Lucid Dreaming: Part 1

I really hate it when a dream seems so real that I believe the events actually happened. I’ll do something terrible or embarrassing, and the next day I will feel like everybody remembers I did those things (only, of course, to realize that it never happened and they don’t know why I’m acting strangely). If only there was a way to tell myself that I’m just dreaming, I could have some control over the situation.

Well, some say there is a way. Lucid dreaming is the phenomenon in which the dreamers become aware that they are dreaming and are able, in some cases, to assert themselves over the content of the dream. If you are not making a conscious effort to achieve lucidity, it may happen infrequently, but you have probably experienced it at some point in your life. I remember my most vivid lucid dream. I became aware I was dreaming, but I still didn’t grasp the potential for experimentation. My dream still had to follow a story, so I created transitions instead of abrupt changes.

It went like this: I was walking down a highway and off to my left was this great prehistoric forest. Huge vines and massive trees set down in a valley. I was amazed and thought “I wish I could show this place to my friends…but it’s a dream.” With this realization, a light rain started to fall. I didn’t try to stop the rain. Instead, I created a place to escape the rain. On the other side of the highway, a strip mall opened up. The signs were all spinning like counters waiting for me to choose what kind of store each belonged to. What did I want? “Hmm, I could really go for some frozen yogurt.” A sign stopped on the TCBY logo and I went in to dry off and enjoy my dessert.

I hadn’t been trying at lucid dreaming; I wasn’t expecting it. I was unprepared for it, so I feel like I didn’t make the most of it. It’s hard to say if I could have controlled the dream any more if I had been expecting it, because our minds are wired to believe what they see. This is why hallucinations are so dangerous. Even if you rationally understand that your friend’s face couldn’t turn into a pile of squirming maggots, if that’s what you see, it will be hard to convince you it’s not real. For the same reason, no matter how strange and surreal the dream becomes, our brain is willing to accept it as reality.

EEG readings show higher amounts of beta-1 waves during lucid dreaming, which seems to indicate conscious thought. It can begin during a dream (dream-initiated), or you can transition directly from awake to dreaming without losing self-awareness (wake-initiated). I believe on occasion I’ve been able to transition through wake-initiated lucid dreaming, but it is very difficult to maintain conscious focus once you cross that threshold. I will close my eyes and begin dictating my environment, only to realize in a few minutes that my attention has wandered, wake and try again. Truly, if you need to get to sleep and your body/mind won’t let you, just close your eyes and really try to build a story. Don’t just think about things you have to do, visualize yourself doing them step by step. You’ll be dreaming in no time. Probably not lucid dreaming, but you’ll at least be sleeping.

A fair amount of research has been done on lucid dreaming, and one observation has been that the perception of time seems to be about the same during lucid dreaming as while awake. How do we gauge this? Eye signals. During REM sleep, our eyes jump around quite a bit, but imagine for a moment that you realize you’re dreaming and you have the ability to control where you look. Yes, you’re actually just looking at your eyelids, but your brain is still telling you what you see, so without breaking from the dreamscape, you are able to give messages to the waking world where scientists with electrooculograms record your activities.

The eyes are our best bridge for communication with the dreamer. In fact, devices have been marketed to lucid dreaming hopefuls that produce a blinking red light which is visible through the eyelid as a signal to the dreamer. Many of these devices were discontinued due to discomfort and poor success rate. The manufacturer says that success will dramatically increase if you follow the instructions on reality checking, but if you’re able to reality check in a dream, congrats you’re already expressing conscious control. They will lead you to believe that if you couldn’t do the reality check, the device isn’t working because you’ve failed to do your part. Sounds like a snake oil to me.

Awareness in dreams has been recorded and given names throughout history, especially early Buddhism. The term lucid dreaming wasn’t used until 1913 when Frederick van Eeden used it in a commentary article on sleep. It would be interesting to know, based on yesterday’s entry about the chemicals of sleep, what role adenosine plays in lucid dreaming. If you remember, adenosine is responsible for suppressing arousal, so would it also be responsible for keeping us dreaming once we’ve realized we are dreaming? Would higher levels of adenosine allow us more conscious control over the dream for a longer time or would it simply prevent us from realizing we’re dreaming?

