Dream Catcher

The neuroscience of our night life

Dream and Reality

How do you know that you are not dreaming?

Have you ever woke up from a dream and then after a few minutes REALLY woke up from a dream? Most people who have experienced these sorts of ‘false awakenings' report an "eerie feeling" that accompanies the false awakening once they realize that they are dreaming. The eerie-ness is not surprising given that the experience undermines the belief we all usually have that we have direct contact with reality. It is certainly a shock to realize that you can be going about your day when in fact you are only dreaming.

The recent movie Inception used these sorts of false awakenings to good dramatic effect just because they are so emotionally eerie. But by far the best cinematic treatment of this theme was Richard Linklater's ‘The waking life'.

False awakenings have fueled skeptical philosophical reflections for centuries. If I can be utterly convinced that I am awake when in fact I am dreaming then it follows that my ability to know the REAL may not be completely reliable. The legendary Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi (Chuang-Tzu, 369-298 BCE) was said to have had a dream that he was flying around as a butterfly and then awoke to find that he was a man. But he had the eerie feeling upon awakening of not knowing whether he was a butterfly dreaming that he was a man or a man dreaming he was a butterfly.

What appears to contribute to the utterly convincing nature of the dream is that the dream associated with the false awakening often contains astonishing details from the dreamer's waking life and circumstances. Because the dream reproduces the daily circumstances of the dreamer with such remarkable detail the unsuspecting dreamer will then perform routine tasks in the dream typically done immediately in those circumstances. The performance of these routine tasks contributes to the illusion that one is awake. Despite the existence of these mundane themes in false awakenings the more interesting themes are less mundane.

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For example, the dreamer may wake up into a very surreal environment that nevertheless feels uncannily familiar. A false awakening may entail waking up in the dreamer's childhood environment or into utterly new or foreign environment that has a kind of timeless feel to it. The dreamer feels that he or she is moving in an ancient environment of extreme significance that is nevertheless strangely familiar. There may be monuments, buildings or scenes that point to an ancient setting or civilization.

In yet other false awakenings the dreamer may develop the uncanny sense of being watched as he moves through the scenes in the dream. The dreamer believes he is awake and is being watched or observed by someone familiar rather than threatening.

Eventually the dreamer begins to notice anomalies in the dream and then gradually realizes he is dreaming. At that point many people panic and attempt to wake up. Other people who are familiar with lucid dreaming may continue the dream. But most of us attempt to wake up. In rare cases these awakenings just send the dreamer into yet another false awakening.

Unfortunately not much more is known about the content of dreams associated with false awakenings than these bare facts. We simply do not have a large corpus of such dreams with which to do analyses. If you or someone you know experiences these sorts of dreams please describe them in the comment box below or send them to me at my email. Perhaps an appeal for these sorts of dreams on the Web will give us a large enough corpus to begin a real set of analyses.

Reference

Windt, Jennifer M., and Metzinger, Thomas. (2007). "The Philosophy of Dreaming and Self-Consciousness: What Happens to the Experiential Subject During the Dream State?" In McNamara, Patrick, and Barrett, Deirdre, 193-247. The New Science of Dreaming Volume III: Cultural and Theoretical Perspectives. Westport: Praeger.

 

Patrick McNamara, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and the author of numerous books and articles on the science of dreams.

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