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Five strange facts about dreams

Here are five strange findings about dreaming from the psychology literature.

04 November 2020

By Emma Young

The latest episode of our PsychCrunch podcast explores the blurry boundaries between wakefulness and dreaming.

Presenter Ella Rhodes examines that strange transition period between being awake and falling asleep known as hypnagogia. She also learns about maladaptive daydreaming, a condition in which people can lose themselves in their daydreams for hours at a time.

To coincide with the release of the podcast, we've examined five strange findings about dreaming from the psychology literature:

1. Bad dreams are nothing to fear

No one likes a bad dream, but they do serve a purpose: research suggests that they prepare us to better face our fears. This finding comes from a two-part study. First, participants slept with EEG electrodes fitted to their heads. Several times in the night, they were woken by the researchers, who asked them about the content and emotional tone of any dreams. The team found that the key brain regions that are active when someone is feeling fear are the same whether they are awake or dreaming.

In a follow-up experiment, a fresh group of participants were shown a series of upsetting images, such as pictures of assaults. The more fear they'd experienced during their previous night's sleep, the less fear they felt in response to these images. Dream fear had, it seems, reined in their fear reactions in waking life. "Dreams may be considered as real training for our future reactions and may potentially prepare us to face real life dangers," says researcher Lampros Perogamvros at the University of Geneva.

2. You can control your dreams

During a so-called lucid dream, the dreamer realises that they are dreaming and can control what happens. There has been no end of attempts to find ways to induce lucid dreams — mostly unsuccessfully. However, a study at the University of Adelaide, Australia, that explored a few potential techniques found that one was effective. When used in the five minutes immediately before falling asleep, the "MILD" (mnemonic induction of lucid dreams) technique worked 46 % of the time. It consists of simply repeating (to yourself) the phrase: "The next time I'm dreaming, I will remember that I'm dreaming."

3. People who no longer think can still dream

Auto-activation deficit is a condition, caused by damage to the basal ganglia, in which people not only report having no thoughts, but have lost all self-motivation. They have to be told by carers to do everything from brushing their teeth to eating. However, even though their mind is a blank while they're awake, research published by a team in France, shows that some, at least, do still dream. This group was much less likely to experience REM-stage dreams than healthy people, and the dreams they did have were lacking the complexity and emotion that characterises typical dreams. But they did still have some dreams. For example, one patient dreamed of shaving (something he could no longer do by himself), while another dreamed of writing, although, while awake, he never wrote anything without being instructed.

The simplicity of these patients' dreams (together with the identification of a role for the basal ganglia in integrating information from various brain regions) supports the "bottom-up" theory of dreaming — that dreams are initiated by activity in the brainstem, which is then followed by cortical input, which allows for complex emotional and sensory experiences.

4. Certain drugs can allow you to "dream" while awake

The psychedelic drug DMT (one of the main psychoactive constituents of ayahuasca) produces brain rhythms that look at lot like those observed during dreaming. The team behind this finding reported that, compared with participants who'd received a placebo, the DMT group had much less alpha wave activity (the dominant electrical rhythm while we are awake) and also showed an increase in theta waves, which are associated with dreaming. "From the altered brainwaves and the participants' reports, it's clear these people are completely immersed in their experience," comments lead researcher, Christopher Timmermann at Imperial College, London. "It's like daydreaming only far more vivid and immersive — it's like dreaming but with your eyes open."

5. Some people's daydreams take over their lives

For some people, their daydreams are so vivid and absorbing that "real life" fades into the background. As one sufferer of Maladaptive Daydreaming (MD) explains it: "I am careful to control my actions in public so it is not evident that my mind is constantly spinning these stories and I am constantly lost in them." Although MD does not feature in standard mental health diagnostic manuals, there are online communities dedicated to it. And as the researchers behind a recent study on MD write in their paper, "in recent years it has gradually become evident that daydreaming can evolve into an extreme and maladaptive behaviour, up to the point where it turns into a clinically significant condition."

In a bid to better understand the mental health factors that accompany MD, Eli Somer at the University of Haifa, Israel and Nirit Soffer-Dudek at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev studied 77 self-diagnosed sufferers. The pair found that obsessive-compulsive symptoms predicted the intensity and duration of maladaptive daydreaming on the following day. However, few participants actually suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder, suggesting that while the two may share some common mechanisms, MD isn't simply a type of OCD. The next step is to develop strategies to help sufferers control their daydreaming, so that it no longer constitutes a disorder. You can hear Soffer-Dudek talk more about her work in this week's podcast.

About the author

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest