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?

Time-lapse Sleep

Watching time-lapse videos of people sleeping reminds me of the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If you haven’t seen the movie, you should. I don’t think I’m giving away too much when I say that it involves erasing memories while the subject sleeps. As with any Charlie Kaufman film, there’s some love-triangley, melancholy disquiet, and it edges into the surreal and symbolic (another common quality of his work) very much like a dream.

If you search around YouTube for “time lapse sleep” you will find numerous personal videos. Many of them aren’t terribly useful, because they don’t include a timestamp or a description of the actual time elapsed in the video. This is important to actual study, because it gives clues as to the person’s normal sleep cycle. Research has shown an average cycle of 90 minutes, though in my own study, I found my cycle only lasted 70 minutes.

I would shift a little bit in the beginning, then about 45 minutes in, my breathing would become heavy. At about an hour and ten minutes after falling asleep, I would wake up and turn over, then repeat the same process. I was only able to capture 2 cycles before I actually woke up and stopped recording. It turned out to be very awkward sleeping with my grow light on.

Before I started the video, I wasn’t sure what I would see. I love scary movies and part of me expected I would find something creepy standing over me. It was nothing like that. I was also a little afraid since my doctor suspected I have sleep apnea. I thought I might see myself stop breathing, but obviously if I was able to watch the video it meant I’d been able to start breathing again, so that wasn’t a particular concern. Instead, when I played the video back, I saw a pretty mundane little nap.

I’m still looking for good software to use my webcam for still capture. For the first video, I used Flix (demo version with the watermark). It’s $10 to register and have the watermark removed, but I didn’t trust the program. It came with a bunch of adware and was pretty unstable. I uninstalled and rolled back my computer the next day. I’m not opposed to spending money on a good program, but my funds are limited at the moment, so cheap is better. I’ve heard of Gawker, but it’s a Mac program. All I, or you, need for time-lapse sleep videos is something that you can set to take photos with your webcam at intervals of your choosing. I think I set mine to take a picture every 15 seconds.

Give it a try, if you’re curious. The only slightly disturbing thing about it is that you get to see yourself totally vulnerable and completely natural. You’re not even self-aware enough to present your “good side” when you’re sleeping, or to suppress embarrassing gestures/expressions.

REM Sleep: Introduction

REM is such a huge topic to cover, I’m going to put down some key points and probably revisit them in detail in later entries.

Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is the stage of sleep we generally associate with dreams, but as we’ve seen in the July 10th entry on slow-wave sleep, there are actually two dream stages. During REM, named for the random darting of the eyes, the body loses muscle tone and an EEG registers quick, low-voltage readings.

Scientists have some theories as to the function of REM sleep, and the most common being taught in psychology is that the brain is trying to process and store information that may not fit into a clear category, and so dreams are very surreal and disjointed because your mind is trying to give structure to the memories. It’s trying to make a story. According to some studies, REM establishes procedural memory, though there have been conflicting studies that would suggest that this is a function of slow-wave sleep (in reference to the repetitive dreams of games that seem to improve performance upon waking).

REM is important not only for humans, but all land mammals and also birds. Evolution has done us a favor by including a mechanism for tonic immobility during this important stage of sleep. At our most vulnerable, can you imagine how easily a predatory would pick us off if we all acted out our dreams? That’s not to say it never happens. Watch any dog dreaming and you’ll probably notice some foot movement; what I like to call “chasing rabbits.” When functioning ideally, this paralysis (REM atonia) is akin to feigning death. When not functioning ideally, it can result in sleep walking, or sleep paralysis if it continues to suppress movement as the person begins to regain awareness.

REM atonia is produced by the release of monoamines (norepinephrine, serotonin, and histamine). Norepinephrine is partially responsible for fight-or-flight response, activating parts of the brain such as the amygdala. This explains why REM dreams are often very emotional, and also why it is so dangerous to try to wake someone who is sleep walking. The synthesis of norepninephrine depends on the amino acid tyrosine (found in meat, nuts, eggs and cheese). Tyrosine can be synthesized by phenylalanine, but you’ve probably heard all sorts of warnings about that. You find it in many diet drinks containing aspartame. Some people are sensitive to phenylalanine and may suffer seizures, but the same natural sources of tyrosine also contain phenylalanine.

A typical night of sleep involves many cycles through the stages of sleep. A cycle is about 90 minutes, and with each consequent cycle the duration of REM increases while slow-wave tapers off. It is sometimes referred to as paradoxical sleep because brain waves are very similar to those of an awake, alert brain. While it has similar brain waves, the body does a poor job of regulating things like temperature and heart rate during this time. It is also the stage of sleep with increased blood flow to genital areas of both sexes (which could total anywhere from 1 to 3.5 hours during sleep).

As I’ve said, REM is such a huge topic, I will be revisiting more specific elements in future entries. Tomorrow, I will be discussing time-lapse video studies, with which I have had some limited personal success.