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."

Dreaming for Science: A Closer Look

Zadra is also particularly fascinated by conditions such as sleepwalking, which blur the line between wakefulness and slumber. For example, there's the case of the somnambulistic woman who'd also eat meals in her sleep.

"Her psychiatrist knew she had a profound fear of snakes," says Zadra, "so he had her husband place a rubber snake in the refrigerator. When she sleepwalked to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door, she just stared at the snake silently for a long time. Then she closed the door, went back to bed, and her somnambulistic eating was over."

"She was sleepwalking when that happened," says Zadra, "but clearly she was processing information, and on some level she was making a decision. Was she asleep? Was she awake? There's no sharp line between the two."

Acting Out Dreams

Victims of REM Behavior Disorder, who lack the normal motor inhibitions that paralyze sleepers during REM sleep, also find themselves trapped occasionally between the world of waking and slumber. Confused and frightened, they often violently act out their dreams.

"Recently, we had a patient with 12 stitches on his head from running into his dresser," says Zadra. "He was dreaming, and he thought he was tackling a burglar in the bedroom."

The line between sleep and waking is also blurred by the "confusional awakenings," which Zadra himself experiences, and the fleeting, sometimes frightful hallucinations that can occur during bouts of sleep paralysis.

"You are awake in the sense that you are aware of your surroundings," he says, "you can see your bed and your socks where you left them on the floor; but at the same time, there's a shadowy figure in the corner, and something is moving on the wall."

A World Created Whole

But Zadra's passion for the study of dreams transcends clinical diagnoses and professional protocol, and is rooted in a lasting childlike wonder at the majesty of dreams.

"It amazes me that when you dream your mind must create every detail," says Zadra. "It decides what the weather will be, what the color of each passing car will be, what the people you meet will be wearing. It's incredible that our brains, or minds, are able to create an entire world. The world of dreams is so rich, so universal," he says, "To me, dreams are one of the most marvelous experiences you can have."