Why Are Dreams & Nightmares Still A Mystery?

It’s an endless debate, perhaps even an endless research topic.. Yet to me, the puzzle is not so complicated and the pieces fit together intuitively. Here is my take on these things, and hopefully, if you find yourselves having a lot of nightmares, you’ll know what to look for:

Dreams are your body’s way of tuning you in to your physical surroundings while you are asleep.

Nightmares are your body’s way of waking you up.

And that’s it. Don’t try to extract fantastic meaning out of your dreams*, but don’t ignore them either. I’ve come to the conclusion that our bodies, wired in a way that is sensitive to external danger, will give us “shocks” when a “predator” or some other threatening thing approaches.

*I’m not a denier of things like Extra Sensory Perception. I’ve had maybe 2 dreams during my lifetime that were strangely describing situations which i knew nothing about at the time of the dream but which turned out to “reflect” reality. However, in my theory, the experience that the body creates in order for you to wake up (dream/nightmare) is much more likely to be created using fresh memories, because they are already there, at your brain’s disposal — so a story will be constructed with what is available.

Our bodies and brains are analog overall, not digital,

therefore a fuzzy experience is created, not a sudden jolt, when you need to be woken up (i.e. the decision that you need to wake up when your body perceives certain events is neither 100% correct nor completely false; it’s a sum of our own experiences and of our internal genetically inherited wiring)

Because we associate stimuli to a state of consciousness, lo and behold: an inferior and more volatile reality is projected onto our “sleep consciousness”.

SUBTLE STIMULI

induce dreams. Subtle stimuli can be a dog barking far away, a strong star light shining through your open window, a siren in the distance.

STRONGER STIMULI

induce nightmares. From the body/brain point of view, there is now a potential need for you to become alert and awake, ready to react, but remember: the passage from SUBTLE to STRONGER stimuli is gradual. The body isn’t able to say: yes you need to wake up or no, keep sleeping peacefully. Stronger stimuli can be a close-by cat miau-ing on the other side of your door, moon-light shining in through your window, a strange noise coming from your pipes, etc

STRONG ENOUGH STIMULI

will either wake you up directly or (if a nightmare was already being built up) will push the nightmare to a (negative) climax that will give the body a jolt (i assume, through a burst of adrenaline?) to wake you up. The “strong enough stimuli” assumes something is going on around you that should definitely no longer be ignored: wake up. Strong enough stimuli can be a neighbor working with the hammer at 6 AM in the morning, an alarm clock (especially one that we aren’t used to or set at a wrong hour), etc.

An interesting thing is, by the time we wake up, the stimulus might stop repeating so we might just wind up waking up from a nightmare with no apparent cause in sight which stimulates that post-nightmare sense of helplessness and the “mystification” of the bad dream. You’re thinking:

Crap, this was so real!

And then you slowly pull yourself out of it saying:

It was just a bad dream.. Phew!

When in fact, the stimulus (whatever it was) was probably real! Perhaps the experience was over-amplified as the mechanism i describe works that way, but the “real feeling” of it might have a seed in the physical reality of some external stimulus actually coming to pass.

To make you realize how cool this simulated analog experience is: didn’t it ever happen to you that you could actually perceive the stimulus inside your dream and through the strength of this stimulus you shifted from asleep to awake? For example, i remember one time i was dreaming of someone ringing my doorbell and what do you know, it slowly drifted to me being in my bed and hearing that exact sound of the doorbell coming from my phone because someone was calling me and (sadly) waking me up.

We, as a species, are subject to the circadian rhythm

Just like parrots. They are so full of energy when light is filling the room.. Cover them up and they immediately go to their sleeping place. If it’s light outside humans are active. If it’s dark, they sleep. Diffuse and gradual light (like the one created by sunrise) is a subtle stimulus which usually occurs at the end of your sleep and slowly eases your body into being awake, maybe the same as roosters singing in the distance (i.e. the ambient audio and video indicators that your side of the planet is waking up)— it isn’t set in stone that you will drift from sleep to waking up without any dream experience.. These are still subtle stimuli.. Understanding this makes the existence of morning dreams less of a mystery :)

Having nightmares or insomnia? Or, on the contrary, you sleep 10 hours but you wake up tired? Pay more attention to your sleeping conditions.

My not professional but intuitive suggestions based also on my own experience would be:

  • Make sure the Moon isn’t passing by your window after you fall asleep (when it’s not possible for you to be conscious of it in a woken state!) This should be written in stone, that’s why i make it bold :)
  • Can pets (or other kinds of animals) be making noises in your vicinity while you sleep?
  • Are you living in an apartment building? Are your neighbors making noises while you are asleep? Are they working the night-shift?
  • Consider ear plugs and other defenses against noise pollution: https://medium.com/@teofilimon/coping-with-reducing-noise-pollution-6caff58b6148
  • When you go to sleep, allow your body to drift into “sleep mode”. If there’s a street-light projecting itself through your window it will probably stay on for the rest of the night, so lower the blinds and draw your curtains to a sufficient degree: that it’s dark enough for you to drift into sleep
  • Consider using a rising volume for your morning alarm clock. Many modern smartphone apps have this option now. If you are unsure what to use, i recommend the Timely (Android) app: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=ch.bitspin.timely
  • Don’t make it “irreparably dark” before you go to sleep. Even though darkness helps you go to sleep faster, what would also be ideal is that in the morning sufficient exterior ambient light is coming through your “defenses” (blinds, curtains) so that you drift back from asleep to awake gently.
  • The “gentle drift” to a woken state described by the 2 points above (rising alarm volume and “intelligent light management”) is essential for you to feel rested. It’s of course important that you sleep enough hours, but you feeling rested is also a function of when during your sleep cycles you wake up. Here are some links on sleep cycle theory: https://www.sleepcycle.com/how-it-works/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep_cycle

I’m not a doctor, but i am a person who is sensitive to my surroundings and with my engineering background i’m able to formulate the stuff above in the way that i know to be intuitively correct and also hopefully as logical and as scientifically sound as possible. I am speaking from my own experience and i hope this helps other people — but sometimes it’s not just external stimuli preventing us from well-resting sleep.. There also are such things as sleep disorders so consulting with a good doctor should also be among the options that you consider. Stress is another factor that makes us sensitive to external stimuli (sometimes more than we should be — in such cases, obviously, taking steps to reduce stress can be beneficial for our sleep quality as well)

One final recommendation — “Earn” your sleep

If a day went by and you did nothing / spent no effort maybe you are not tired enough to go to sleep “like a baby”? I know there are some days when i move mountains and when the mountain-moving is over and night-time comes, i know i will spend less time thinking about sleeping well and more time actually sleeping well.

I would wish you sweet dreams, but i think i should wish you “no dreams at all” since i think less dreams will mean less nightmares, a more peaceful slumber and an increased likelihood of a more rested you!

Cvasi-cylindrical sleeping cat