Stanford "S&D" Alumni Puts Passion For Dreaming To Use In Novel

An interview with the author by Curtis Lovelace | See more interviews with sleep specialists.

Shaun Phillips, a long-time friend of mine from Tennessee, recently published his first novel, Dreaming, which combines his passion for psychology and the science of sleep and dreams with fantasy fiction.

A native of Spring Hill, Tennessee, Shaun graduated with a bachelor's degree in psychology from Stanford University, where he was an All-American member of the swimming team as well member of the U.S. National Team. In Dreaming, Shaun incorporates his athletic experiences with his lifelong curiosity for the mysterious world of dreams.

Because of his interest in his own dreams, while at Stanford Shaun enjoyed Dr. William Dement's famous "Sleep and Dreams" course and also participated in a sleep study which focused on the effects of sleep debt on athletic performance. I had the opportunity to interview Shaun to find out a little about his knowledge and passion for sleep and dreaming, and how his experiences with dreaming have affected his own life today.

Q: Why did you decide to pursue the topic of sleep and dreams in your recent novel?

Shaun: I've always been fascinated by dreams, as I imagine most people are, and like most people I knew very little of them... only that I have and enjoy them very much. While at Stanford, I enrolled in Sleep and Dreams, which opened the world of dreams to me - the science and the remaining mystery behind the phenomena only further increased my interest. I then participated in a sleep study with Cheri Mah, Dr. Dement's assistant, that correlated athletic performance with sleep debt, or lack thereof. Upon that foundation I integrated sleep and dreams into my novel based on the question, "What if our dreams were real? What makes being awake any more real than being asleep and dreaming?" As with any truly good fiction novel, I did my best to interweave fact and fantasy to create a plausible, yet fantastical story.

Q: What role does sleep and dreaming play in your novel?

Shaun: A prominent one, to no less of a degree than magic plays in the Harry Potter novels. Dreaming is the story of a freshman in college whose two lives, one awake and one asleep and dreaming, begin to collide and, because he wakes up remembering these dreams with more detail than we normally do, he's able to better grasp the possibility that one life is no more real or meaningful than the other.

Q: What kind of research did you do? What are the most interesting things that you found out?

Shaun: I relied heavily on the knowledge gained from the Sleep and Dreams class material, and also my personal experiences with sleeping and dreaming. It's hard to pick a "most interesting" factoid, and I think my answer is going to be vague because, in my opinion, the most interesting thing about dreams is that we still know so very little about them. Science has no way of answering why we dream, or where we dream... so the premise of my book is technically plausible. The premise that dreams are real is no more far fetched than the belief many have in an afterlife. It cannot be proven or disproved, at least scientifically... yet.

"The most interesting thing about dreams is that we still know so very little about them"

Q: You've said that the book is based a good deal on your life at Stanford. What advice or insight can you give to college students based on your personal experiences?

Shaun: It's hard to boil that down to a few sentences, though the book has a lot of advice woven into the main character's dialogue and thought processes. My best piece of advice would be to enjoy the ride. That sounds cliche, but is so very important. I watched many of my peers spend so much time with their faces buried in books or in a pool or what have you, that they didn't seem to appreciate the magical world of Stanford around them. There's really no place quite like it... it's an environment many fantasize about, and one that the students get to live every day, so enjoy it for all that it is and don't let a single day go to waste by wishing you were somewhere else, or by being too stressed to appreciate how lucky you really are to be there.

Q: Changing directions a little bit, as an All-American and U.S. national team member for the Stanford swimming team, what can you say about the relationship between sleep and athletic performance? Is there anything that you learned about sleep that you applied to your athletic routine? Any noticeable results? (sleep study results?)

Shaun: Sleep is just as important, if not more so, than diet, to an athlete. Getting less than 8-9 hours a night is just as harmful, in my opinion and experience, as eating a dozen donuts every meal. Our bodies are meant to function with a minimum amount of sleep and without it, we build a debt that undermines mental, emotional and physical performance. My time in Cheri's sleep study proved that. Far too many college students, athletes or not, fail to embrace sleep as a critically important aspect of their academic, athletic and social health.

"Getting less than 8-9 hours a night is just as harmful, in my opinion and experience, as eating a dozen donuts every meal"

I definitely incorporated my adequate sleep cycle (approx 9 hours 20 min a night) into my in-season training and competition routines... and experienced marked improvements in both practice and meets.

Q: You've said that you have experienced vivid and fantastic dreams. Can you tell us a little bit about your dreaming and how it has effected the way you live and see the world?

Shaun: Ah, I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you. Or you can just read the book :)

Seriously though, we all experience vivid and fantastic dreams... we just don't remember them when we wake up. Where I differ from most is that I try and cherish the faint memory of those dreams as if they really occurred. I don't lend more validity to the feelings I have from "real life" experiences than I do my dreaming experiences. I may not remember the specifics, but I often awake feeling as if I just got home from a fantastic adventure. My heart and soul tell me I did amazing things, even though my memory doesn't corroborate. The same way we're all pretty sure we were happy as babies and can't remember... that's how I feel about my dreams. Because of that, it often gives me hope, especially after a particularly rough or depressing day/week/month, to look forward to my "second life" each night. It erases some of the loneliness sometimes.

Q: Do you still have these dreams? And if so, is there anything that you do specifically with/for your dreams?

Shaun: Everyone has dreams every single night that, while they're occurring, are as real to your mind as waking experiences are. The disconnect occurs in that we don't consolidate them to long term memory. That's why you can remember parts of a dream if you wake up in the middle of the night, but not once you've awoken for the day and done something distracting (eating breakfast, turning off an alarm, etc.)... if you do wake up and are still thinking about a dream, that's when you are sometimes able to concentrate on and remember it long enough to push the memory into long term storage and carry it with you throughout the day. I do often try to awaken slowly and without distraction (e.g. no alarm) so that I have the opportunity to hold on to some of these memories.

Q: Any other thoughts on the topic or on Stanford's "Sleep and Dreams" course?

Shaun: There's a reason it's Stanford's most popular class... Dr. Dement is a truly unique and incredible educator. The subject matter is parallel to none in terms of relevance and interest to all of our lives, and the sense of true life fantasy and adventure that comes from paying better attention and lending validity to our dreams is a lesson that I believe every student should have the chance to experience.

Thus, as Shaun has pointed out, our dreams are a very interesting and mysterious part of our sleep. Some dreams have inspired people to greatness, others have solved scientific problems, and yet others have made completely no sense at all to the dreamer. Although much research has been done on dreams, there has yet to be any one conclusive theory established by the scientific community. Therefore, it is up to each individual to delve into their own dreams in order to find meaning and significance. By doing so, hopefully each person can learn something about themselves and the mystery of the human subconscious.

If you are interested in learning more about Shaun's novel, "Dreaming," check it out here on Amazon, where it's been getting some good reviews lately.

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Welcome! This site is continuously being created by students of Dr. William C. Dement's Sleep And Dreams course at Stanford University.

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