Displaying Dreams

Fred McGavran

No one has ever seen another person’s dreams. When Triglyf Loench showed me how the Baklanov equations could be applied to brain wave research, I felt that ecstatic joy that only a saint or a psychotic can experience. A Nobel Prize, more adulation than Freud, and a public offering larger than Facebook’s would all be mine. And now, well, let me tell you.

While in the Doctor of Psychology program at City University, I was listed as the third author after my professor and a post doc of a survey article on electroshock therapy and the second author after the same professor of an exploratory article on brain wave encephalography during dreams that became my dissertation. With my degree and these student publications, I thought a career in research at a major university or medical center was within my grasp. With rejection after rejection, however, I learned how many PsyDs were chasing how few jobs.

To stay off unemployment, I became an adjunct in my old department, earning far less than the loans I had taken out every year to complete my degree. Maybe that’s why they kept recruiting new PsyD candidates, so they will have a steady supply of low budget instructors to teach the basic courses that lure students into advanced degree programs. My only consolation was that my thesis advisor kept me on for a few hours a week as a lab assistant.         

On Friday nights I went out with my old classmates to one of those beer- soaked bars at the edge of the campus that survive on graduate student resentment. Most of the drinkers were PsyDs or MFAs in creative writing, but occasionally Triglyf Loench, a math PhD joined us. Still in his mid-20s, Loench had that uncut, shabby, introverted appearance that defines the mathematical prodigy. If his degree had been from a major university, his thesis on the Soviet mathematician Dmitri Baklanov would have landed him a tenure track position.

One soggy night Loench had told me about his fascination with what Baklanov called his “dream equations,” so elegant and maniacally complicated that few mathematicians could study them for long without suffering mental exhaustion or a breakdown. The best non-mathematical explanation was that they resembled unraveling a tangled roll of thread to the point where they nearly described the thread and the tangles as a whole, only to dissipate into nothingness with the last strand. Apart from a cryptic remark about the danger of pursuing a theory too far, Baklanov did not hint about any practical application before his suicide in 1957.

In his dissertation Loench speculated that they might describe neurological processes in the human brain, but he could not determine which ones. He was working now, he said, on an algorithm that would predict which post-grads would go crazy, commit suicide, become alcoholics, or go into life insurance sales in the next 18 months.

After three beers and a dinner of beef jerky, I asked him to predict my future.

“Can’t do it, Larry,” he said, averting his eyes. “Not enough data.”

“What data do you need?”

“Enrollments, graduations, job placements and post graduate medical records for all graduate students in the United States over the last 10 years.”

“Why don’t you just use us here” I said, and we all laughed so hard that someone ordered another round.

Loench was devastated. His research was no joke to him.

"Listen, Triggy,” I said to reassure him. “I can get you some really interesting data on brain scan topography during dreaming. Could you do anything with that?”

Loench fixed me with that intense, half-distracted look mathematicians get when they scribble equations across a blackboard until they reach the beginning of time or the depths of insanity.

“I’d like to see them,” he said.

That is how Triggy Loench and I and in a very real sense Dmitri Baklanov became collaborators. While I was working in the lab, I would copy the data from topographical dream scans onto a flash drive and give it to Triggy at the bar. No need to leave an email record of what we were doing; both of us had experienced becoming a second or third author after tenured faculty had hijacked our research. His work went so well that he started buying beers for me Friday nights.

And then he stopped coming to the bar. When I asked about him, someone said that no one had seen him for a month. He never called; we had agreed to avoid leaving any phone record of our collaboration until we were ready to publish. I had to get his address from the math department in exchange for a promise to let them know what had happened to him.

Triggy had a studio apartment two bus rides away from the campus. Climbing to his floor, I wondered how he could think or sleep through the blare of rock music and the reek of marijuana. When I found his apartment, I expected to find him dead. I rang the bell, then knocked and then pounded on the door. Nothing. Suddenly something clicked, and I could see an eye peering back at me through the peep hole. With a clank of a dead bolt, the door flew open.

“Larry, you’re here!” Triggy exclaimed.

He was wearing a filthy T-shirt and shorts, and the place smelled like a garbage dump. The shades were down, and the only light was from a computer screen on a card table.

“I’ve done it,” he said. “Baklanov’s equations really do apply to dreams. All the data confirms it.”

