Monday, 17 November 2014

An Introduction to False Awakenings & Dreams Within a Dream

'All that we see or seem, but a dream within a dream'
- Edgar Allen Poe, A Dream Within a Dream (1849)

I previously wrote an introductory article on Sleep Paralysis, but since I had a rather scary series of false awakenings (and dreams within a dream), I thought I should continue my investigation into this topic.

A false awakening is an extremely vivid and convincing dream about awakening from sleep, which feels completely realistic at first. However, the dreamer is still asleep, but not immediately aware of this. During the false awakening, the dreamer may experience sleep paralysis, or alternatively, dream that they are performing routine activities, such as getting out of bed, dressing or washing. A particular subset of false awakenings, i.e. those in which the dreamer has awakened from a dream, are known as a dream within a dream or a double dream. This phenomenon is the subject of Nikolai Gogol's The Portrait (1835).

It is common for a false awakening to follow a non-lucid or lucid dream and especially in circumstances in which the dreamer's false awakening follows a lucid dream, it may become a pre-lucid dream, where the dreamer questions whether they are actually awake or still asleep and dreaming. The term pre-lucid dream was first referred to by Celia Green in Lucid Dreams (1968). Such experiences are predominant in dreamers who intentionally cultivate lucid dreams - indeed, my false awakening and multiple dreams within a dream followed an attempt to incubate lucidity the same evening I attended a lucid dreaming group in the city. 

In a study by Deidre Barrett, 'Flying dreams, false awakenings and lucidity: An empirical study of their relationship' (1991) Dreaming: Journal of the Association for the Study of Dreams 1(2), 200 subjects (2,000 dreams) were analysed and it was found that lucidity and false awakenings were more likely to occur within the same dream or within different dreams of the same night. False awakenings often precede lucid dreams, acting as a cue (particularly where the experienced lucid dreamer performs a reality check), but could also follow the onset of lucidity, leading to the loss of lucidity. 

Another type of false awakening occurs in a continuum - the dreamer falls asleep in real life, but in the following dream, the brain is stimulated in a way that occurs when the dreamer is still awake, making the them mistakenly believe they are still awake. During this type of false awakening, the dreamer may perform waking activities unknowingly. This is the type of dream popularised in the movie, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). This phenomenon is often linked to sleep walking or the carrying out of activities in a state of unconsciousness. 

During the false awakening experience, certain aspects of the dreamer's world may be dramatised or appear changed and out of place - details of their environment or person may be wrong and they may experience difficulties in movement, speech or reading - see C Green & C McCreery, Lucid Dreaming: The Paradox of Consciousness During Sleep (1994). In some situations, the dreamers senses may be heightened or changed and the dreamer experiences a mixture of reality and unreality which may be confusing or anxiety-provoking. 

As the mind continues dreaming after the false awakening, there may be multiple false awakenings within the same dream, a subset of the false awakening phenomenon characterised by the repetition of the experience. The philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872 - 1970) claims to have experiences a succession of about 100 false awakenings when coming round from an anaesthetic - see B Russel, Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits (1948). The phenomenon has been referred to in popular culture, for example, an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants; the movie Night of the Dead (1945); the first volume of Neil Gaiman's graphic novel The Sandman (1989); Joan Baez's The Dream Song (1992); the animated film, Waking Life (2001); Inception (2010); and Doctor Who episodes, 'Amy's Choice' (2010) and 'Listen' (2014).

Celia Green has stated that it is important to differentiate between two types of false awakening:

Type 1
Type 1 is the most common form of false awakening, in which the dreamer feels like they have woken up, but find themselves in unrealistic surroundings - i.e. not their own bedroom, or a familiar room which appears to be different in appearance. This is often a form of pre-lucid dream - usually the dreamer will believe they have awoken, and then actually wake up in their bed or fall back into a normal dream sleep. Another very common form of false awakening is the 'late for work/school' variety in which the dreamer awakens in a typical room, which appears normal, and then realises that they have overslept and missed the start of work/school. If the dreamer looks at a clock, they will find that the time confirms that they are late, although the resultant panic is strong enough to jar them awake for real (similar to awakening from a nightmare). This type of false awakening may also result in bed-wetting because during the false awakening, the dreamer has performed normal every day tasks which they would usually do after getting up in the morning, such as urinating, erroneously believing that they are using a toilet.

Type 2
Type 2 false awakenings are much less common. The dreamer wakes up in a normal manner, but there is an atmosphere of suspense. The environment appears typical and realistic at first, but they gradually become aware that something is odd or uncanny in the atmosphere and may experience unusual sounds and movements. The dreamer may wake suddenly in a stressed and 'stormy' atmosphere with feelings of apprehension and fear. This experience is often very confusing and akin to a nightmare.

Charles McCreery analysed the phenomenon in C McCreery, 'Hallucinations and arousability: Pointers to a theory of psychosis' in G Claridge, Schizotypy, Implications for Illness and Health (1997) where he claimed that there was similarity between this type of false awakening and the 'primary delusionary experience' described by German psychiatrist and philosopher, Karl Jaspers (1883 - 1969) in General Psychopathology (1923), where the author stated that patients notice that something is uncanny or suspicious and everything takes on a new meaning. Perception remains unaltered, but there is a change which envelops everything in a subtle, pervasive and uncertain light, creating a sense of tension, and discomfort. McCreery suggest that this similarity is not coincidental, because both Type 2 false awakenings and primary delusionary experiences are both forms of sleep disorder. He states that primary delusionary experiences - like other forms of psychosis such as hallucinations, and secondary (or specific) delusions, represent an intrusion of stage 1 sleep processes into waking consciousness. Some argue that the reason for these intrusions may be that the psychotic subject is in a state of hyper-arousal, which psychiatrist and sleep researcher Ian Oswald (1929 - 2012) refers to as a a waking 'micro-sleep'.

The concept of a dream within a dream (i.e. a portion of one dream enacted within the envelope of another) has been studied intensively by sleep and dream researchers. Sigmund Freud emphasised the function of a piece of reality being inserted into the dream within a dream in an attempt to obliterate it and deprive it of its significance, although he did not delve further into the opportunity for the dream researched to explore the dynamic relationship between the two dual fragments of the discreet and segmented dream narrative and the possibility of multiple meanings of the illusion. The Psychoanalytic Theory of dreaming has been applied to the dream within a dream phenomenon in the published study, EJ Mahon, 'Dreams within Dreams' (2002) Psychoanal Study Child 57.

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