Reality imposed on dreams
You’re being chased down a field, in the middle of nowhere by, say, a gang of robbers, when all of a sudden you encounter a phone ringing in a phone booth. You don’t know where it came from, and just accept it as part of your warped reality. You go in, answer the phone and find out it’s the police saying they’re on their way to help you. When you wake up, you realize the house phone had actually rung. This is an example of reality imposing itself on dreams in a more immediate sense. Dreams have a way of adapting themselves to what goes on around us, often even allowing their course to be changed drastically to accommodate them. Had the phone not rung for instance, the robbers may have caught you, making this into more of a vivid nightmare, rather than a dream. This rather harmless blend of reality and dreams has likely happened to all of us at some point.
Dreams imposed on reality
This is where it gets serious. Most cases where dreams are imposed on reality in an immediate sense are linked to some kind of a disorder. For example, people who suffer from sleep behaviour disorder, lacking muscle paralysis (atonia), physically act out their dreams. One example is moving your legs while dreaming that you are walking. This could be dangerous in the sense of harming your partner or yourself in some way, and needs to be treated.
The most extreme case of dreams imposing on reality is somnambulism, more commonly known as sleepwalking. Sleepwalking mainly takes place during deep, non-REM (Rapid Eye Movement –stage at which the eyes move quickly and vivid dreaming is most common) sleep early in the night. If it does occur during REM sleep, it means that it is part of REM behaviour disorder and tends to happen near the morning.
The exact cause of somnambulism is unknown. It is most common in children, due to factors such as fatigue, lack of sleep or anxiety, and is said to start fading with age due to the maturation of the nervous system. However, there are also many adults who suffer from sleepwalking. This has usually been associated with mental disorders, reaction to drugs and alcohol, or complex medical conditions.
Sleepwalking can be extremely dangerous, and often needs to be treated medically. In 2004, for instance, experts in Australia treated a woman who claimed to have had sex with strangers in her sleep. There have also been life-threatening examples of sleep driving, or even homicide. In one extraordinary case in 1987, a man from Ontario drove 23 km from his house to his in-laws’ house, where he killed both his father- and mother-in-law unconsciously. He was found ‘not guilty’ because he was sleepwalking at the time.
Dream vs. reality
By this, I mean to refer most conspicuously to lucid dreaming. A lucid dream is basically a dream where you know that you’re dreaming while the dream occurs. Layered dreams, like the type we encountered in the movie Inception (though this is presented in a more exaggerated form), can be examples of lucid dreaming.
There is, however, somewhat of a paradox about lucid dreaming. In sleep, the conscious mind is meant to subside while the unconscious mind takes over. But how can this be so when one is conscious of dreaming? As Wolman & Ullman pointed out: “while lucid dreamers are fully asleep to the external reality of the physical world, they are at the same time fully awake to the inner reality of their dream worlds”. This paradox has haunted scientists and philosophers alike for years, and is not going to be answered here.
Lucid dreams do exist nonetheless, and rare though they may be, are a unique experience. Knowing that you are dreaming makes the dream that much more entertaining as you can take control and mould the dream to your liking.
Scientists refer to various steps one can take to increase their chances of lucid dreaming. One is to simply remind oneself of wanting to lucid dream before going to bed. Another is to learn to identify one’s own version of the spinning top. In other words, to get into the habit of having something tangible to identify with real life, and thus learning to tell apart reality (where it topples after a while), from a dream (where it spins for ever). The most common example of this is reading a text, as in dreams these tend to look somewhat fuzzy and incomprehensible. All it takes is a little bit of brain-training.
Another thing worth mentioning is dream yoga, an ancient Tibetan Buddhist practice which involves mastering the whole content of your dreams. This can be an amazing experience as you get to do and be anything in your dreams. But the ultimate goal is to realize that reality itself is a dream, which is where the philosophical dilemmas step in. Enlightenment, in fact, which is what Buddhists strive for, is a sort of meta-lucidity, where you wake up from reality.
Maryam Ansari Shirazi