Dream Theories: Sleep Myths Debunked!

Welcome guest blogger “Dr.  C” to Drem Theories. She has great sleep and dream facts and myths to share and bust for us! A PHD in clinical psychology with a specialization in sleep disorders, she’s giving us awesome insight into what’s happening to our minds and bodies as we dream. She’s also a fantasy author and has been a great “real world” resource for me as I write about dreams and parapsychology and metaphysics and all the other “brain” stuff I use as I create my contemporary fantasy worlds.

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Read on for some sleep basics (types and stages and helpful hits about sleeping better yourself). You’re sure to learn something new. Ask questions, get her talking about all that she knows, heckle, or whatever else entertains you ;o) I know I’m going to!

Next week: more of my Dream Theory insights based on the research I’ve done for my Legacy series. Dr. C will be back in two weeks, with all her knowledge and confirmation that I’m a quack and that she’s the sleep expert, and that you should all be listening to her instead of me ;o)

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Thanks, Anna, for inviting me to do this series of guest blog posts! 

People do weird things in their sleep.  It’s one reason I love being a sleep psychologist – I rarely hear the same stories twice.  Also, I feel I can make a huge and almost immediate difference for my patients, and I get to be a “Myth-buster” of sorts.  Yes, there are lots of myths going around about sleep and dreaming, so for my first post, I wanted to take the opportunity to “bust” some common misconceptions. All of these have been said by several of my patients.

Myth #1:  If I don’t remember my dreams, I must not be having any.

To address this one, we need to back up a bit and talk about some sleep basics. We have different stages of sleep from lighter to deeper, and when you go in for a sleep study, the doctors and techs can tell what stage you’re in by the kind of squiggly lines your brain is putting out on the EEG channels.  There are two main types of sleep:  Rapid Eye Movement sleep and non-Rapid Eye Movement sleep.  We progress through non-REM to REM in cycles.  Here’s a hypnogram to illustrate how we do it:

hypnogram

Here are the stages within types.

Non-REM sleep:

  • Stage One–Lighter sleep.  When you’re falling asleep and you get that floaty feeling, this is the stage you’re in. It’s your doorway from wake to sleep. 
  • Stage Two–You can think about this one as “regular sleep.”  It’s where we spend most of our time during the night.  Sometimes if you’re in Stage One or Two, you feel like you’re awake because you may still be aware of things going on around you. 
  • Stage Three–This used to be stages three and four (as they are on the hypnogram above), but they’ve been combined.  This is your most restful sleep, and your brain puts out nice, happy slow waves.  A lot of times people miss this stage during sleep studies and if they have a sleep disorder that keeps them from being able to sleep long enough at a stretch to get there.

REM sleep:

  • There is only one REM sleep stage, and that’s, well, REM.  As the name implies, your eyes move underneath your eyelids in horizontal movements that show up as up-and-down curves in a sleep study tracing, and your brainwaves almost look like you’re awake:
  • This is the stage of sleep that your mind uses to figure things out and consolidate memories. Your brain also shuts your muscles off except the necessary ones (e.g., diaphragm for breathing, heart) so you won’t act out your dreams.  This is the stage when you have your most vivid dreams, and it increases throughout the night.  That’s why many people who remember their dreams report the most vivid ones as occurring early in the morning.

So let’s get back to the myth.  If you’re going to remember your dreams, you need to wake up during them.  Otherwise, your mind goes back to a non-dream stage and forgets it.  Note I didn’t say it goes back to a non-REM stage.  We can actually dream in any stage of sleep, but our most vivid ones are in REM.

Myth #2:  My quality of sleep depends on if I’ve dreamed or not.  No dreams means I’m not getting REM sleep, so it must be bad.

This one is backwards if you think about it.  Considering that you have to wake up during your dreams to remember them, not remembering them implies that you didn’t wake fully enough during them, so maybe you actually slept better. 

