The dreaming mind
December 1, 2011 1:26 PM   Subscribe

How does my brain know that I'm awake?

At least once or twice a week, I'll have a dream early in the morning where my husband comes back into the bedroom after leaving for work. The dream is extremely realistic - the bedroom looks exactly the same, my husband looks the same, we are both speaking normally - and when I reach over and touch his shoulder I can physically feel him there. I am 100% convinced in the dream that I am awake and he is there. Just this morning part of our conversation in the dream was me asking him several times if he was really there, as I have this dream where he's there and then I wake up and he's not. He assured me that he was there and I wasn't dreaming. Of course I wake up and realize it was a dream and he's not there. On several occasions I've "woken up" two or three times, only to realize that I'm still dreaming. So when I do wake up, what is it in my brain that tells me I'm really awake this time?
posted by Nathanial Hörnblowér to Science & Nature (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I've thought about this a lot. Done a lot of lucid dreaming. I would sometimes do "reality checks" where you try to put your finger through your hand, or breathe through your nose even though you are pinching it closed. If it doesn't work, hey, you're awake. If it does, hey you're dreaming.

So when I do wake up, what is it in my brain that tells me I'm really awake this time?

As far as I can tell, nothing. Nothing at all.
posted by 3FLryan at 1:31 PM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Or rather, the default assumption of most people seems to be that they are awake, but nothing really confirms this assumption until you test it.
posted by 3FLryan at 1:32 PM on December 1, 2011

I used to do a lot of lucid dreaming, some for breaking a nightmare cycle, one thing that helped was the constant questioning of the reality given me - something is scary! wait how did I get here? How do I know these people? Where am I exactly? Experience has taught me when sensory input feels "wrong". I'm not actually hearing people, I just "know" what they said, I can't force myself to read something, and for me anyway, my sense of gravity is all wrong, more like floating.

One big cue is noticing I'm not in 1st person view anymore, I'm in 3rd person, watching myself. That only happens inside my head.
posted by The Whelk at 1:48 PM on December 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

In a dream, would even a totem work? If my brain is active enough to produce such a vivid and lucid dream, I would think it's plenty able to make anything else I try seem on the up-and-up.
posted by chrisfromthelc at 1:48 PM on December 1, 2011

When I have dreams like this, I've noticed that I can't read. I mean I look at a book or a page of text and all of the letters are really blurry and swirling around.
posted by at the crossroads at 1:50 PM on December 1, 2011

I'm familiar with lucid dreaming and how to determine if I'm dreaming - mainly by finding a digital clock, looking away and looking back to see if the numbers are different. Sometimes I can then manipulate the dream, although sometimes I just go with it and tell myself I'm dreaming. The issue with this dream is that it's so realistic and nothing is out of the ordinary at all.
posted by Nathanial Hörnblowér at 1:51 PM on December 1, 2011

The traditional pinching yourself works for me. In dreams I can't feel it. I've done it a few times to great effect when I had trouble with nightmares. On the other part of the question what tells us we're awake I am not too sure but I know I've had moments in Real Life where I have honestly had to do a double take and check I wasn't dreaming, usually in the middle of something normal (shopping in the supermarket, sitting in a meeting that sort of thing)and not at all dream like and it's very disconcerting. My husbands gotten used to me asking him if something is real and I find the pinch test helpful with that too.
posted by wwax at 1:54 PM on December 1, 2011

For super Bermudan dreams I test if I have any control over the reality, can I make the room bright pink just by thinking about it? Even just for a second? Nope? Not a dream.

Recall seems stunted in dreams, stop and ask yourself, what did do right before I came to bed? This usually triggers a shifting of the dream world and then I know, ah okay I'm inside my head.
posted by The Whelk at 1:54 PM on December 1, 2011

In similar situations, I check to see whether it is possible to fly.
posted by Wordwoman at 1:58 PM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I tend to jump and see if I hover in the air. I can almost always, or maybe always, do this weird flying thing in dreams, where I can jump and stay in the air, then keep jumping and sort of fly. If I can do that, I'm dreaming.
posted by insectosaurus at 2:49 PM on December 1, 2011

First, IANANeuroscientist, but:
Nathanial Hörnblowér: So when I do wake up, what is it in my brain that tells me I'm really awake this time?
Agreed with 3FLryan that in a moment-to-moment basis, your brain presumably can't tell- that's why you can even seem to wake up multiple times. The distinguishing factor is reality itself: first, it's based on actual sensation, and on some level your brain is presumably aware that the visual cortex for example- which is directly connected to the eyes- is actually stimulated by light and not random firings/re-shufflings within the visual cortex (but other parts of the brain that comprise your "self" presumably can't tell). Second, unlike dreams, reality is persistent, it's consistent, and it doesn't crumble or shift when exposed to logical assessment; your dreams by comparison are fluid and only last for short periods of time. For example, in dreams, we imagine a book but when we try to read the page the words move; in real life, that doesn't happen (except on a Kindle, I guess). So what your brain considers reality is that consistency.

It is odd if you're having such a vivid, recurring dream regularly once or twice a weak, although one explanation might be it's your brain integrating the consistent real sensory experiences of your bedroom as you come to wake up. Do you typically wake up to an alarm or other unnatural disruption of sleep that interrupts your dreaming? Have you noticed any pattern as to when it happens (i.e., on Fridays, or Mondays, or only on weekends, etc)?
posted by hincandenza at 4:39 PM on December 1, 2011

Seconding the Whelk.

I have read that when you are in a dreaming state, the sensations you feel feel back at you.

I have tested this supposition to great success. So I think the answer is that your mind knows you are "awake" when you don't have the "feel back" feedback!

Maybe try this type of visceral feeling testing next time, rather than the thinky-mind tricks of clocks and lightswitches and dream-hands and whatnot? Because minds are tricky! But guts don't lie!
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 4:44 PM on December 1, 2011

The real answer is that you don't, right? You know you're awake...until you wake up. At the risk of sounding like a stoned eighteen-year-old, I think the premise of the question is flawed.
posted by threeants at 7:23 PM on December 1, 2011

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