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Sleep

Dreaming of the Sleep Lab

Subjects in sleep laboratory experiments have these common dream experiences.

Key points

  • Participants in sleep studies often dream about the laboratory experiment and setting.
  • One frequent laboratory dream is the dream of being aware that you are being observed while asleep.
  • Sleeping in the laboratory also seems to increase false awakenings, in which you dream you have already woken up and started the day.
  • Participants may be anxious about sleeping well and remembering dreams, which also appears in dream content.

A recent paper looked at the phenomenon of "dreaming about the sleep lab."This phenomenon
occurs when sleep lab participants dream about being in the laboratory.

In an extensive database of about 500 dreams the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory in Montreal collected, the authors looked for any dreams that directly or indirectly referred to the laboratory experience. These dreams included the lab setting, the bedroom, the hospital, the experimenters, the tasks completed in the lab (such as a dream report or learning task), the objects (such as electrodes or video recordings), and any more global reference to sleep, such as sleeping at home or being in pajamas.

The phenomenon of dreaming about the sleep laboratory is not a new discovery. In the 1960s, a researcher reported that in the dreams of his participants, dreamers often pictured the experimenters as cold exploitative scientists who did not care about anything but the experiment.

Hopefully, our sleep laboratory participants do not have such negative perceptions today.

In 2008, author Michael Schredl reviewed all available studies of "laboratory incorporation in dreams" and showed that this phenomenon is quite common. About a third of dreams in the lab will incorporate some element of the lab setting.

In our recent paper, about 35 percent of dreams in the database incorporated lab elements. These lab incorporations occurred in all different stages of sleep, although they seemed to be more frequent in REM sleep. In addition, dream reports collected from morning naps especially referred to the lab, with dreams from morning REM sleep naps referencing the lab 55 percent of the time.

When exploring the content and narrative of these so-called "lab incorporation dreams," several themes emerged, such as dreams of being under observation, false-awakening dreams that the experiment had ended, and dreams reflecting performance anxiety related to the experiment.

One identified theme, of being an object of observation, included examples of dreams in which the dreamer is aware that there are cameras in their room or worried that their thoughts and dreams are being recorded. Several participants dreamed there were windows through the walls or other individuals intruding into the bedroom observing them.

  • "I was in a glass room, and I was hooked up to electrodes..."
  • "...exactly the same as here except that there were windows instead of walls."
  • "I did a test where she put electrolytes in my head, and it was supposed to write the dreams directly on paper."
  • "...strangely, this room was not private. Even though in my dream only me and my family were present, I had the feeling that other people I don't know were present, without seeing them."

False awakening dreams are a type of dream that can occur at home as well, in which you dream that you have awakened from sleep and even gotten out of bed and maybe gotten ready for the day, only to wake up at some point and realize that you were still dreaming. I wrote about this experience in a previous post.

Some examples from the laboratory included:

  • "I dreamed of waking up here in the lab. I woke up, and [the experimenter] explained to me that it was over and I could go home."
  • "Then I thought I was awake and I was waiting for the end of the experiment. I glued one of my electrodes back on."
  • "Actually, I was dreaming that I was here and that I was waking up. After that, we were leaving the room, you were taking the electrodes off me."
  • "I dreamt that I knocked on the door because I was done sleeping to let [the experimenter] know, and she said she will be here soon."

It seems like sleeping in the laboratory actually makes these occurrences more frequent. False awakenings are similar to an anticipation of what you will be doing the way you wake up, sort of projecting your dreaming self into the future and potentially preparing for the day. These dreams are quite interesting and can feel very realistic; sometimes, the participant in the sleep laboratory will be confused when they do wake up for real and realize they are still in bed.

Finally, the third theme of performance anxiety could apply to tasks that the participant was concerned about performing or even refer to the actual act of sleeping well and remembering a dream as a task to perform well. Participants often dream about not being able to fall asleep or dream about trying to remember a dream to report to the experimenter after awakening.

It’s possible participants feel some anxiety prior to sleep which triggers these dreams, some fear of disappointing the experimenter, or not being able to fall asleep.

  • "I dreamt that I was laying right here and couldn’t fall asleep. After a long time, someone came into the room to tell me the simulation was over–by then, I felt too tired to wake up."
  • "And then I was with my parents and I was crying, because I hadn’t succeeded in sleeping and I felt like very bad to have failed."
  • "I was trying to fall asleep in my dream by holding onto an office chair and rocking it back and forth, aware of the cameras but desperate enough to fall asleep that I didn’t really care."
  • "I dreamt that I was laying right here and couldn’t fall asleep. After a long time, someone came into the room to tell me the simulation was over–by then, I felt too tired to wake up."

In the last couple of examples, you can see multiple themes: Participants dream of having difficulty sleeping (performance anxiety), of being awakened at the end of the experiment (false awakening), and of being observed by cameras (object of observation).

References

Picard-Deland, C., Nielsen, T., & Carr, M. (2021). Dreaming of the sleep lab. PloS one, 16(10), e0257738.

Schredl, M. (2008). Laboratory references in dreams: Methodological problem and/or evidence for the continuity hypothesis of dreaming?. International Journal of Dream Research, 1(1).

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