When dreams come to life

Photo by Flickr user Pensiero. Click for sourceIn C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novel The Voyage of the Dawn Treader the heroes find a man stranded on an island where dreams come true. They initially express delight but the man rages “Fools!” “Do you hear what I say? This is where dreams – dreams, do you understand? – come to life, come real. Not daydreams: dreams.”

But dreams can come to life and the effect is no less fantastical. In REM sleep behaviour disorder (RBD), normal sleep paralysis breaks down and sleepers act out their dreams – giving observers a remarkable insight into the dreaming mind.

An article recently published in Neurology charted the range of sleep behaviours seen in people with neurological disturbances such as narcolepsy, Parkinson’s disease or other types of dementia, all of which can trigger the problem.

Incidental cases of nonviolent behaviors during RBD included masturbating-like behavior and coitus-like pelvic thrusting, mimicking eating and drinking, urinating and defecating, displaying pleasant behaviors (laughing, singing, dancing, whistling, smoking a fictive cigarette, clapping and gesturing “thumbs up”), greeting, flying, building a stair, dealing textiles, inspecting the army, searching a treasure, and giving lessons. Speeches were mumbled or contained logical sentences with normal prosody [voice tone, rhythm and stress].

The paper also contains two case studies which describe, in detail, exactly what each patient was doing when they were acting out their dreams. This is from the description of ‘Patient 2’:

These behaviors, which occurred with eyes closed, were complex, various, and usually accompanied with sentences resembling a teacher with children (first sequence) or a captain inspecting his troop (second sequence): “(Professorial) Can we all return to our seats! (pause) (Overbearing) What do you do, standing there in the middle? (pause) Remove your finger away from the switch! (pause) Well, if that’s so, I’ll take the numbers. (Ironic) And . . . late! (pause). (Professorial) Get back to your seats. I’m going to start.”

Mumbles for 6 minutes. Then: “(bossy) Raise your hands, raise your hands, raise your hands, I said raise! I didn’t say to pull away! I said: raise your hands!” Here the patient quickly raised his left arm and waved his hand it as if he were showing something. “(Bossy and rhythmic) Halt! (pause) Halt! (pause) Halt!” Three minutes later, he shouted “(Bossy, like in a military parade) Attention! Gentleman, please, attention! (pause) Halt, halt, I said! (pause) Halt, I said!”

This study specifically focused on the less researched non-violent sleep behaviours, as the disorder is more typically associated with acting out aggressive dreams.

This is possibly because the disturbances that cause the disorder also affect the content of the dreams.

An earlier study found that patients with the disorder reported having more aggressive dreams, even though they were not more aggressive in waking life.

It’s a fascinating article and worth reading in full as it contains many ‘wow, that’s amazing’ moments, both for the scientific insights, and the windows into the mental life of sleep.

Link to Neurology article on sleep behaviours.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

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