Living the dream: A scientist’s fascination with our brains while we sleep

August 12, 2022
Dreamlike image of a woman sitting on a spiral tree looking into the distance
Sometimes dreams make perfect sense. And other times you're sitting on a hovering, spiral section of the ground – because, hey, that's normal – looking off into the distance. iStock

And just like that, the last clue falls into place. You’ve cracked the case. You turn to your crime-fighting partner, James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, give him a quick wink and tell him to hop in the submarine because, “We’re headed back to Radio Shack!”

And then you wake up.

Turns out, it was only a dream (“Get Up!”). Scientifically speaking, dreams are stories and images that our minds create while we sleep. They can be crazy. Magical. Or just downright terrifying. Sometimes they make sense; sometimes they don’t. Thomas Uhde, M.D., chairman of MUSC’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, has spent the better part of his career investigating fear related images, cognitions and arousals in sleep and during transitions into and out of sleep. 

“To me, dreams can be about events that are relevant to our lives at the time,” Uhde said. And though doctors and researchers already know a great deal about dreams and sleep-related cognitions, he explained, there is still a lot that they don’t know. Vivid dreams or images can be elicited by medications or recreational drugs and sleep-related visual hallucinations can be caused by a number of different underlying neuropsychiatric or sleep disorders. If that’s the case, he said, then you address and treat the underlying disorder.

But sometimes, he said, a patient with no underlying medical disorders will come to see him with a dream that is troubling them.

"Then," he said with a thoughtful pause, "the relevant question becomes, ‘Well, what does the dream mean to you?’” 

A new movement in dreams

In 1951, a University of Chicago researcher by the name of Eugene Aserinsky, a man who was completely fascinated by the phenomenon of dreaming, decided to hook up electrodes to his 8-year-old son in the hopes of better understanding what was going on when we sleep. In order to minimize disruption, Aserinsky ran the wires, which were attached to electrodes on his son’s head, to an adjacent room and into a machine that monitored brain waves. 

After calibrating the machine, he turned out the lights and said good night to the boy. A few hours later, while drinking his second cup of coffee, Aserinsky noticed the machine registering lots of eye movement. He hopped out of his seat and went next door to check on his son to see what woke him, but when he walked in, he was shocked to find him still asleep. 

And just like that, rapid eye movement (REM) was discovered. And with it, the study of dreams took off like a tiger riding a rocket-powered rainbow.

From that one discovery, scientists learned all sorts of fascinating stuff, but none more vital than the fact that the electrical activity in the brain is virtually the same whether a person is awake or in REM sleep.

Headshot of Dr. Thomas Uhde 
Dr. Thomas Uhde

“Basically, when you’re in REM sleep, you can breathe and move your eyes, but you can’t move the rest of your body,” Uhde said. “From an evolutionary perspective, this is probably a good thing. You know, that way you don’t take a swing at your spouse when you’re having a dream about a fight.”

After scientists discovered REM, things started to fall into place. Over time, it became generally agreed that there were five stages of sleep. Stages 1 and 2 are often referred to as “light sleep.” During stages 3 and 4, sleep becomes a little deeper, but the body is still at rest. Then comes stage 5, or REM sleep. 

Uhde said it takes approximately 90 minutes for a person to reach REM sleep, and it can sometimes only last for a few minutes. But then, the cycle starts all over. In a typical evening, we might enter REM sleep 3 to 5 times. The more cycles you have, typically the more concentrated or intense it becomes. 

Just like Aserinsky found half a century ago, if you just saw brain activity during REM, you wouldn’t be able to tell if a person was awake or blissfully dreaming away.

Forget me not

More often than not, when we wake up in the morning, we don’t remember having had any dreams. But other mornings, those memories are so intense, it can be hard to know – at least for the first few seconds that we’re awake – if the experience was real or not. 

Uhde said a lot of what determines whether we remember our dreams has to do with when we wake up in our sleep cycle. If you awaken from REM sleep or have just come out of it and are just waking up, that is often when you best remember them.

He said that keeping a dream journal by the bed is the best way to recall them. “You’ve got to get it down right away, or it’s liable to slip away,” he said.

He explained how there are countless examples of people using their dreams as a source of inspiration. Whether for composing music, painting or writing a book, a dream journal can be extremely useful, Uhde said.

He also said that the same technique can help for people who are having recurring nightmares. To put those dreams on paper can allow someone to assess them more logically, and in time, change the negative perceptions associated with them. 

Dreamlike image of clouds with a floating door, which is ajar and a sliver of moon is visible thru its opening 
How much we retain of our dreams often depends on when we wake up in our sleep cycle and if we quickly write it down. "Even the most fantastical dreams can slip away," Uhde said. iStock

Science meets supernatural

But for all the discoveries and advances that have happened over the years, the field of sleep – and more specifically dreams – is still largely an unknown. For instance, we still don’t know what many of our crazy dreams mean. Sure, there are some classic categories that usually have simple interpretations, like a dream about falling might be related to an interpersonal conflict. Or a dream where something really mortifying happens to you could come from a real-life fear of embarrassment. 

It's those lesser understood ones, along with any correlated sleep disorders, that most fascinate Uhde. Things like sleep paralysis when a person experiences sudden muscle weakness or paralysis accompanied by vivid dream-like images or hallucinations – which typically take place going into or coming out of sleep. The person feels totally alert during these episodes and will often have difficulty distinguishing whether it’s real or not.

“These initial episodes can be profoundly anxiety provoking for a person,” he said. “People say they are the most frightening experiences of their lives.”

Or the ones who have dreams that serve as some sort of epiphany. 

“It’s a very small proportion, but there are some people who have this sense that they’ve connected with something much greater than themselves,” he said. “Often, a patient can’t describe it. It’s not necessarily religious, but rather, they feel as if they’ve made contact with a powerful force – that there’s something greater out there. Very often this can stay with the person for the rest of their life. The poignancy of that for me is what’s so incredible.”

Uhde used to do in-depth interviews with patients who had these type of REM-related experiences.. He’d tell them that what they were experiencing was a known sleep phenomenon. For some, that gave them a sense of relief – “OK, so this is just a thing, and it happens to other normal people too.” But a few, they would tell Uhde, “Look, I understand this is the best information you have about this, but maybe we’re just not smart enough to know what’s going on here because the experience is so profound.” 

And it’s those people – and the still vast gap in our knowledge about dreams – that drive Uhde’s passion never to stop exploring the science of sleep. 

“First and foremost, I’m a scientist and physician,” he said. “But to see people who experience something that changes their lives forever and appears to have a greater therapeutic impact on their sense of purpose and well-being than our current medications or therapies can produce? Yeah, I really want to know how that happens.”