Dreams are altered states of consciousness. They are a major variation of what we consider to be normal waking awareness. Dreams exist in a state where our sense of self is diminished and thus we can sometimes do or experience things we cannot in normal waking consciousness. By studying our altered states of consciousness we may be able to learn how we can use our human potential to the fullest and continue to learn more about the complexities and subtleties of the mind.
I have included various facts that I have compiled in reference to sleep and specific categories of altered states of consciousness that occur during sleep.
Stage 1 is a transition state between sleeping and waking. In this stage, the eyes move more slowly and muscle activity slows as well. Stage 1 is a light sleep where you can be awakened easily.
In Stage 2, eye movement stops and brain waves become slower with an occasional burst of rapid brain waves. At this point, the body prepares to enter deep sleep.
Extremely slow brain waves called delta waves are interspersed with smaller, faster waves called theta waves.
Deepest of the four sleep stages before REM sleep. No eye movement or muscle activity occurs during deep sleep. During this stage, the brain produces more delta waves than theta waves. In Stage 4, some may experience sleepwalking or night terrors.
The period of non-REM sleep (NREM) is comprised of Stages 1-4 and lasts from 90-129 minutes (each stage lasing anywhere from 5-15 minutes). Stages 3 and 2 repeat backwards before REM sleep is reached. A normal sleep cycle has this pattern: waking, Stage 1, 2, 3, 4, 3, 2, REM.
Stage 5 (REM)
In the REM period (Rapid Eye Movement), breathing becomes more rapid, irregular and shallow, eyes move rapidly and limb muscles are temporarily paralyzed. It is generally thought that REM-associated muscle paralysis is meant to keep the body from acting out the dreams that occur during this intensely cerebral stage. Heartbeat may increase and muscles may experience occasional muscular twitches. REM usually takes place 90 minutes after falling asleep. The first period of REM typically lasts 10 minutes, with each recurring REM stage lengthening, and the final one lasting an hour. Most vivid dreaming happens during REM.
The five stages of sleep, including their repetition, occur in cycles. The first cycle, which ends after the first REM stage, usually lasts 100 minutes. Each subsequent cycle lasts longer, as its respective REM stage extends. A person may complete five cycles in a typical night’s sleep.
Factors That Affect Cycle and Stages of Sleep
Sleep disorders affect the quality, duration, and onset of sleep.
Sleep deprivation, frequently changing sleep schedules, stress, and environment all affect the progression of a sleep cycle.
Psychological conditions like depression shorten the duration of REM.
Treatment and medication often affects sleep, typically causing a change in sleep habits.
Vivid dreamlike auditory, visual, or tactile sensations, often accompanied by sleep paralysis and experienced when transitioning in or out of sleep.
Examples of hypnagogic experiences: fear, paranoia, awareness of a “presence,” chest or back pressure, trouble breathing, sensation of falling, occasional spurts of elation.
Brief and unintentional episodes of one’s loss of attention that may occur when trying to stay awake while performing a mundane task (i.e. driving a car, looking at a computer screen, or watching a lecture). Sometimes a microsleep episode takes place when our eyes are still open and we are often not even aware that it is happening to us.
Examples of microsleep: a blank stare, head snapping, prolonged eye closure.
Temporary paralysis of the body shortly after waking up or falling asleep. When the brain wakes from a REM state, the body’s paralysis remains, leaving the person awake but unable to move (sometimes accompanied with hypnagogic hallucinations).
I wonder if sleep paralysis is more than just a dream?
When a person is aware that he or she is dreaming while having the dream. During a lucid dream, we may have the potential to exert conscious control over the dream characters and environments. They are of the most real and vivid types of dreams.
There are two types of lucid dreaming:
When confronted by our worst nightmares, the choices are few; fight or flight. We hope to find the strength to stand against our fears but sometimes, despite ourselves, we run. What if the nightmare gives chase? Where can we hide then?
- Dream-initiated lucid dreaming (DILD) – The dreamer starts a normal dream and becomes aware that he or she is dreaming.
- Wake-initiated lucid dreaming (WILD) – The dreamer goes from a normal waking state into a dream state without any apparent lapse in consciousness.
What exactly is a nightmare and where do they come from?
A dream that causes an extreme unpleasant emotional response - usually fear, horror, or experiencing the sensations of pain, suffocation, falling, or death.
Nightmares can be related to physical causes such as a high fever, psychological trauma or stress, or sometimes no apparent reason at all.
Having an occasional nightmare is common, but recurring nightmares can lead to sleep disorders and other problems. I sincerely hope that if you are frequently experiencing nightmares, you will let someone close to you know so that they can help.