(Anna here: Dr. C sent a great picture of a REM EEG, or what REM sleep looks like on one of her super fancy techno gadgets…)

REM EEG

 Think about the last vivid dream you remember.  What woke you up?  Sometimes it’s the dream content itself, but for many of us in the modern age, it’s an alarm clock.  The bottom line is that this isn’t a good indicator of sleep quality, and unless you go in for a sleep study, it’s impossible to tell whether you’re lacking REM sleep, which is really rare in people without a sleep disorder because our minds need it.

Myth #3:  It’s not good to dream about _____________. For example, “If I die in my dreams, I’ll die in real life.”

I saw that Anna wrote about flying and falling last week.  Even if you have dreams with horrible, frightening imagery, it’s very rarely literal.  I’ll get more into how our brains pick out what to dream about in a later post.  I’ve actually died in my dreams but still woke up to go to work the next day, and my husband can assure you I’m not a zombie… after I’ve had a couple of cups of coffee in the morning.

Myth #4: We need less sleep as we get older.

We’re all familiar with the stereotype of Grandma and Grandpa lining up to hit the Blue Light specials at the restaurant at 5:00 so they can be in bed by 8:00.  It’s not that we need less sleep, it’s that our sleep patterns change.  There are two reasons for this.

The first reason is the circadian rhythm, or internal clock.  No, this has nothing to do with the noisy bugs we hear during the summer – those are cicadas.  During adolescence, the circadian rhythm shifts and sets itself later, so it’s actually natural for teenagers to want to go to bed in the wee hours and sleep until noon.  It gradually shifts earlier throughout our life span so that older people naturally have internal clocks set earlier.  If you think about it, when Grandma goes to bed at eight, she’s waking between three and four because her body is done sleeping, but it appears as though she’s sleeping less because by the time you’re awake, she’s been up for hours (and hopefully fixed you homemade biscuits for breakfast).

The second reason it seems that older people don’t need as much sleep is that they tend to sleep less at night but more during the day.  I’ve seen a pattern that I call “retiree syndrome” in people who, for whatever reason, no longer have external time demands such as a job or school, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be an older person.  Without these external demands or a routine and the discipline to carry it through (the hard part), people will sleep whenever they feel like it.  So while Grandpa is only sleeping four or five hours a night, he may be catching a nap or two or three during the day in the recliner.  If you add it all up, it’s actually close to the seven to nine hours an adult needs.

Another significant change as our brain ages is that we lose slow-wave sleep.  The proportion of stage three gradually reduces, so sleep may feel less restorative.  This, like other parts of the aging process, is kind of a bummer, but it’s still possible for people to wake feeling refreshed.

So there are your sleep basics and myths!  I’ll be back in a couple of weeks to talk about parasomnias, or what happens when the shifting between stages goes awry. 

Please feel free to ask any questions.  My only limitation is that ethically I can’t diagnose or make treatment recommendations in this medium.

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By day, “Doctor C.” is a licensed clinical psychologist and behavioral sleep medicine specialist.  That’s a long title, so she answers to any variations, including “Sleep Psychologist.” 

By night, she writes fantasy and science fiction, blogsabout wine and life, and interacts with other wine lovers and writers on twitter as @RandomOenophile.  She’s a featured first-place winner in this year’s Mystery Times Ten, a Young Adult mystery anthology, for her fantasy story “The Coral Temple.” 

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2 Responses to “Dream Theories: Sleep Myths Debunked!”

  1. Walt M says:

    I drink a lot of coffee and am convinced that I have a certain level of tolerance when it comes to caffeine. Am I deluding myself or can a person hit a certain level where evening coffee doesn’t affect their sleep?

  2. Walt M says:

    Sorry, another question.

    Is there a limit on how much time could pass in a dream? Could a person essentially “live” months in the space of the time they are dreaming? (Could the span of a dream last a several months or even a year, even though the dream may actually last only a few minutes.)

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