

However the commonality in my experience is that the dream is about frustration. I can't really imagine how else a sense of frustration could manifest in a dream other than the inability to do something you know you can normally do. I've never personally had a problem with phones or clocks, but I have had problems with dumb things like doors and trying to pick up and manipulate rope.

Since no one asked, I overcame the inability to read by trying to make the thing I'm trying to read enormous, and trying to spell it in the dream. That worked for things like signs or short phrases. I was recently able to skim over and read entire pages of a paperback book in a nightmare, but I suspect that was because the terrifying thing in the nightmare was that the pages of the book said different things under different lighting. Under normal lighting, the book was a western (I'm rereading Blood Meridian, but that wasn't the western). When I put the book under red light, most of the words were invisible except for those that changed into other words, such that the few words scattered across the page read "coming to kill you now", "if you put the book down you will see ME", "FEAR THE STAIRS", etc. along with my name. It was all very personal and upsetting.
posted by Pastabagel at 12:22 PM on February 22, 2008

I also find it impossible to dial the phone in a dream! Weird...
posted by toastchee at 12:23 PM on February 22, 2008

Plausible sounding pseudo-explanation: You are trying to use a phone, but subconsciously (or would that be sub-subconsciously?) realize that you do not actually have a phone in your hand. So it doesn't work.

(I can't ever find a working toilet when I'm dreaming. I figure if I ever did, I'd wet the bed.)
posted by happyturtle at 12:38 PM on February 22, 2008

Wow...I have the same phone problem in dreams, too. I never realized other people did. I have no idea why it happens, but every time I've had one of these dreams they always leave me feeling this incredible feeling of frustration. I feel a little better knowing I'm not just a weirdo control freak ;)
posted by DiscourseMarker at 12:47 PM on February 22, 2008

I can read in dreams, but if I look away from the book (or clock, or phone, or whatever) then look back, the words (or numbers) nearly always change. That's my signal to myself that I'm dreaming, I guess.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:56 PM on February 22, 2008

I can dial in my dreams, although for some reason it is most often on a rotary phone.

However, I can also turn out lights, feel pain, smell and taste. Reading is hard, as I can do it, but the words (but not the meaning) will inevitably change if every time I try. I also once dreamed that I was a soldier in a war and went into a bombed out building to urinate in privacy. Halfway through relieving myself (one of those zen-like pees one gets sometimes in bars after holding too many beers in) I realized I was dreaming and woke up in a panic. Thankfully, the sheets were bone dry, although I did have to urinate quite badly.

Your abilities and the way you affect reality and vice-versa in dreams is, I assume, entirely dependent on how vividly you dream. I knew someone in college who dreamed boring, simple dreams in black and white with little or no sound or meaning.
posted by JeremiahBritt at 1:19 PM on February 22, 2008

My house mathematician knows he is dreaming because he can't do complex calculations in dreams. Eg he'll dream about playing a mathematically complex game (a specific game he plays in real life), where normally he would be able to do all the math, and he finds that the math just falls to mush in his head. Then he thinks "oh, so it's a dream".

I can read and write text in dreams, though. In particular if I've been reading a novel, I will generally then have a dream in which I'm writing or reading a story in that author's prose style.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:25 PM on February 22, 2008

Weird; I thought this was just me. I can *dial* a phone in a dream, but I cannot communicate with the person on the other end, and it's usually an emergency. Sometimes they can't hear me, sometimes I can't hear them, sometimes they just refuse to comprehend or act like they don't care.
posted by desjardins at 1:33 PM on February 22, 2008

I can read in dreams, and I can also fly cars.
posted by herbaliser at 2:09 PM on February 22, 2008

Interesting, in my dream this morning I made a phone call, I remember the call but I don't specifically remember dialling - but that's not all that strange, dreams (at least for me) are kinda like movies - just the highlights eg. I also got from my parent's house in Bolton to the centre of Manchester on a bicycle powered flying machine but I don't remember any details of the journey (should have taken over an hour I guess) past seeing my friend walking down the street and picking her up for a lift.
posted by missmagenta at 3:22 PM on February 22, 2008

I'm with desjardins: I can dial a phone, but the people on the other end often don't respond. Typical: there's an emergency, I dial 911, and I get Muzak.

I second the suggestion to use this pattern to help you realize you're dreaming and to make the dream lucid. I had a repeating dream theme: I'd get into an elevator and invariably it would tilt horribly and lurch uncontrollably in all the wrong directions. I got to the point where if I was about to step into an elevator, I'd suddenly become aware I was dreaming. I would say to myself, "This is a dream, so this elevator is going to be crazy. Brace yourself." Or I'd take the stairs.
posted by PatoPata at 3:41 PM on February 22, 2008

Huh! Same here. I also have wondered about this -- it's like some essential part of your brain is asleep along with your consciousness. I haven't tried the phone but will tonight, because despite not being able to read or write without supreme effort, I can often control a dream, as in lucid dreaming. I think it's pretty funny, but I would like to hear from someone with the medical knowledge what the mechanism is here.

Similar to being stoned, really. Or so I would imagine.
posted by theredpen at 3:59 PM on February 22, 2008

It's interesting that so many of us still dial in dreams. IRL, everyone is pretty much in my phone book, so I just push a button. However the people I reach on the phone in Slumberland either can't hear me or aren't the people I want to talk to. Perhaps it's a reminder from the Other Side that no matter how crappy our phone service is now, it could always be worse.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:10 PM on February 22, 2008

Weird, I recently had a dream where I had to dial 911. I dialed it correctly, but I kept getting put on hold on the other end and never got to talk to anyone.
posted by nakedsushi at 6:30 PM on February 22, 2008

Best answer: AHHHH! I have this very same problem, and it gives me the howling fantods. It generally happens if I need to get in touch with somone in an emergency, or has to do with a work related crisis; either something terrible is happening at work, or I can't get to work because I'm in Iowa, but it's not really Iowa because there are penguins with teeth and also I'm not wearing pants. Sometimes I simply can't dial the numbers properly, sometimes there are only 2s on the keypad, sometimes the phone turns into crumbly foam, but never ever can I use the phone.

The positive part is that once I realize that I am dreaming because I am unable to dial the phone, I can kick into lucid dreaming with at least partial control. I can dial the number and call out on my hand, or use the phone as a remote control to change the events of the dream.

I don't really know what would cause a person to be unable to dial a phone in dreams. It's interesting to see that so many other people have this same problem. I tend to think it's partially to do with being unable to process certain fine symbolic details (though I can read and write relatively well in dreams) and partially to do with feelings of frustration or loss of control.
posted by louche mustachio at 7:57 PM on February 22, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions. I hadn't thought about the similar inability to read or do math in dreams - my dream persona is embarrassingly unintellectual - but I'm wondering if, like many of you have suggested, our sleeping brains don't process the symbolic systems we take for granted in real life. And that's probably as far as my liberal arts education is going to let me go with this one.

But if I dream about a phone tonight, I'm eating it.
posted by bibliowench at 8:18 PM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've never had a problem with reading in my dreams. In fact, just recently I had a dream where I was in India (I've never been there), and I saw the prices of things in Rupees. When I woke up, I was curious about the Rupee amounts, so I used a currency converter, and sure enough they were dead-on or pretty close to the prices of those things here in America. I've never had any reason to *know* the currency conversion rate, so this dream was completely bizarre to me.

Further, I completely suck at any sort of math when I'm awake, so being so dead-on in my dreams just boggles my little mind.
posted by Zarya at 1:04 AM on February 23, 2008

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