Oneirology: Understanding the How, the Why and the What
It was Poe that said, ‘All that we see or seem, is but a dream within a dream’. Well, what is a dream exactly? What makes it so powerful? After all, when you look at it objectively, dreaming is nothing but a sequence of feelings or visuals that your mind shifts through while you’re unconscious. If that’s the case, then how can people put so much significance behind dreams? And, if sleeping and dreaming is so harmless, why have people died or killed themselves in the process? Dreaming is not as simple as people try to make it out to be, and it isn’t all subconscious mumbo jumbo either.
Just as the content of dreams can’t be taken at face value, the actual process of dreaming can’t be taken for granted either. That’s why we have researchers who specialize in Oneirology.
Oneirology doesn’t study what we dream; it studies why we dream and how we dream: a difference that could mean everything, no matter which side of the fence you’re on. Even if you only want to analyze the dreams themselves, you can’t deny that the knowledge of why and how the dream came into being is just as essential when it comes to learning what you need to know.
- 1 What is Oneirology?
- 2 What is Lucid Dreaming?
- 3 Sleeping: The SWS Stage
- 4 The Effect of REM Sleep Disruption
- 5 Out-of-Body Experiences
- 6 An Overview of Common Sleeping Disorders
- 7 We’re almost done
- 8 Further Reading:
What is Oneirology?
Oneirology is a term that was first coined in 1653 by Marquis d’Hervey de Saint Denys. While the Marquis may have gotten the ball rolling, it was subsequent researchers, like Kleitman and William Dement, who made big discoveries in dream research.
Dement and Kleitman discovered the presence of the first stage of sleep. The REM stage of sleep, or rapid eye movement stage, was first discovered thanks to the measurements taken by an electroencephalograph (EEG).
The EEG showed that the activity going on in the brain during this stage of sleep resembled the activity that could be found when a person was awake. Increased brain activity and eye movement gave the impression that the sleeper was dreaming, or at least that they were in a position to be able to dream. In fact, further experiments by the two men showed that the correlation between dreams and REM sleep was approximately 80%.
What is Lucid Dreaming?
Another researcher, by the name of Stephen LaBerge, confirmed the possibility of lucid dreaming. That is to say, he proved, scientifically, that a person could be consciously aware that they were dreaming.
Lucid dreaming is a phrase that was created by Frederik Eeden, a Dutch psychiatrist. Today, we’re aware that a lucid dream can be induced in one of two ways. It can be a DILD or a WILD.
A DILD is a dream initiated lucid dream, and a WILD is a wake initiated lucid dream. As you can probably guess from their names, a DILD occurs when the dreamer realizes that a dream is a dream while sleeping. They sort of ‘wake up’ and take note of the fact that they aren’t awake.
A WILD is different from a DILD because it involves no lapse of consciousness. A person can go directly from being awake to suddenly dreaming (or being in a dream-like state). Monks, priests, and other religious people, who rely on meditation or dreams to give them answers, or to help them reach a higher state of being, have perfected the process of WILDs.
While the process of lucid dreaming is interesting by itself, the many phenomena associated with instances of lucid dreaming have added themselves to the other oddities surrounding dreaming that Oneirology prides itself on researching.
False awakening, sleep paralysis, and out-of-body experiences are all closely associated with lucid dreaming. On the other hand, things like night terrors, hallucinations, narcolepsy, sleepwalking, sleep-talking, and a number of other disorders and issues have been linked with the regular dreaming process (including asphyxiation and heart failure due to either illness or sudden strain put on the body during a dream).
Sleeping: The SWS Stage
The actual process of falling asleep and dreaming shouldn’t be frightening or deadly, but thousands of incidents every year say that they can be both. There are two distinct stages of sleep. The SWS, or slow wave sleep, stage precedes the REM stage. The SWS stage can be broken down further into four steps, all of which a person will go through before they reach the REM stage.
These stages can last for varying lengths of time throughout the night, and more often than not, a full night’s sleep will have an individual experiencing all stages over and over again until they wake up. So a person can enter REM sleep, leave it again, and then come back.
This is why, when we dream, the dream usually feels as if it’s lasted only a minute or two, but it’s somehow managed to stretch throughout an entire night. That’s also why, when having a dream, we will sometimes experience a switch in scenery, perception, or ‘plot’ (for lack of a better term). It isn’t so much that we’re having one long continuous dream, but that we’re having multiple dreams that our subconscious minds are piecing together so seamlessly that we never even notice the interruptions.
The first step in the SWS stage of sleep involves slower breathing, our muscles going slack, and the rest of our body simply relaxing. Now, actually falling asleep is a process that is extremely sudden, and is heralded by a number of neurons in our brains firing off in unison.
