AskMeFi Dreamland
April 3, 2007 12:36 AM   Subscribe

AskMeFi inspired question. Yesterday someone wrote a thread on hearing auditory hallucinations while falling asleep. This got me thinking about dreams and I wonder if people get the same mysterious phenomenon that I do.

I seem to only remember a dream when I wake up in the middle of it. This seems to be a documented relationship that in order to be concious of the dream it usually has to be interupted. What I am curious about is that when I am dreaming I seem to become aware of it just before I wake up. Then I remember the dream and am awake and concious. It is a difficult thing to explain but essentially the timeline would go as follows:

I am asleep

I begin to enter dream sleep

I become aware of the dream and experience what seems to be a few minutes of the dream

I am suddenly awakened by a phone call or my alarm or some other sound.

In a sense it seems that my mind 'knows' that I am about to be roused as I suddenly start 'remembering' the dream just before I wake. Does anyone else experience this? How about scientific research regarding this? Is there a temporal inconsistency that my mind is experiencing? For example does my mind get jolted awake and then subsequently back track to the dream state and thus remember it? Well I would love to hear people's thoughts on this.
posted by occidental to Science & Nature (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah, happens to me all the time. I think rather than a strange phenomenon of you already knowing that you're going to awaken before a future event that wakes you up (literally impossible right?) what happens is that you usually forget dream states, and in the occurances that jolt you awake, you just have a better memory of what kind of dream you were having, including the whole 'wait a minute this isn't real' thing.

In fact sometimes this extends to where the 'plot' of the dream goes from randomly occurring outside of my control to being under my conscious control.. and suddenly everything grinds to a halt as I snap from the 'things just happening' to 'things kinda directed' to the 'fully conscious' state. What I'd love to be able to do is continue a dream state in terms of the mental imagination while retaining control of my consciousness and directing the plot to an extent (I think this is called lucid dreaming?)

On the other hand, I don't think I've ever experienced like 'ten minutes' of a dream while knowing it's a dream.. that'd be a bit spooky (and fun! Talk about dramatic irony.)

The only intelligent input I have here is that you shouldn't trust your memory for past perception (ie. your brain goes back and retrofits things, expands things that happened in a second, compresses things that took you experienced as having taken a while, etc.)
posted by Firas at 1:01 AM on April 3, 2007

Thus my totally pulled-out-of-thin-air hypothesis is, between the time that you're being awoken and you awake, you're only asleep for a very short time but you experience it as being longer, and your memory of what sort of dream state you experienced a little bit *before* the thing that incited you to awake is falsified by the squishy grey organ in the interests of making things seem smooth rather than sudden.
posted by Firas at 1:10 AM on April 3, 2007

Yes, I pretty much only remember any of a dream when I'm woken suddenly. It fades pretty quickly though.
posted by krisjohn at 1:20 AM on April 3, 2007

Your mind is demonstrably temporally inconsistent. There's a experiment that shows people's brains can decide to do something some time before they're actually aware they've decided to do it. I'm sure there are other examples too.

People also commonly wake up just before an alarm goes off (although that's sometimes due to some noise preceding the alarm proper, particularly with mechanical clocks), or wake up when someone calls their name - but hear the entire name as they do. The latter in particular suggests to me that stuff is somehow buffered and fed back to the conscious brain on waking up.
posted by edd at 1:34 AM on April 3, 2007

It's hard to distinguish, for me at least, the difference between my actual dream habits and my dream-remembering habits. You may be having a similar confusion.
posted by Citizen Premier at 1:47 AM on April 3, 2007

I experience this phenomena too... I often hear the alarm ringing, or the phone ringing, in my dream, and then I'm jolted awake... The only positive thing is that, upon returning to sleep, I can pick up the dream where I "left off."
posted by amyms at 1:55 AM on April 3, 2007

Some dream researchers think that the kinds of experiences you point to suggest that dreams occur during the moments of waking, not during the prior REM states. You might have a dream consisting of, say, a hunt for a sheep... and when you finally find it, it starts bleating, and the bleating perfectly coincides with the alarm clock that wakes you up. This is just an example; many people have all sorts of dreams that seem like they're set up to have the stimulus that wakes them up as a climax. No one wants to explain these dreams by positing precognition, so here's another theory: when we wake up, dreams are composed very quickly, and we "remember" having dreamed something that we didn't, strictly speaking, experience while asleep. Daniel Dennett's "Are Dreams Experiences?" is a good (if dated) essay on this topic.
posted by painquale at 1:59 AM on April 3, 2007

IANAD, but Temple Grandin's book had an anecdote which might apply here. She was detailing how an animal or person reacts to some new stimulus. Basically there are two paths involved. The first is nice and quick but very unprocessed: Danger! The second takes 10s of nanoseconds longer because the stimulus is processed a bit someplace in the brain: That shadow that looks like a man with a gun is actually a coat rack, duffus.

