Sweet Dreams

According to a study from the International Journal of Applied and Basic Medical Research, only eight percent of people suffer from sleep paralysis. Another study showed that more than 50 percent of people experience lucid dreaming at least once in their life. Yet, these distinct events still share similarities in terms of the neurological factors behind them..

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Sleep is every Stuyvesant student’s favorite subject: we either find joy in having had a good night’s rest or compete for the greatest sleep deficit. But however we choose to sleep, there’s one thing we all have in common: dreams. Though the act of dreaming may seem pointless on paper, dreams often reveal specific details about one’s habits, both awake and asleep. For example, one's experience of recurring dreams or recollection of a recent dream may reveal specifics about their current thoughts and emotions. Some even relate their unusual dream experiences to superstitions. While everyone’s able to recall a few dreams they’ve had, fewer people experience either of two sleep phenomena known as lucid dreaming and sleep paralysis.

To begin to understand the neurology behind lucid dreaming and sleep paralysis, one must first understand the scientific definition of a dream. A generally accepted denotation is that dreams encapsulate all unconscious thoughts, emotions, or perceptions. Neurologically, dreams occur due to sporadic nerve activity in the brain’s sensory cortexes. While there are many theories explaining the reasons behind unconscious nerve activity, some leading hypotheses are that dreams serve as simulations for threatening situations and that they contain memories and sensory information to dictate one’s mood. According to the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, dreams are a reflection of one’s unconscious thoughts and desires accumulated while awake. Freud argued that the content of dreams could be separated into two categories: manifest, which is what an individual remembers, and latent, the deeper meaning behind the dream. Regardless, dreams are the result of combining memories with erratic thoughts and sensory information.

Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep also plays a role in determining the content of one’s dreams. While non-REM dreams are shorter and more cohesive, REM dreams are typically more complex and fragmented. While the hippocampus—the site of memory formation learning—and the neocortex—the sensory part of the brain—are both highly active during REM sleep, they are not in communication with each other. Hence, memories formed while dreaming tend to be disjointed and confusing.

Dreams distort our sense of reality by presenting us with visual thoughts in an intangible environment. This is further complicated by the phenomena of lucid dreaming and sleep paralysis. Most people think of lucid dreaming as an unconscious state in which one is aware of their dreams and has the ability to freely control the events that occur, creating highly realistic fantasies. Meanwhile, sleep paralysis is generally perceived as the opposite: an experience that occurs while sleeping or waking during which individuals are unable to move their body and sometimes perceive vividly terrifying hallucinations. According to a study from the International Journal of Applied and Basic Medical Research, only eight percent of people suffer from sleep paralysis. Another study showed that more than 50 percent of people experience lucid dreaming at least once in their life. Yet, these distinct events still share similarities in terms of the neurological factors behind them.

A study published by the Journal of Sleep Research aims to quantify the factors linked to both lucid dreaming and sleep paralysis. The scientists outlined a set of distinctions between the two and tested for the variables that dictated both events. For example, they noted that sleep paralysis involves returning to full wakefulness, whereas lucid dreaming occurs entirely unconsciously. Another question they sought to answer was why lucid dreaming sometimes led to sleep paralysis in some, but not in others. The predictors they analyzed in their 1928 participants included sleep quality, well-being, waking experiences, and personal beliefs. The researchers hypothesized that personal beliefs in the paranormal and conspiracy theories would contribute to subconscious paranoia, leading to different dream experiences. They then compared the results of the experimental data with the frequency of sleep paralysis and lucid dreaming in the participants. After analyzing their results, the researchers noticed that traits of curiosity, sensitivity, and daydreaming had positive correlations with lucid dreaming frequency. Meanwhile, believers of conspiracy theories were more likely to experience sleep paralysis than lucid dreaming. Paranormal beliefs, on the other hand, were not clear predictors of either phenomenon. The most obvious difference was the magnitude of life stress and anxiety. While more stressed and anxious individuals experienced sleep paralysis, relaxation and calmness were seen more frequently in lucid dreamers.

Thus, one important distinction is that while sleep paralysis is the result of poor sleep quality and improper stress management, lucid dreaming is, surprisingly, the result of mental training and consistent daydreaming. This trend is seen in the positive correlation between daydreaming and dissociative hallucinations. While one may expect these phenomena to represent two sides of the same coin, their main underlying causes are unrelated. Therefore, this distinction also proves that it is possible to experience both events in one night; the increased imaginative capacity stemming from lucid dreaming can cause more terrifying hallucinations during sleep paralysis.

While lucid dreaming rarely leads to dangerous side effects, experiencing frequent sleep paralysis is a sign of underlying sleep issues. Though sleep paralysis is fairly easy to diagnose and treat, it manifests several adverse neurological effects, including increased anxiety and heart complications in severe cases. The risk factors of sleep paralysis are also increased by social distancing and remote learning. Studies indicate that prolonged exposure to these conditions may increase stress and worsen one’s mood, making it more likely for sleep paralysis to occur. As an alternative, one could try documenting their unconscious experiences to practice mindfulness as a means of avoiding negative REM experiences.

Understanding the factors behind both lucid dreaming and sleep paralysis gives psychologists a better understanding of their patients’ experiences by describing them beyond the labels of “good” and “bad.” While many psychologists currently practice dream analysis, it is mainly used in psychoanalysis. This is partly because dreams are still heavily under-researched due to their intangible nature, leaving words as their only descriptors. However, neuroscience has advanced several steps in the past century, namely with neurotechnology and understanding the inner workings of the brain. Perhaps the next treatment for certain neurological disorders, then, will not be a medication but rather an elicited dream.