Nightmares Aren't Kid-Stuff

Dr. Antonio Zadra's girlfriend wakes to find the good doctor standing on the arms of a teetering chair he has dragged to the center of the bedroom floor, and swatting at the blades of the ceiling fan above his head.

When the girlfriend asks what he's doing, Zadra replies, "Come on, we can't have all these lobsters hanging from the fan."

"I thought we had an infestation of lobsters," he tells me. "They were all over the ceiling."

"Some dream," I offer.

"But it wasn't a dream," Zadra replies. "That's the point. When I climbed up on the chair, I wasn't dreaming. Not completely. I wasn't asleep, and I wasn't awake. Or, I was a little of both, with the waking and sleeping states co-existing, sort of."

Confusional Awakening

Out here on the cutting edge of dream research, where critical science must make room for metaphysical wonder, it's not always easy to pin things down in ways that make sense to laypeople like me. But Zadra, a noted dream researcher for Sacre Coeur Hospital's Dream and Nightmare Lab here in Montreal, knows exactly where he's going.

"Being awake, or being asleep," he says, "is not a matter of black and white. Some sleepwalkers can drive a car for miles and miles without crashing during an episode. There must be some processing of visual information going on. But if you stood in front of that same person, they might stare right through you as if you didn't exist at all."

For the record, the technical term for Zadra's odd quasi-dream behavior is "confusional awakening," one of many strange adventures lying in wait as we make the nightly crossing from waking to sleeping and back again. At the Dream and Nightmare Lab, one of very few sleep centers anywhere to focus scientifically upon solving the riddle of dreams, Zadra and his colleagues spend their days searching for signposts along that route.

The lab is visited regularly by sleepwalkers, sleep talkers, sleep drivers, sleep eaters; people who repetitively bang their heads while they're sleeping, are troubled by disturbing bedtime hallucinations, or who struggle violently in the dark with enemies who attack only during slumber.

Tomorrow, we'll take a look at some of this odd, dream-related behavior, and discuss the fascinating research through which Zadra and friends hope to figure out why we dream the way we do. Today, though, I want to focus on nightmares and night terrors, since those two problems account for most of the clinical foot traffic at the lab.