In many ways, falling asleep is more exciting to our brain cells than many of the things that we usually do. Consider this: when a person is not only awake, but alert, their beta waves read at around 14-30 Hz. That means high frequency, but low brain voltage. When a person is at rest, their alpha waves amount to 8-13 Hz. That voltage is a bit higher. When we’re falling asleep, the beta waves are at a lower frequency, but at a much higher voltage. When in the SWS stage, your progress is marked by an increase in delta wave frequency.
Keeping all of that in mind, ask yourself if you ever notice steps two through four of the SWS stage of sleep. No? That’s because they happen too quickly. Once you begin ‘nodding off,’ you’re usually too far into the other stages to be pulled back easily.
Sleeping: The REM Stage The brain voltage is fast, but low, during REM sleep, which is just one thing that makes it different from the SWS stage. REM sleep is also notable because there are no delta waves at all during this phase, and according to scans taken of the brain at this time, the sleeper in question is actually awake but resting (like sitting down and watching television, reading, etc).
There has been recent research that indicates that the parts of the brain most essential to the imagery involved in dreaming are the paralimbic, the limbic, and the other parts of the forebrain.
The average person will sleep for approximately 2,688 hours a year, and during that time, they can have over 1,825 dreams, of which only a small few are consciously remembered. While Oneirology may be a form of study that will never be able to explain why you keep having that dream about falling, it can tell you the consequences of too many or too few dreams as well as the result of too much or too little sleep.
The REM stage of sleep has proven to be restorative, both mentally and physically, and without this stage, people begin to notice some problems. Without the REM stage, a person can become cranky and anxious as well as depressed. If kept from REM sleep for too long, a person will rebound. That means that when they do experience the REM stage, the period will last much longer than usual and it will often come about more often. In a nutshell, if a person goes too long without dreams, they could either die or drive themselves crazy.
The Effect of REM Sleep Disruption
If you think I’m exaggerating about the issues associated with sleeping problems, then consider the fact that the older you get, the more your doctor will begin to warn you about insomnia. Too little sleep will begin to deteriorate your brain and you’ll start to lose your appetite as well as your energy.
That crankiness that was listed as a symptom earlier expands as you lose sleep, and people have been known to snap under the pressure. Some don’t get hurt, but others get injured or killed, simply because the person in question didn’t get enough sleep. Another example of not taking REM sleep for granted is that when you go without it, your health starts to decline. Your body has no time to restore the levels that you’re using. Things begin to break down and health concerns shoot sky-high.
There have even been cases where surviving on too little sleep gives normally mentally stable people incurable mental diseases. This is likely why forced wakefulness or interrupted sleep are two methods of torture that have always proven effective during times of warfare.
Inversely, too much REM sleep can be just as unpredictable. For some, the problem that they have is that the REM stage lasts too long or that they sink into it too deeply. When that happens, you have a whole new set of concerns. When in the midst of REM sleep, the body will paralyze itself to stop physical reactions to the events taking place in the dream. Sometimes, this paralysis holds and sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t hold, you get sleepwalking and other forms of sleep activity.
The paralysis brought about by REM stage sleep can also affect a person the opposite way. It can work too well. If that’s the case, you may fall into this state of paralysis before, during, or even after you enter the REM stage. When that occurs, a person can be awake, but feel as if they can’t move. Some people experience what is known as “hypnagogic hallucinations” during this time. When these hallucinations take place, a person can hallucinate sounds, images, and even physical sensations.
Sometimes, those experiencing a WILD take advantage of the body’s paralysis by detaching their dream selves from their physical ones. This is the way that out-of-body experiences, or OBEs, take place.
There are many people who believe that their spirits actually detached from their bodies, while others claim that they simply separated to the point where physical reactions have no effect, but mental actions do. The idea is that the person experiencing an OBE is using the wrong mechanism to move.
So imagine that your gears got crossed somewhere or that you found a control board that you didn’t know about. The order that you send to your hand or your legs to ‘move’ doesn’t produce the results you thought it would. Instead, your mental, or ‘dream’, body moves while your physical one is still stuck in place.
An Overview of Common Sleeping Disorders
The average person spends 224 hours a month asleep, and during that time, they can experience a number of sleeping disorders without ever realizing it. There are more than 70 different types of sleeping disorders and they usually fall within the category of too much sleep, not enough sleep, or disturbed sleep.
Common sleep disorders include narcolepsy, insomnia, and obstructive sleep apnea. Some sleep disorders that Oneirology makes a habit of studying include Rapid Eye Movement Behavior Disorder (RBD), Night Terrors, Bruxism (teeth-grinding), Restless Leg Syndrome, Non-24-Hour-Sleep-Wake Syndrome, Sleep Apnea, Kleine-Levine Syndrome, Sleep-talking, Narcolepsy, and Sexsomnia. Here we go:
There are those who believe that that sexsomnia is just an expression of will rather than an actual sickness. That’s where they would be wrong. Similar to RBD, sexsomnia is a disorder that causes a person to engage in, or commit, sexual acts while still asleep. Those who suffer from sexsomnia have been documented as having unusual brain wave activity during these episodes. The treatment for sexsomnia is similar to the treatment given to sleepwalkers, but it’s severity can only be reduced if the individual suffering from it first becomes aware of the problem and then proceeds to get help for it.