Aside: Seriously, you need to watch Inception if you haven’t already. It’s pretty dark, but very relevant, especially with the inclusion of reality checks.

When I asked about the most interesting facet of sleep/dreaming, lucid dreaming topped the list of responses, so I would like to spend more time on this subject. Consider this Part One and check back soon for the continuation where I will discuss some methods used to achieve lucidity. Tomorrow’s free topic is just around the corner. Are you prepared?

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Chemicals of Sleep

Strange tidbits of dreams are all I remember this week. I remember one night I was back at an old house I used to rent with my ex. It was in even worse shape than I remember, but the weird part was, in the dream, the reason we had moved out before had something to do with water damage to the walls because a river had flooded and there were dolphins swimming by the windows. Then last night I had some dream about too many tomatoes. We had dozens of tomatoes, but we needed “four more” for whatever it was we were making. Maybe it had part to do with the shopping and part to do with a game I’d been playing where I needed just a few more things to craft some armor.

Anyway, today’s topic isn’t tomatoes or dolphins. Today, I’ll be talking about the chemicals of sleep. I mentioned monoamines before and they really play the most significant role in the sleep cycle. Norepinephrine, serotonin and histamine practically dictate when you sleep, how long you sleep, and when you wake up.

Serotonin is one of the feel-good chemicals in your body. It builds up throughout the day. This is the chemical targeted by sleep-deprivation treatments for depression, and certain drugs are prescribed to depression/anxiety sufferers to block the reuptake of serotonin so that more is available in the body (SSRIs and MAOIs). It is essential for feelings of well-being, as well as appetite, memory and learning, and even wound healing. In fact, bleeding signals an increase in the level of serotonin to the site of the wound. Some stinging insects’ venom contains serotonin which tricks the body into thinking it has some bleeding wound, which is why some stings are very painful.

Serotonin has a lot to do with eating also. Ninety percent of the body’s serotonin is stored in the gut, and the amount present gives the body environmental clues about scarcity of resources. This in turn has an effect on libido, since it would be unwise to reproduce in an environment with too little food to support additional offspring. High carbohydrate diets low in protein seem to increase serotonin levels (so there may actually be something to those ads about vegan sex drive).

So what does this have to do with sleep? Serotonin is synthesized by tryptophan. Yes, that stuff in turkey that makes you sleep is the precursor to serotonin. A step later along this line is melatonin. You can get this as a natural supplement to aid in sleep, but what it actually does is regulate your circadian rhythm. Biologically, melatonin is secreted in darkness regardless of what schedule you or any other animal prefers to keep. Nocturnal animals experience melatonin secretions at night just the same as diurnal animals, because the cues are visual. The blue light in the morning is a zeitgeber (literally “time giver”) for the cycle.

When you are sufficiently tired or “feel-good” enough for sleep, and you start to drift off to sleep, another of your monoamines begins to taper off. Histamine is the chemical that regulates the body’s response to foreign material, essentially the allergic reaction. Have you ever had an itch so bad you thought you’d never get to sleep, but somehow you managed to nod off anyway? Your body halts release of histamine during sleep.

Now you’re nearing REM sleep. It’s time for the emotional centers of your brain to light up. Norepinephrine is the chemical responsible for fight-or-flight and during this stage of sleep, you’ve got a lot of it. It is synthesized from tyrosine which becomes dopamine and then norepinephrine. Dopamine is another feel-good chemical released as a thrill or reward. People sensitive to dopamine tend to be risk-takers, thrill seekers and sometimes addicts. Norepinephrine, a product of dopamine, is a stress hormone. An increase results in increased heart rate, release of glucose stores (which are fuel for mental activity), greater bloodflow and brain oxygen levels. These would all be necessary in an actual fight-or-flight situation in order to think and act quickly, but it seems our sleeping brain is focused on practicing hypothetical situations during this stage.

