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Am I Awake or Am I Asleep?

The difference between fantasy, dreams, and reality is not clear-cut.

By Michael Donner Ph.D.

How do we know if we are dreaming or awake? Did you ever wonder if something you remembered really happened, you imagined it, or dreamt it? The difference between fantasy, dreams, and reality is not as clear-cut as we might think.

A patient recently told me she had a dream of a soldier about to be hung who escaped at the last minute, only to “wake up” dying at the end of a rope. Why did this dream sound familiar? Had she told me it before? Had I somehow dreamt it too? Or did I remember it from a movie or a book? To be honest, I'm not really sure.

Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

Then I remembered the movie, Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. This story and my patient’s dream provide the opportunity to consider the questions: how can we tell whether something really happened to us or whether we imagined, dreamed, or encountered it some other way?

In the film, a Confederate soldier is standing on the edge of a bridge, about to be hung by the Union. He drops, and as he reaches the end of the rope, it breaks. He plunges into the water and swims to shore, evading Union bullets. He makes it safely and runs towards his home and family. Just as he is about to rush into their arms, there is a cracking sound and we see the soldier swinging at the end of the rope.

The similarity between my patient's dream and this movie is striking. As her therapist, I didn't know what this meant but it made me feel that our unconscious minds were in sync.

How do we distinguish dreams from waking life?

Dreams are differentiated from other psychological experiences because they occur when we sleep. One of the most distinctive aspects of dreams is that people believe them to be true and real as they are dreaming. While dreaming, we believe the dream is really happening to us, no matter how bizarre or illogical the experience in the dream may seem once we regain consciousness.

Events that occur while we’re sleeping, such as alarm clocks going off and noises outside our window, can become incorporated into our dreams. Freud tells of a man who dreamt he was at the guillotine during the French revolution and awoke just as the blade hit his neck. He found that his headboard had fallen and struck him just where the blade did in his dream.

We think we know when we are awake and when we are asleep, when we are dreaming and when we are not, but it is actually not so clear. Many people experience moments of confusion and uncertainty, waking up yet still feeling like the dream was real. Some people complain of terrible and unremitting insomnia, but sleep studies suggest that while they believe they are awake, they are actually asleep, dreaming that they are lying in bed, tossing and turning for hours at a time. They wake up convinced that they had not slept at all.

Waking dreams

It is a fairly common phenomenon to “see” a beloved dead person, recently departed. In a study of Japanese widows, over 50% said they had hallucinated their spouses. Two years after my father died, I took a photo inside a casino of my wife and daughter. Looking at the pictures later, I saw a man sitting behind them, the spitting image of my father. I know he is dead, and I have no belief that he was haunting the casino, and yet to this day, I look at that picture with a sense of wonder.

This experience is like a waking dream, a wish, that he were still alive. Unlike the dream, where I have no awareness of being asleep, here I know I am awake, and yet simultaneously having a dream. Not too dissimilar to “deja vu” experiences, those weird, uncanny, confusing phenomenon that on some level we know may not be true, yet have “an inexplicable sense of familiarity,” another moment when we are unsure whether what we experience is real, a memory, or a dream.

Memory and reality

Just as we believe our dreams are real as we are dreaming them, we also believe our memories are real as well. It is not so clear. What we think of as a memory is more like a dream than a video recording. Although many people believe they have excellent memories and recall things just as they happened, it is never so easy or straightforward.

Research on eyewitness testimony tells us how easily distorted memory and recall can be. We see what we expect to see, we interpret events through the lens of our histories and life experiences, yet our interpretation and “recall” of what we think we saw, heard, or said feels real, immediate, and correct. In Akira Kurosawa’s brilliant film Rashomon, he demonstrates how the same event is described and experienced in completely different ways by the various people involved. Another example is the podcast, Serial—the most listened-to podcast of all time. It tells of a 1999 murder. The crux of the story is an examination of the science and psychology of how we remember.

These uncanny phenomena are not rare or unusual. The playwright, author, and movie maker know that we can fall asleep, enter into a dream, and believe it to be real.

We know more than we are aware of consciously. What is under the surface emerges from our dreams and memories. In psychoanalysis, we use these experiences to help make meaning in people’s lives. Don't just treat your memories and daydreams as random firings in the brain, but reflect and imagine what you are trying to tell yourself.

I hope that I have given you something new to dream about.

About the Author: Michael B. Donner, Ph.D., is a psychoanalyst and clinical and forensic psychologist in Oakland, California. He sees adults and adolescents with a wide range of concerns, and provides child custody evaluations and other services to the Family Courts. He is a member of the faculty at the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis. Please visit his website at

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