And then one day, people stopped dreaming.
It took months for the world to notice; in retrospect, it’s surprising it didn’t take them longer.
The first ones to really notice were the kids – the minority not hooked up to the Uninet, whose sleep was not aided in any way. Dreams for them were still an essential part of life, yet something they were not old enough to take for granted. Parents and doctors unsurprisingly attributed their claims and complaints of not dreaming any more as results of stress or sleep disorders. Some went as far as to prescribe medication to help them sleep better.
Attention was finally drawn when three groups of neurologists, working independently to determine the effects of prolonged presence inside the Uninet on the human brain, noticed that their subjects had ceased to show any signs of neural activity associated with dreaming. Their surprise increased manifold when, upon publishing, it became clear that the approximate time that all subjects had stopped dreaming coincided to a 24 hour sleep cycle. The mainstream media was alerted to this, and amidst the torrent of voices confirming (once they had shut down their Uninet access to check) that they too had stopped dreaming, it took barely a fortnight for the penny to drop for all humans – no one dreamed any longer.
Extensive research was done over the course of the next year to determine why this had happened, whether it could be reversed, and how the world should cope if it couldn’t. No conclusive cause or remedy was found. One commonly held theory suggested that the Information War and the consequent wiring of people to the Uninet, even during sleep, had somehow fried the part of our brain circuitry responsible for dreaming. Of course, this did nothing to explain why people who had never plugged on to Uninet ceased to dream too. This has always remained unexplained.
Soon, effects of this phenomenon started being felt across every sphere of human life. Student performances, especially among kids who were still in school, showed a noticeable decline. It took a year or two to register this and attribute it as an effect of not dreaming, and a few more years for the world to completely revise its syllabi and methods of teaching to cope with this unforeseen change.
The artistic communities were affected much faster and in a more noticeable manner. Music, art, literature – all hit new lows in terms of both quantity and quality. The quantity recovered somewhat later on after a few consistent years of diminishing production of artistic content. According to people who had at some point of time lived in a world where everyone could dream, however, the quality of art and music was never quite the same. While it is commonly held that these people exaggerated this effect out of nostalgia, it cannot be argued that dreams often used to form an important part of the creative process for a lot of people, and their creative output was definitely affected once they stopped dreaming.
Children born after the event never dreamed, or at least had no remembrance of dreaming once they were old enough to be asked about it. It also became a fast rising problem for parents to explain to their kids the concept of dreaming. This was partly because there was no way for these kids to understand what they could not physically experience. It was especially distressing because grownups would go on and on about dreaming while being unable to explain to them in coherent terms what it really meant. They might as well have been trying to teach their kids the colour of the breeze or the taste of a distasteful word. Dreams are hard to recollect and remember at the best of times, and for a world which could not dream any more, it was ever fading and always an uphill task.
Not surprisingly, the demand for synesthetic experiences and the use of recreational drugs increased manifold. Within half a decade, the industry was at par with the worldwide prescription drugs’ industry. This was not surprising, since hallucinogenics provided the closest alternative to the experience of dreaming. People clamoured towards new drugs which promised synaesthesia and dream like experiences. Drug related deaths also increased at an alarming rate. The recreational drugs’ industry went unchecked until governments worldwide saw wisdom in ceasing crackdown and embracing the reality that drugs would be a necessary part of human existence like it had never been before. In a series of sweeping reforms, several drugs which were banned till then were legalised across the world – MJ became a prescription drug in most countries, an over-the-counter drug in many others.
Depression and other psychological problems also hit record highs alongside the increased drug usage. So did the number of suicides. For the first decade, the number of suicides was higher than deaths by accidents, homicides or natural disasters. The world’s population and food problems looked like they would get solved any day – just not in a way anyone could have expected even a few years back.
It was a cold, quiet world.