“Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?” This is the question that Morpheus asks the protagonist Neo in the 2000 film The Matrix. It’s a lofty sentiment in a film that imbues many everyday occurrences with excess meaning, but it lands with the audience because a lot of us do have vivid dreams. It’s a relatable experience the viewer can grasp onto to relate with the sci-fi setting of the film. While the answer in the film has to do with expositional setup for the movie’s plot, we actually don’t know what the true purpose of vivid dreams are in real life—what is your active imagination trying to tell you? What are these nighttime visions that seem to pull you into another reality? What causes vivid dreams?
Vivid Dreams Happen to Everybody
Spooky dreams about being chased, pleasant dreams about vacationing in a magical place, nightmares where you’re trapped in slow motion, dreamscapes where you can fly around to your heart’s content—what the human brain is capable of manifesting is astounding. However, even with our ability to create fantastical worlds within our minds, we often forget our dreams when we wake up. But why? What makes one dream stick while others can simply disappear into the ether?
Ernest Hartmann, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, puts it simply: “In general, we are very good at forgetting nonessentials. In fact, many of our thoughts, not just those we have while dreaming, are lost. We tend to recall only things that we think about often or that have emotional significance—a problem, a date, a meeting. Mulling over important thoughts activates our dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), a brain region that facilitates memory.”
Many of our thoughts are forgotten, not just our dreams. Consider this: what were you thinking about while you got dressed for work this morning? When you ate breakfast? Can’t remember, huh? That’s because your DLPFC (we’re not writing it out again) wasn’t activated quite enough to hold onto your wandering thoughts. There’s more to it, sure, including your norepinephrine levels and how they interact with memory storage, but it’s safe to say that most dreams simply aren’t engaging or important enough for your brain to make memories out of them.
Vivid Dreams and REM
What makes a vivid dream stick? The answer might have to do with your REM cycles.
When you sleep, you don’t simply hit the pillow and time travel toward the morning—your brain is active and shifting through various sleep cycles. Broken down very simply, there are two sleep cycles that you engage with: REM and NREM. We’re concerned with REM sleep, which is when dreaming occurs.
Rapid Eye Movement is actually just one of five stages of sleep, but it is so distinct from the other four stages that the rest often get lumped together under the simplified name Non-REM Sleep (or NREM). The first four stages involve transitionary periods between shallow and deep sleep, but when REM kicks in, the brain experiences heightened activity and your heart rate increases.
Oddly, despite their numerical order, sleep does not actually progress linearly through the stages, but goes back and forth between REM and NREM sleep stages. About 20% of your sleep is spent in the REM stage—and some of it you just can’t forget.
What Can Cause Vivid Dreams?
REM sleep is responsible for our vivid dreams, but what makes them more memorable than your average dream is how you process them. While you may have fragmented dreams in other sleep stages, the dreams with elaborate storylines, complex imagery, lasting impressions—the ones that really, really stick with ya—those happen during the REM stage.
Waking up quickly—Sometimes what causes the break in reality between a vivid dream and a normal one is being awakened unnaturally—like with an alarm—while you’re still in REM stages of sleep. Your brain tries to reconcile the dream information with that of the real world around you and it can be jarring for your unconscious. This can also lead to sleep paralysis.
Sleep Deprivation—Not getting enough sleep can also cause more intense dreaming. A 2005 study showed that if you don’t get enough REM sleep one night, your brain will sometimes try to make up for it the next by increasing the length of your REM sleep and therefore opening the possibility to having more vivid dreams. Minor sleep deprivation can also occur from issues as simple as snoring, which can disrupt your sleep pattern and keep you from being well-rested.
REM Rebound—In a similar vein as sleep deprivation, neurologist Mark Mahowald shared in Scientific American, “when someone is sleep deprived we see greater sleep intensity, meaning greater brain activity during sleep; dreaming is definitely increased and likely more vivid,” calling the effect “REM rebound,” which can be triggered by low blood sugar, alcohol, marijuana, antidepressants, or anything else that suppresses REM sleep. When you stop using an REM inhibitor, your unconscious brain will try to make up for the loss.
How To Avoid Waking Up From REM Sleep
Develop a Routine—Set a time frame for when you go to bed and wake up in the morning… and stick to it! Getting your recommended 7-9 hours of sleep every night consistently is a sure-fire way to make sure you get enough sleep and wake up without being interrupted.
Control your Lighting—If possible, expose yourself to natural sunlight and bright light during the morning and daytime, then dim your lights in the evening as the sun is setting. Your brain will thank you for developing a natural cycle and if you can’t do this, invest in a light that will slowly turn on in the morning so you’re not jarred out of slumber by a loud noise.
No Nighttime Snacks—Avoid large meals before bedtime so you don’t boost your metabolism before you fall asleep. If you eat sugar or fats late at night, you’ll be prone to waking up from a sugar crash rather than you normal internal clock.
If you want to commit to having less vivid dreams so you can just get on with your day instead of waking up in a panic over what’s real and what’s not, the easiest thing you can do is to get enough sleep every night. Sure, it’s easier said than done, but it’s certainly better than not knowing what’s real or fake. Avoid the ultimate self-imposed gaslighting and get a good night of sleep tonight!