Dream Theories: Midnight Mental Meanderings with Dr. C.

Welcome Dr. C. back to the Dream Theories! I like to think she lends a bit of respectibility to our endeavors, as I obsess about one of my favorite metaphysical subjects: dreams and how our sleeping mind’s work can impact (and improve) the conscious things we do all day. My latest heroine, Shaw Cassidy, is fighting her dreams to the point of putting her life in danger. She either remembers and deciphers her dream imagery, or she’s in a whole passle of trouble. I wonder if Dr. C. knew that, when she sent me her latest guest post?


Midnight Mental Meanderings


Several of my patients have been mentioning a recent BBC article, The Myth of Eight-Hour Sleep, about the reality of split sleep: which references historical and scientific research to propose that waking in the middle of the night for a couple of hours is a natural pattern.  The way it works is that a couple of hours after dusk, the “first sleep” period starts, and then the sleeper wakes for two hours and then falls off again to “second sleep.”  During those waking hours in the middle of the night, people in pre-industrial (and therefore pre-artificial light) times talked to their bed mates, made babies, visited neighbors, and pondered their dreams.

It was the pondering of dreams that caught my attention. That they were part of the culture at the time, and the potential advantages of earlier vs. later night dreams.  If we recall the hypnogram (yes, I know I keep referring to it, but it’s important), we could suppose that the middle of the night awakening happened after the first or second sleep cycle, so Rapid Eye Movement, or REM, sleep hadn’t become as prominent.  To that point, the main deep sleep has been stage N-3, or slow wave sleep, with shorter periods of REM.

This is where things get interesting.  Traditionally, we think of REM as being dreaming sleep, but we can actually dream in any stage.  There are differences in the types of dreams we have in REM and non-REM (nREM) stages: the main one being that memories tend to be sources of dream content in nREM sleep, and semantic knowledge, or what’s already in the brain from learning, is the source of dreams in REM sleep.  That’s how you end up with poltergeists in your office, as in some recurrent dreams I had last year.  My brain took work stress and translated it into a haunting.

dream haunting

A 1992 study from Italy* examined dream content during the first half of the night, and had participants describe their dreams after ten minutes of either slow-wave sleep or REM sleep.  Some of the participants’ dreams were very similar.  Although the amount of sleep was the same, the REM dreams were usually described as longer.  They also found more “nonself characters” (i.e., characters who are not the dreamer), “undefined characters” (what I call “random dream people”), and emotion in REM dreams.

So what were those people in the Middle Ages pondering in the middle of the night?  This returns us to the question of, “Where the hell did that come from?” that we tend to ask ourselves upon awakening in the mornings and remembering our dreams.  During the night, the brain takes the things that happened to us the previous day and integrates those bits and pieces with the stuff it already has in it, as we saw above.  This integrative process has been demonstrated in several dream studies.  As the dreamer gets further and further into sleep, the dreams become more and more abstract and random-seeming as the brain makes more connections between what’s occurred and what’s already there. 

This is where we get to my speculation, i.e., the fun part.  Perhaps after the “first sleep,” the ammount of slow-wave sleep and limited REM sleep dreaming allowed those sleepers who woke after four hours and “pondered their dreams,” to make more connections between their dreams and their lives before the brain processed everything into incomprehensible abstractions.  Also, alpha waves have been associated with meditative and creative states, and they tend to be more prominent during drowsy periods. This midnight pondering would serve as a continuation of the brain’s associative work under more conscious circumstances, which likely allowed them to remember the insights they gained through examining their dreams. 

Indeed, one researcher quoted in both the original academic article and the BBC story deprived his participants of artificial light, and they slipped into the split sleep pattern described above. Instead of being fully awake in the intervening period, they experienced an “altered state of consciousness not unlike meditation.”

dream meditation

This isn’t to say, of course, that it’s not useful to record and examine our dreams from later in the night when REM sleep is more prominent.  But you might just have to dig a little harder to relate that purple dinosaur in your backyard to your work stress.  To go back to my earlier example, I didn’t fully understand the poltergeist that was rearranging my office furniture and seemed to live in the printer until I talked to Anna about the dreams.

It makes me wonder just what our artificially lighted society is missing out on.  There obviously used to be a lot more respect for dreams and what they could tell us.  With our addiction to artificial light in the evenings, I doubt it’s possible to duplicate the split sleep phenomenon under normal, non-experimental conditions.  One thing you can do to circumvent some of this modern interference is to cut off your screened gadgets (e.g., i-Things, smartphones, and computers) two hours before bedtime and not look at them until after you record your dreams in the morning.  Who knows?  You might find yourself sleeping better overall and remembering more dreams than you did previously.


*Because in Italy they get funding to study cool stuff like this.  Remember, it was also Italian researchers who found that people with televisions in their bedrooms have less sex.  No, I don’t know whether that particular study was personally funded by Mr. Berlusconi. ;-)


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, blogs about 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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