“Have you written it up?” I said, closing the door and following him inside.

I nearly tripped over a pile of pizza boxes.

“Oh, no,” he said, dropping his voice. “It’s so much bigger than that. I have an algorithm to convert the raw data coming from the sleeper into a graphic presentation of his dream.”

“You mean we can see our own dreams?”

“Bring me a scanner, and I’ll show you.”

So that afternoon I borrowed a scanner and electrodes from the lab and took them to Triggy. To celebrate, I also took a six pack.

“Who’s going to be our first subject?” I asked.

“Me,” he said. “You know how to work the equipment. Just be sure to save the results so I can see them, too.”

We linked his computer with the scanner, and I fixed the electrodes to his head. He lay down on the pizza boxes.

“How can you go to sleep at a time like this?” I said as I was booting up the scanner.

“I haven’t been able to sleep for weeks. Give me one of those beers.”

He was asleep in minutes. Lucky for him, I thought, as his computer screen went black. Checking the scanner, I could see it was working properly, recording the typical brain wave patterns of REM sleep. Then a new wave appeared, and I saw a flicker at the edge of the computer screen. He was dreaming.

He was moving through a huge garage holding his keys and looking at the “alarm” button. What was he afraid of? The garage kept changing. Sometimes he was walking from floor to floor, and sometimes he was in an elevator going to different floors, always looking at the alarm. Suddenly I understood. He was trying to find his car by sounding the alarm. On the floor Triggy groaned in frustration. After a few minutes the screen went black, and he slept several hours without another dream.

The psychologists will have a field day over this, I thought. The greatest mathematical mind of the century dreams about looking for something he lost in a garage that keeps changing to frustrate him. The rest of the night just flew by, as I imagined life after we had an initial round of financing from the venture capitalists so that everyone in the country could watch their own dreams whenever they were bored with reruns. When Triggy woke up, he drank another beer and went to the bathroom.

“Show me,” he said, returning to the computer screen.

I hit play back, and nothing happened. I have never seen anyone so frustrated.

“What happened? Didn’t we have it hooked up right?”

I checked all the connections and ran the on line tests again.

"Everything’s working,” I said and told him about the dream.

He didn’t remember any of it. That did not bother us. Most people forget their dreams.

“Let’s try it again,’ he said.

“With whom?”

“With you.”

So I put the electrodes on my head, drank another two beers and lay down on the floor.

"Triggy, this place is the pits,” was the last thing I said before dozing off.

 I woke up an hour later when he was shaking the computer.

“It was the most beautiful landscape I had ever seen, but the computer didn’t save it.”

“Let me see,” I said when I returned from the bathroom.

Everything was connected; everything was working. When I opened up the program to see what had happened, I thought that some command from Triggy’s visualization program must have caused the dream to be erased as soon as it was displayed.

“I can’t understand it,” he said.

“Listen, Trig, it’s Friday. Let’s go to the bar and relax. We’ll get wired up again later.”

We had to take my car. Triggy forgot his keys.

We weren’t into our second beers when Triggy had a crowd around our table, listening to him talk about his dream machine. I had never seen him so animated. Everyone thought it was crazy, but he was so excited that Kenny and Mandy agreed to try it. A dozen people followed us back from the bar. Maybe the fact that Kenny and Mandy were getting serious increased the interest in their dreams. They had been dating since graduate school and had finally saved enough to go to Aruba.

It isn’t easy to go to sleep with so many people watching, but Kenny and Mandy were so far gone that all they had to do was close their eyes. Then, to a chorus of “Oh my God!” and “I don’t believe it!” their most intimate and idiotic secrets were exposed. Mandy was alone, naked, on a beach with an orange sky, and Kenny was riding something like a motorcycle or a dinosaur along a super highway. After they awakened, we gathered around the scanner to replay their dreams. The screen was dark. All we had of their dreams were our memories; they couldn’t remember them at all.

Triggy nearly went out of his mind trying to fix the algorithm, but whenever he thought he had succeeded, the entire program failed. When he was so exhausted he could sleep for an hour or two, we wired him up, and I watched frustration dreams of looking for his cell or finishing the high school gym requirement before the end of the semester.

Kenny called asking me to tell him again what Mandy had dreamed.

