What Controls our Dreams?
Last night I dreamt that I had slept through my alarm clock. The red numbers flashed 10:15am. I had missed breakfast and class had already begun. I had to scramble to get ready. I couldn’t find my toothbrush. I couldn’t find the right books. I couldn’t find my key. Then I woke up to the sound of my alarm. I awoke to a different reality that seemed more real than the one I was previously in, and yet in the moment of searching for pens and book bags that disheveled, frantic world seemed alarmingly real. Why had I dreamt of oversleeping? What caused that dream to occur? Who or what controls and creates my dreams?
Today’s science cannot fully explain the phenomenon of dreaming. Dreaming is a subjective, personal, internal event that is extremely difficult to monitor, decode and decipher. The process of dreaming is linked to several functions of the body, most commonly the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) cycle of sleep, which is the deepest state of sleep where the body is most still and unresponsive to external senses, yet the brain is highly active.
For several years, the common thought concerning REM sleep and dreaming was that they were inextricably linked. REM cycles generated dreams as a result of its physiologic process and dreams were only present during REM sleep. Thus, it was the REM cycle itself that was believed to control our dreams. While REM sleep and dreaming are closely associated with each other, recent studies suggest that they are not dependent on one another. REM sleep can occur without dreams and dreams can take place without the REM cycle. (1)
Between 5-30% of participants in a study reported not experiencing dreams when they were awakened from REM sleep. Between 5-10% of participants awakened from a Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) state reported experiencing dreams. (1) While the percentages still suggest that a majority of dreaming occurs during the REM cycle, the data also indicates that not all dreaming occurs during REM sleep. REM and dreaming do not necessarily fit hand in hand, and the mechanisms do not necessarily influence one another.
The REM cycle and dreaming operate in two different components of the brain. The mechanisms of dreaming are focused actively in the forebrain. REM sleep is predominantly activated through brain stem neurons, playing merely a passive role in the forebrain. Despite the fact that dreaming and REM sleep operate through two separate physiological processes and distinct mechanisms in the brain, there is still an undeniable but not inextricable relationship between the two functions. This can be attributed to the fact that dreams involve cerebral activation during sleep and the highest levels of activation during sleep are detected during the REM cycle. (1) Dreaming occurs under the same physiologic conditions of the human brain as REM sleep, but not necessarily as a product of the REM cycle.
In addition to the REM cycle, drugs also have a relationship with the process of dreaming. Dreams can be enhanced and altered, becoming more vivid, elaborate and lifelike through the application of stimulant drugs such as dopaminergic agents. (1) Dreams can also be nullified through damage or inhibition to the forebrain’s ventromesial frontal fibres. Both processes of stimulating and inhibiting dreaming cause no physiologic change to the REM cycles. Whether or not a dream is artificially enhanced or negated, the REM cycles unaffectedly persist.
Examples of drugs influencing dreams are extensive. If you read the bottles of prescription drugs, an increase or decrease in the content, duration, or vivacity of dreaming is often listed as a side effect. Observations were made in a psychiatric hospital regarding drugs and dreaming. The inpatients that were given tricyclic and neuroleptic drugs before they went to sleep at night experienced nightmares and frightening dreams. Inpatients who took them in the morning did not experience troublesome dreams at night. (4). In this study it’s important to note that the subjects had existing mental disorders, which could have affected the results.
REM cycles share a close relationship with the process of dreaming, despite the haziness surrounding the precise science. Drugs have also shown to influence the patterns and characteristic of dreams. The self and the I-function are yet another process that is capable of altering and manipulating dreams.
Most individuals go to bed at night and succumb to the subconscious process of dreaming, where the imagination runs freely and the I-function seems to relinquish control. However, there are individuals who fall asleep and experience what are called lucid dreams. A lucid dreamer is “conscious” of the events taking place before them in their dreams and they have the power to alter and manipulate the chain of events that occur. Lucid dreaming is more common than one might think. About 20% of individuals are reported to regularly experience lucid dreams and most people will have at least one lucid dream throughout their lifetime. (2)
There are several “techniques” that are described to elicit a lucid dream. (3) Good Morning America aired a special on lucid dreaming. The specialists explained that everyone is capable of inducing a lucid dream by following a simple regime: focus intently on a subject matter that you wish to dream about right before falling asleep, and tell yourself to remember that you will be dreaming. This way your mind will slip from conscious to unconsciousness with a pathway of thought already forged for the night’s dreams. Allowing the self to recognize the state of dreaming, while dreaming, will enable lucidity. (3) The ability to induce a lucid dream takes practice and time and it not necessarily as easy as it may sound. The same way meditation trains the mind to experience greater bodily control; repeated attempts at lucid dreaming will strengthen abilities to manipulate dreams.
Some psychologists place warning on the practice of lucid dreaming. If control by the I-function becomes too involved in the dream, the individual may lose the gift of uncontrolled thought, which is arguably the most valuable aspect of a dream. Dreams have the ability to explore the subconscious and shed light upon that which we do not know about ourselves. (3)
This concept of lucid dreaming sparks broader philosophical questions: what does it mean to be asleep and awake, aware and unconscious? With respect to the external world, these lucid dreamers are asleep, but they retain a level of self-awareness, perception and control which resembles a state of being awake, yet that is focused in a different reality. Lucid dreaming provides a clear example of how the self can take control of our dreams. Stimulants and inhibitors also manipulate the state, duration and intensity of dreaming. REM sleep, as far as science can tell, has a tangled blurry relationship with the act of dreaming. It is significantly easier to determine what affects our dreams rather than why we dream in the first place, due mainly to their subjective, personal and internal nature. It is clear that there are both external and internal factors that have a hand in controlling our dreams. The REM, drug and I-function examples suggest that no one factor controls the process of dreaming, but a compilation of several functions and mechanisms. I have investigated three factors that aid in the control of dreaming, which leads me to a further question: what other internal and external features influences our dreams?
1) Solms, Mark. “Dreaming and REM Sleep are Controlled by Different Brain Mechanisms.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2000.
2) Lucid Dreaming: Psychophysiological Studies of Consciousness during REM Sleep
3) In Your Dreams: Manipulating Your Dreams
4) Frightening Dreams and Dosage Schedule of Tricyclic and Neuroleptic Drugs http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?db=pubmed&cmd=Retrieve&dopt=AbstractPlus&list_uids=31416&query_hl=5&itool=pubmed_docsum