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Monique Keiran: The mysterious world of sleep

Dreams are strange phenomena. ­Some people think they’re messages from the subconscious, but scientific understanding of ­dreaming is still developing.
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“I had an interesting start to my day,” Nature Boy announced when he returned home from work one evening.

“My alarm went off and woke me out of a really deep sleep. I got up and ­showered, shaved, got dressed, had breakfast, and just as I was about to leave for work, I checked the time. It wasn’t 6:45 am. It was 11:30 p.m.”

He turned to me: “I had dreamed that the alarm had gone off.”

“Ah, I wondered what was going on,” I said.

Night-time peregrinations are not unusual for Nature Boy, but they follow an hour or two of tossing and turning and heaving sighs. Eventually he gives up, gets up and exits stage left, returning when the nods have struck once again.

In this instance, however, he went from snoring to startle and abrupt ­departure.

Dreams are strange phenomena. ­Some people think they’re messages from the subconscious — according to the late Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and dream-interpretation theory, a cigar isn’t just a cigar.

But scientific understanding of ­dreaming is still developing. Some ­evidence suggests that dreams are the way the brain sorts through a person’s recent experiences, consolidates them as memories, and helps the person make sense of them. Dreaming has been found to be essential to the creation of both new memories and the connections within the brain that allow those memories to be accessed and retrieved at a later date.

The process can lead to surprising insights and creativity, inspiring music, art, and even solutions to scientific, ­technical or mathematical problems.

Dreaming is also critical to good ­mental health. Anxiety, depression and other forms of mental illness are linked to poor dreaming, and problems with dreaming are believed to contribute to anxiety, depression and mental illness.

In sleep experiments that might not be permitted today, people who were ­repeatedly awakened whenever they entered the stage of deep, dream-filled sleep called REM sleep (for “rapid eye movement”) began showing signs of psychosis after a few nights of that ­treatment.

In a 2017 paper published in the Annals of the New York Academy of ­Sciences, an Arizona-based researcher suggested that many health concerns attributed to sleep loss actually result from REM-sleep deprivation, and that REM sleep and dream loss is an unrecognized public health hazard.

Sleep – or dream – deprivation may contribute to false memories being formed and possibly to confabulation disorder, a type of memory error in which the gaps in a person’s memory are unconsciously filled with fabricated, misinterpreted, or distorted ­information, often heard in passing or dreamed of. Even if the information doesn’t make any sense once it is examined, the person will believe it is true and will defend it — bringing to mind some material that has appeared on social media in recent years.

Dream-reality confusion is another form of false memory and happens when old dreams feel like real ­memories. Some researchers have proposed that the ­experience is more common in people with, for example, narcolepsy or ­borderline personality disorder. It could also mean something briefly went haywire in the brain during the dream, causing it to be converted and stored as a long-term memory.

False awakenings are another ­interesting dream phenomenon. In these instances, a person hears their alarm go off, gets up and goes through their usual routine — until, for example, they can’t find their muskox anywhere, or a mudslide has blocked the front door, or zombies crawl in through the bathroom fan vent.

At that point, the person realizes they’re dreaming and they’re late for work. If they’re lucky, they wake up. Or they may just slip into another ­false-awakening sequence within the ­earlier dream. It wouldn’t be a great way to start the day.

In Nature Boy’s case, dreaming the alarm and responding as if it had ­happened could have been the result of an undigested bit of beef, blot of ­mustard, crumb of cheese, or fragment of an underdone potato. Or it might mean he’d been worrying at some level about ­something to do with work.

Or it could mean nothing at all.