Counting Sheep While You Sleep

The whiff of hot cheese against warm, tomato-laden dough, the hustle and bustle of the yellow cabs navigating through the busy roads, the blinding lights from each building trying to outshine the next, and the plethora of people just admiring the beauty of the chaos. There is nothing like cycling from New York University’s campus to Times Square at the onset of dusk, with the cool breeze brushing against your face…until suddenly…I heard the ringing of familiar noises that sounded an awful lot like my alarm. With each ring, I was introduced to the realization that I was merely dreaming about New York from the comfort of my bed in New Delhi.

Image: The chaotic Times Square, just as the evening light sets in (Source).

The dream I had about New York was in March of 2020, when COVID-19 had just begun to affect the world in ways we could not imagine. COVID-19 is an infectious disease that is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which has several variants in the world as of now. Each variant of the virus induces its own set of symptoms in the infected individual. Those with underlying comorbidities such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, or cancer, as well as those who are older, are at a greater risk of being severely affected by COVID-19. The virus is highly contagious and can spread through respiratory droplets, smaller aerosols, or contact between infected and non-infected individuals. However, the vaccines developed against the virus have been effective in reducing the severity of symptoms of the virus and the rate of transmission among individuals.

Most of the time, it’s difficult to remember what life was like before the COVID-19 pandemic. One aspect that completely transformed as a result of the virus is traveling. Travel restrictions imposed by various countries tremendously impacted how people could move, with several governments even imposing restrictions on movement outside of one’s household. These restrictions made it incredibly difficult to plan trips and being confined to our homes meant traveling had to take a backseat. For travel enthusiasts like me who love to explore different places, it felt like something was missing and I wasn’t sure how I could fill the void. It took me a few days to figure it out, and then it struck me– I could use my ability to control my thoughts to try and form my own dreams.

Dreaming is when we recall mental content from our sleep, and such dreams may be brief, or narrative or non-narrative. They sometimes allow us to experience emotions but do not necessarily have to make sense. They can happen at any time during your sleep, but it is known that the most vivid dreams occur during a phase of the sleep cycle when the brain is the most active called the REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. REM sleep is when typical dream-like conditions are experienced: consisting of a better and clearer recall of our dreams, better recollection of emotions, and distinct memory of images and narratives. It is estimated that we dream at least four to six times per night, remembering some dreams while forgetting others. MRI techniques have shown that emotionally charged dreams that people usually remember are linked to parts of the amygdala and the hippocampus. These areas of the brain are connected to the processing of emotions and memories (amygdala), while the hippocampus helps consolidate information from short term memory to long term memory. The medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) is specifically known for consolidating and retrieving fear memories and modulating extinction and fear learning.

The consolidation of memories occurs in the REM sleep. Along with memories, it is important to look at emotions as well. Emotions have been associated with a smaller volume of the left hippocampus and a larger volume of the right. Highly bizarre dreams have been linked to a smaller right hippocampus and smaller left amygdala, with a lower mean diffusivity of the right amygdala. To check if vividness correlates with the amygdala and thickness of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), the same observations were made with Parkinson Disease patients. Individuals with Parkinson Disease show slower movements along with restless sleep, sleep disturbances or nightmares. It is interesting to note that their sleep and dream characteristics were similar to those of the healthy subjects, which confirmed that vividness relates to the amygdala and the thickness of the left mPFC.

Relying on my childhood experience of trying to dream of Disneyland after watching something scary, I wondered if I could traverse a distance of 3600 or even 8000 miles while sleeping from the comfort of my bed. It turns out that was possible–I could picture lush green fields in Switzerland and dolphins swimming in the crystal waters of Greece. I thought everyone could do this, but when my friends said they could not, I realized my assumption was incorrect. I then realized that I was lucid dreaming, and it was different from regular dreaming. Lucid dreaming is when you know you are dreaming–a brain state between REM sleep and being awake. A lucid dream shows a boost of activity in parts of the brain that are usually restful during the day. Some lucid dreamers, like myself, can even change or influence the narrative their dream takes.

For those who can’t dabble in dreams, reading is another form of escapism. Think of it this way: how many times have you picked up a book, read a few words and begun to visualize how the character might actually look like in real life. The tickertape experience is a subjective phenomenon in which an individual routinely visualizes the appearance of words that one thinks, speaks, or comes across. A survey with a sample size of 425 Norwegian adults examined tickertaping to test the automaticity of the experience. Strong automatic tickertaping appeared rare, and lesser degrees of text visualization were reported by more than half of the respondents. The qualitative character of tickertaping varied among respondents, and included negative experiences. Visualization of letters was predominantly uncolored, indicating that tickertaping is not just a subset of grapheme-color synesthesia. It was also found that tickertaping was not strongly associated with greater awareness of an inner voice while reading silently. In spite of these results, tickertaping has not been studied extensively but it is a promising area of research to examine how we visualize the words we come across and how it differs from individual to individual.