“About Aruba, right?” he said.

 “About the most beautiful beach in the world. Has something happened?”

“I’m at the airport. She missed our flight. When I called her, she said she didn’t know anything about it.”

 In other words, she had dumped him. I didn’t know what to say. He took it so badly that he even stopped riding his racing bike.

I didn’t tell Triggy, because he was too upset. He had stopped eating and nearly stopped drinking, except for a six pack to put himself to sleep whenever he thought he had fixed the program. All he talked about was the algorithm, even when the landlord put an eviction notice on the door.

“Are these yours?” he asked me one afternoon, holding out his car keys.

“Oh, you found your keys,” I said.

“They aren’t mine.”

“Your car’s out back in the alley.”

“I don’t have a car.”

“What about your cell phone?” I asked, beginning to understand.

“I don’t have a cell,” he exploded. “Will you stop trying to tell me everything I know?”

“Don’t you see what’s happening?” I argued. “The algorithm deletes the subject of the dream from your memory when it displays it on the screen. That’s why you don’t remember your keys and your car and your cell.”

“There’s nothing the matter with my memory!” he screamed.

“Listen, Trig . . .”

“Get out!”

So I left him there with his algorithms and computer and the scanner, and returned to my teaching and lab work. But I couldn’t forget him. Several days later, I returned to his apartment. A handful of parking tickets were stuffed under the windshield wipers on his car. When I knocked on the door, the only response was a roach that ran out over my shoe.

“Trig!” I called. “Are you in there?”

A rotten smell oozed from inside.

“Go away! You woke me up!”

A week later no one answered the door. He’s dead, I thought and called the police.

It took over an hour for the landlord and an officer to arrive. All that time I was worrying about how much I could tell them about what he was doing without getting myself in trouble. Just as the officer was opening the door, a voice behind us said: “What the hell are you doing?”

Triggy was standing there with his laundry bag over his shoulder, cleaner and sharper and thinner than I had seen him in months.

“Mr. Loench?” the officer said. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” he replied. “Is there some problem?”

“You owe two months’ rent,” the landlord said.

“No problem,” he said, “as long as you get an exterminator in here.”

He opened the door. The place was clean, the bed was made, and the scanner and computer were on his card table.

“Larry, are those yours?” he asked me.

“I’ll take them,” I said, glancing at the policeman.

After the officer and the landlord left, I asked Trig what had happened.

“Nothing happened. My department head said that he’d fired me, but I told him I never got the message, so he’s taking me back. We’ll have to go out for a beer sometime.”

“I’d like that,” I said, picking up the scanner. “Don’t you want to keep your computer?”

“I don’t have a computer,” he said.

I didn’t return the scanner to the lab, though. That evening, after my Subway and beer and two hours grading papers, I booted up Triggy’s the computer and hit “Play.” For a second the screen was black, and then it broke up into a series of equations stretching out from a computer. They rolled across endless blackboards, soaring up into the stars and down into a black sea and finally spinning off into a dazzling sun. Trig had found the algorithm to record his dreams, but as he was testing it on himself, he had dreamed the equations and they spun out of his memory. When they were gone, a new Trig emerged with a personality unburdened by the obsessions of the past. He was free, but he had lost everything he was working to achieve.

Now I was the only person in the world with the equations to see and record dreams. With that computer I was the ultimate therapist; I could see into a person’s most intimate self; I could exorcise their darkest thoughts; I was like Freud; I was like God. But how would I know what a patient was going to dream? If they dreamed about their obsession; it was gone. If they dreamed about their job, or their childhood, or even the way to work, that was gone as well. No one putting on the electrodes could know whether they would awaken a new person freed from their darkest thoughts, or the same person, still burdened by those thoughts and unable to function in everyday life.

So I returned the scanner to the lab. I still see Triggy on Friday nights at the bar, an aging math prodigy trying to find someone to listen to him talk about his work on the theory of numbers. Like so many post docs, he is trying to recover his dreams. He has taught himself how to use a computer all over again and has started to date Mandy.

Sometimes, when I have had a bad day, I boot up his computer and watch his dream spin like a roller coaster through the universe toward an awaiting sun. If I ever become desperate, I may wire myself up to see what I dream, too. I might lose everything, or I might become a new person. It is the ultimate lottery: freedom or your soul.