Also known as Somiloquy, this disorder happens during the transitions from REM to non-REM sleep or from one stage of non-REM to another. The transitions are not done smoothly, and because of that, the sleeper is able to partially awaken enough to speak. Sleep-talking can also happen during REM sleep. Should that be the case, it isn’t that the sleeper is partially awake; it’s simply that they were able to break through the physical paralysis enough to verbalize their part in their dreams. There’s no cure for sleep talking, but a muzzle.
– While rare, this disorder is not unheard of and it requires that a person get up to as much as 20 hours worth of sleep each day. Usually, these excessive sleepers are excessive eaters as well as being able to boast of hypersexuality. Whether the condition is hereditary or the result of an autoimmune disorder is still up for debate.
Having this condition means that your breathing stalls while you’re asleep. With sleep apnea, you can skip a number of breaths and because of this, many people who suffer from the disorder use a PAP device to help regulate breathing and keep it consistent.
As a parasomina sleeping disorder, night terrors are instances of extreme terror or fear. These episodes are different from nightmares because, whereas a nightmare may provide a dream as the cause for being afraid, night terrors are a concentrated sensation of fear or terror coupled with the inability to regain consciousness or memory. While the experiences differ for each person, some sufferers have reported that they remembered nothing, even a few minutes after the terrors were over. They could not see, hear, or sense anything beyond the sensation of fear and while some realized that they heard screaming, they couldn’t recall that they were the ones producing the sound, nor for how long the screaming continued. Infants, very young children, and some adults are known to suffer from night terrors. Outward signs of the disorder can be screams, moans, gasps, etc. Most of the time, the person’s eyes will be open during a night terror and their pupils may appear dilated and/or glassy. It isn’t possible to wake up someone while they’re in the middle of an episode and it isn’t a good idea to try. A night terror can last for as long as a few seconds to ten or twenty minutes. Trying to awaken a sleeper during this time may cause trauma to the sleeper or harm to the person trying to wake them up (the person doing the waking becomes a physical manifestation of whatever caused the terror, and the sleeper may then attack).
Rapid Eye Movement Behavior Disorder is a disorder that takes place because a person has lost the paralysis over their body during REM sleep and their bodies are then able to act out their dreams. RBD can be violent and sufferers have been known to cause injury to either themselves or their partners. The condition is treatable with an anti-convulsant drug that helps restore paralysis to those in REM sleep.
With this disorder, an individual will clench or grind their teeth. People can do it so much that they cause irreparable damage to their teeth and untold stress to their jaw and joints. Not only can the disorder cause arthritis, it can also bring on painful headaches. Mouth guards or Botox injections can assist with the problem, though they can’t cure it.
This disorder can affect you while you’re asleep or while you’re awake and isn’t confined to just your legs. The symptoms for this disorder are more pronounced during sleep and are categorized by uncomfortable, odd, or painful sensations that require movement for relief.
Though similar to Kleine-Levine syndrome, narcolepsy is completely different. It’s a neurological disorder that causes a person to fall sleep randomly. When suffering from narcolepsy, a person will skip the 4 steps required for SWS sleep and go straight into REM sleep. This means that they fall asleep often because they aren’t getting the rest that the SWS stage, as well as the non-REM stages of REM sleep, has to offer. Other symptoms of narcolepsy include hypnogogic hallucinations, sleep paralysis, and cataplexy (which will cause a person to fall immediately into REM sleep after a torrent of strong emotion). Like the Kleine-Levine syndrome, narcolepsy can be either an autoimmune disorder or a result of genetics. Doctors are unsure, but they provide a number of medications such as anti-depressants, stimulants, ect., which are meant to ease the symptoms (not cure them).
We’re almost done
These are by no means all of the disorders. Some are more flamboyant than those mentioned, while others are decidedly quieter. Many are harmless, but just as many can be deadly or debilitating without the proper knowledge about how to avoid them or treat them.
Now that we’ve looked into just some of the disorders that can be linked directly or indirectly to that of the dreaming process, it should be easier to understand the importance of Oneirology. It may not be as glamorous as some forms of dream research, but it is just as necessary to the success of those more widely known fields.
Oneirology not only studies disorders, it also studies the mechanisms that the body and mind use to dream, and the influences (both mental, psychical, spiritual, and substance) that affect not only our ability to dream, but our quality of dreams as well. Maybe now that Oneirology is able to help people understand how they dream, people will be better able to comprehend what they dream and why.
- Ancient Science and Dreams: Oneirology in Greco-Roman Antiquity (ISBN 9780761821571): M. Andrew Holowchak