Much the same thing must occur when the alarm clock goes off. You are hearing the noise and processing it, even if you're eyes haven't opened. Like wise that dream is probably sitting in your short term memory because it is also being processed. Why is a bit of a mystery, but we do know something is happening up there. Had you woke after it was processed - no memory.

I don't know if we dream in realtime or not, but perhaps that doesn't matter so much as what you've got "on your mind" when you wake.
posted by jwells at 5:19 AM on April 3, 2007

I personally think that the brain incorporates the external stimulus and essentially rewrites what we think of the past part of the dream to make it suit. Weird, but all we can know is what our brains present to us, and dreams mess around with our thoughts at a pretty fundamental level.
posted by tomble at 5:57 AM on April 3, 2007

Further evidence that the mind is temporally inconsistent is the color phi phenomenon. Flash a dot at one point, then flash a dot at a nearby point, with a brief (less than a second interval), and it appears to the observer not as two separate flashes, but as a single moving dot. Here's the interesting bit: if the two dots are different colors, the dot appears to change color midway in its motion - not when it arrives at its destination.

How did the observer know what color the destination dot would be before it was shown? He didn't, of course: the subconscious mind retroactively "decided," after seeing the second dot, that the dot had changed color midway, and that's what was "presented" to the conscious mind.

(Note: that's only one of several possible interpretations of the events; Daniel Dennett refers to this interpretation as the "Stalinesque" one in discussing his multiple drafts model of consciousness. I tend to adhere to the multiple drafts model myself, but the Stalinesque model is probably the easiest to describe. Regardless of which model one favors, however, the fact which is relevant here remains: even the mind of an awake person is not temporally consistent.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:03 AM on April 3, 2007

My personal (completely unscientific, unsupported) theory is that the mechanism that moves things in the brain from short-term to long-term memory is turned off when I'm asleep. Experiences can stay in my short-term memory for a minute or maybe two, but then they're gone, so I don't remember my dreams when I wake up later. But if I'm woken in the middle of a dream, then the move-to-long-term-memory process boots up, and everything in my short-term memory (the last couple minutes) gets remembered. Waking up is like suddenly being cured of anterograde amnesia.
posted by vytae at 7:57 AM on April 3, 2007

I didn't realize Daniel Dennett had written about this, painquale. I'll have to look that up.

In the course of my work I often monitor patients' brainwaves overnight. I can see if they're in REM sleep, and because they're hospitalized there's a lot of noise and they get woken up a lot.

People have described to me long dreams they've had during such monitoring, covering events that would have lasted an hour, until they got woken up by the breakfast tray. So I go back and look, and sure enough right before the breakfast tray comes in they're in REM sleep - and they've been in REM sleep for what, all of 10 seconds? Certainly not long enough to have an hour's worth of subjective experience at a 1:1 timescale.

What dreams are is not clear to me. But I know they often reflect concerns, images, people or places that are in the poster's mind already.

In my medical office we dump all the loose documents into the "loose documents" folder and in the evening someone comes and files each one of them in the right chart. If you sat down and read the "loose documents" folder cover to cover, you'd get a disjointed, bizarre story that bore some relation to all the patients seen in clinic that day, but it wouldn't make any sense. Kind of like a dream, in fact. So I wonder if maybe when you jog the clerk's elbow while she's filing, and she spills some loose documents on the floor and then you wake up with the image of those documents in your mind, do you not maybe reconstruct it into a dream story?
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:45 AM on April 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

I second the notion that some, if not all, dreams are created "in retrospect" upon waking. I'm not sure how this would account for lucid dreams, but it could be that they're actually a completely different order of conscious experience (i.e., I don't mean something "extra-sensory", I mean something that we classify as a dream but that's actually, say, more along the lines of a closed-eye hallucination). But other than lucid dreams, I can't think of anything that could actually disprove the notion -- and, as others have pointed out above, there's actually some reason to posit the "retrospect" dream as the more reasonable explanation.

I also didn't know Dennet had written about this -- thanks, painquale.
posted by treepour at 10:28 AM on April 3, 2007

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