Thursday, June 26, 2014

Dreaming of Time: A theory

One night a sudden noise woke me up, but I recall having a very long, intense dream that ended with that noise. The noise and my perception of time in the dream were dissonant. This was the moment I realized that the perception of time in dreams is an illusion. While awake we hear and respond to sounds, but while sleeping apparently sounds don't quite reach our conscious mind until they are first embellished by our unconscious imagination. A sudden external noise may create in our dreaming minds an entire scenario that seems to play out over several minutes before ending with what we think causes the noise. One night I dreamed I was on a plane that finally crashed.

The closest metaphor for the experience of the passage of time in dreams is non-linear video editing; a computer program that allows the user to drag and drop short video clips into a timeline to create a story. Many music videos are edited first by laying down the sound track, then inserting the video clips anywhere along the sound track, sometimes starting in the middle, or even at the very end. So too it seems our dreams are made when unusual sounds are present, or we fall asleep with the radio on.

Only in dreams, the clips are fragmented even smaller and more detailed than simple video. The dream clip is like a group of meaningful set pieces from memories on a stage. These can be combined to create completely new dream vistas as well as cause us to infer that time has passed. It's easy to assume that time has passed with all the cues around us we memorize, like street lights, clocks, night, day, etc.

Sometimes I dream of walking through a house I know I never saw before but I did recognize some of its architecture, like the front porch of a friend's house or an odd combination of several sets of stairs from different houses I visited as a child.

Our waking perception of time is based on the frequency of salient, novel stimuli. Sitting at your desk in class, watching the clock ten minutes before the final bell before summer vacation seems to take forever; but a ten hour road trip with your best friends is over too soon. A length of time can crawl or fly depending on the quality and quantity of activities within.


The world in which we function daily is restricted by gravity and the predictable behavior of machines and most people and animals. During sleep the brain is mostly shut off from the outside world. Something else is stimulating our memory fragments out of order. This has caused great interest in the field of Dream Interpretation pioneered by Sigmund Freud. Unfortunately too many people in their efforts to understand dreams are taken in by the symbolism of the dream contents. Not until very recently has genetics, brain chemistry, and other discoveries such as "Mirror Neurons" begun constructing a platform for more scientific explanation of brain function during sleep.

The surplus or debt of our supply of neurotransmitters may play a larger role in how we dream. It may be that during sleep, our brains shed off the surplus of neurotransmitters that were created as a result of under-utilized neurons during the previous day. If we were awake when this happens it might look like a grand mal seizure. Many people who suffer from night terrors, sleep-walking or other sleep disturbances might only have a partial brain-body sleep disconnection, and signals during the brain's "reset" cycle leak out to cause the resulting thrashing about or walking.

Looking at the links, I tend to think diet may partially influence our dreams because of the intake of chemicals that are synthesized into neurotransmitters. Genetics plays a role as well, in the rate of neurotransmitter production and the number and type of receptors. The artificial stimulation of dopamine through persistent intake of alcohol or drugs also creates changes in nerve function. The balance of available neurotransmitters in our brains at the time we go to sleep may have a bigger influence on how we dream.