Most of us will be familiar with that fleeting moment in between wakefulness and sleep where our minds are hijacked by a very short, sharp vivid dream. Often this is accompanied by a jerk reaction from the body; it may be a pull of the arm or the twitch of a leg – or even the complete snapping of the head into full blown wakefulness. For myself (and I’m sure many others), these punch-like dreams often involve the sensation of falling off of something, shortly and always followed by a full-blown body jerk that snaps me back into consciousness.
An exciting new research paper published in the journal Neuroscience of Consciousness has shed some fresh light on dream exploration and in particular this very distinct ‘microdream’ as it has now been called. Microdreams are defined as very short dream snippets that occur as one is at the cusp of sleep. Ever been watching TV, dozing off before suddenly ‘coming to’, without any recollection of falling asleep? That’s what a microsleep feels like. Because they generally don’t last for more than single second, most people can’t actually recall their microdreams, let alone describe their contents.
Tor Nielsen, the lead researcher of this new study on microdreams is interested in exploring the role of memory in dreams, and in particular, how our minds discern between types of memory when it comes to dream-making. Night-time dreams pose difficulties for researchers investigating the relationship between memory and dream simply because night-time dreams are long and therefore incorporate multiple memory associations with each single image.
Microdreams on the other hand, due to their brevity, offer a whole new source of exploration for researchers. According to Nielsen, “because microdream images are brief and occur in such close proximity to wakefulness, attention can be directed quickly to identifying their source memories.”
In the study, one participant who was asked to recall 31 onset sleep dreams (microdreams) described his recall of one particular microdream like so:
“I see a small blue-and-white object far off to my left. Its colours are very bright and form a swirled pattern. It suddenly and unexpectedly flies towards me, horizontally but with a slight arc. It was as if someone had thrown it at me. Close to me it is about the size of a basketball. I make a quick, reflexive movement with my left arm as if to strike or intercept it. For an instant I feel a sensation on the upper part of the elbow and forearm as the ball makes contact with me….”
Upon close review and scrutiny, the images and sensations of this individual’s microdream were able to be explained. In short, the blue-and-white object was identified as an oncoming volleyball; the participant had been playing a recreational match with friends a few days earlier. And, the sensation of the left arm striking the object translated into the jerking of the man’s forearm right at the onset of sleep.
This analysis, along with the analyses of hundreds of other microdreams in the study, is important because it demonstrates a strong linkage between recent (and past) memories and dreams. The mind, always trying to make sense of experience transforms past memories into single images that brain is able to interpret.
This sense-making is said to be a constant process of the mind, that occurs both during sleep and wakefulness. It is our mind’s prerogative to always try to explain experience. Think of it as the brain’s way of making sense of the world and everything in it.