Dreaming for Science

The weirdly beautiful glowing orb that looks like a cross between a mood ring and a lost planet is actually a computerized portrait of my own dreaming brain. Dr. Antonio Zadra crafted it from the EEG readings gathered during my overnight stay here at the Dream and Nightmare Lab in Montreal. The colored areas of my brain indicate various levels of EEG activity, data that was gathered during the all-night experiment, which concluded at about 6:15 this morning. The protocol was this: I went to bed with inflatable cuffs wrapped around my thighs. When my brain waves showed me entering the dream-rich REM phase of sleep, a technician in the next room pumped up the cuffs to create pressure on my legs. The idea was to see how, if at all, that external pressure would affect my dreams.

At 4:04 a.m., and again at 5:30, they woke me to ask if I was dreaming. Both times I had no dream recall. But when they roused me at 6:17, I remembered a vivid dream in which I was clowning around at my wife's book discussion group with a pair of brightly painted wooden legs I found on the carpet. It's hard to explain, but I was using the legs to do a sort of seated Rockettes routine. The funny thing was, the left leg was much shorter than the right. As it turns out, my real left leg was, at the time, the one being squeezed by the cuff.

So, we could have a case in which an external stimulus has entered a dream, or it could be a psychological effect, since I knew going in what the cuffs were there for.

In any case, data is data, and I have made my humble contribution to the ongoing, and somewhat lonely quest, of Zadra and his colleagues to someday crack the mystery of dreams.

The Quest for Understanding Dreams

The Dream and Nightmare Lab is one of very few sleep centers in the world to bring rigorous scientific scrutiny to the subject of how and why we dream, which makes what's going on here all the more exciting.

There is fascinating work here leading in all directions. One of Zadra's current projects, for example, is an ambitious study designed to link dream content and personality, using a databank of more than 6,000 dreams.

"Our subjects keep home dream diaries," he says, "which we're using to look at links between the subjects' subjective sense of well-being and the content of their dreams. We can compare the dreams of the depressed with the non-depressed," he says, "or look for personality factors in certain kinds of recurrent dreams."