There is another chemical at work while we sleep. If you look at an EEG, you will notice what is called a K-complex. These occur during NREM sleep and are a mechanism for suppressing arousal. The chemical responsible for this suppression is adenosine. Like GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) which prevents movement during sleep, adenosine is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. Like serotonin, it is beneficial to wound repair. I want to talk more about adenosine, but let’s wake up for that.

As we begin to wake from sleep, our histamine levels rise, our stores of serotonin are low, and unless we’ve been interrupted our norepinephrine levels have dropped off by this point. Time to start a new day.

Okay, adenosine is a tricky little thing. Did you know that caffeine bonds with the same receptors as adenosine? Adenosine, which can initiate atrial fibrillation and bronchospasm, can be blocked if the receptors are already occupied by caffeine. A reduction of adenosine results in increase in activity of dopamine (the precursor to norepinephrine) and glutamate (precursor to GABA, and vital to learning and memory just like serotonin). It’s okay to consume caffeine when you want to stay awake!

Did you need caffeine to get through this? Well, maybe tomorrow will be more exciting. I’ll be covering lucid dreaming at the recommendation of several friends.

Thursday Rambling: Sleepless Nights

So I asked around yesterday: What fascinates you most about sleep/dreams?

The big answer was lucid dreaming, which I’ve already got on the schedule for next week. After hearing this, I may spend some extra time on the subject. The next popular answer was “it’s a miracle if I get any sleep” which is absolutely relevant. Some people have lives so busy they can’t set a decent sleep schedule, and some people can, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll get any sleep during the time they’ve put aside.

I’ll be 31 next month. I’ve never had kids, and I don’t plan to have any either. I’ve had friends as young as 14 who got to experience parenthood and the effects it has on sleep. I’ve always been seriously impressed by anyone who could have a child, a job and go to school at the same time. There are changes to my own life that I didn’t think I could handle, but when you have to do it, your body will eventually adjust to the new schedule. It just seems impossible when you’re standing on the outside trying to figure out how to make it work.

My sleep schedule right now is from 1 or 2 in the morning to 5:50am, then I get up to pick up my boyfriend from his night job. When I get home, I go back to bed for just a little while until 8 or 8:15 when I have to get ready for work. Many days, this is enough sleep. Other times I come home from work and take a nap until my boyfriend wakes up. Regardless of whether I nap or not, I can’t make myself go to sleep any earlier that 1 in the morning. I could take him to work and come straight home, lay down in bed at 10 and toss and turn for hours.

When this all started, when his truck was no longer drivable and I thought it would be safer for me to drive him to and from work, 5:50am was painful. I hate being up that early in the morning, especially when I value how productive my brain seems to be late at night. Lately, it’s just a thing that I do, and I’m happy that I get to consciously settle back down for a little more sleep. Be honest, you love it when you wake up in the middle of the night and realize you still have an hour or two to sleep before the alarm goes off. It beats the hell out of waking up five minutes before it goes off.

But on to the topic of sleepless nights. I love and hate them. I love having an active mind and the ability to get so many things accomplished in a time that seems “extra” outside my schedule. My body doesn’t seem to realize that I’m not going to be able to sleep when it is finally ready. My plans for the next day, and how many hours it will be before I’m able to go to bed again, just don’t even matter. And of course an hour before I’m supposed to wake up, I finally start to feel really peaceful and sleepy. Blame the blue light of dawn for that. Did you know that exposure to the blue light that precedes sunrise is important to chemical processes that promote sleep? Combine that with the lowest temperature of the day, and it will give you a pretty good idea why I, or you, can’t seem to get sleepy until an hour or two before we were supposed to wake up.

Some people can’t get to sleep without white noise. My boyfriend has to have a fan running while he sleeps, even in winter. I struggle to get to sleep without the sound of voices. Music won’t do, they have to be talking normally. I keep my laptop by the bed and put on old TV shows like Golden Girls. Something I’ve seen enough times that I won’t stay up watching to see what happens. The original Addams Family is also good for this. It’s a good thing we sleep at different times of day.

I suppose that’s plenty of rambling for today. I want to save insomnia and restless legs syndrome for a Tuesday entry. Next week I’ll be covering Chemicals of Sleep and Lucid Dreaming. There’s also something special planned for August 1st.