Dive into the mysterious world of dreams and discover what science tells us about the amazing phenomenon of meta-dreams.
Dreams, these strange worlds that inhabit us
Remembering our dreams is one of the things that makes us full human beings. Waking up and putting together the puzzle we formed the night before, with invented stories and narratives that don't exist, is one of the wonders of life. This has given birth to books, films and even surrealist paintings. Dreaming is always a singular experience, even when we sometimes realize we are dreaming. But have you ever experienced a dream within a dream?
The meta-dream: a curious and intriguing phenomenon
To dream that one dreams, in other words the meta-dream, is an everyday curiosity both strange and fascinating. Dreams are special in that they are never ordinary: they are filled with strange events and give free rein to our imagination and our unconscious. Yet all the strange things that happen in them seem normal to us. We don't worry about flying, monsters appearing, or moving without moving. As Calderón de la Barca said, “los sueños, sueños son” (dreams are dreams). But why do we dream that we dream, as paradoxical as it may seem?
Hybrid brain states: the key to understanding meta-dreams
There are three basic brain states: wakefulness, REM sleep (or MOR, for “Rapid Eye Movement”) and non-REM sleep (or NMOR). The most vivid dreams occur during the MOR phase, while restorative sleep takes place during the NMOR phase. What determines, creates or maintains each of these three states is a specific “profile” or mix of neurotransmitter activity levels generated by the brainstem. The profile of each brain state may be totally or partially involved. Transitions between brain states can also be partial or incomplete, and when they occur, we get a hybrid brain state, for example, a mixture of MOR and wakefulness, a mixture of NMOR and wakefulness, or MOR with NMOR. When these hybrid states occur, we tend to have mysterious, strange and unusual experiences.
Sleep paralysis: an example of a hybrid brain state
A fairly common example is sleep paralysis, which represents a hybrid moment between the MOR (sleep) state and wakefulness. This is why, when you seem to wake up, you may see a motionless figure in the corner of your room and, although your brain begs your limbs to move, they do not seem to respond. The person is conscious and awake, but paralyzed. They cannot move because the muscle atony associated with the MOR phase persists in the waking state. In addition, the subject may have hallucinations of an intruder, possibly because many dreams in the MOR phase involve potential threats.
The meta-dream: a complex phenomenon on the border between dream and reality
But what happens when we dream that we have woken up, while we are still dreaming? This happens because the brain is in the process of transitioning from sleep to wakefulness and, for some reason, believes that it has already reached that point. However, according to Dr. Patrick McNamara, dreaming that you are dreaming is a bit more complex phenomenon, as he explains in “Psychology Today”: “It requires an explanation other than a simple description as partial waking. It's more like lucid dreaming, a hybrid between the MOR phase and wakefulness, as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is partially activated.”
Dreaming that one is dreaming is similar to lucid dreams, a hybrid between the MOR phase and the waking state. When the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activates during the MOR phase, the individual gains some self-awareness and thus realizes that they are dreaming. A false awakening would involve omitting this self-awareness as a stage of dreaming, as occurs with lucid dreaming, and which is associated with the transition to the waking state. Instead, the waking process would be interrupted and the person, anticipating waking, would continue to dream. Nevertheless, there is still no clear answer to the question of why we dream about normal morning rituals and waking activities. The world of dreams remains a mystery to be explored.