14 March, 2012

To Sleep, Perchance To Dream

I've lectured on them countless times. I know all the science, but I wasn't prepared for the experience I had a few weeks ago.

As many of you know, I was recently hospitalized with pneumonia - my fourth bout of it, but that's another story. No one is sure where this one came from, but it hardly matters. The treatment was fairly standard, not that there weren't some wrinkles. There always are with me. It was the lead up to the hospitalization that has caused me to pick up my pen - specifically what my brain was doing.

I normally have only about 40% lung function, so this kind of illness hits me pretty hard. Between whatever the infection was doing to me and the increased difficulty breathing, I wasn't sleeping well. Wait ... let me rephrase that. I wasn't sleeping. Quite literally, I went for an extended period with zero sleep.

Back to the science. In that eight hours of sleep we are supposed to get, your body seems to require only two parts of it. There is Stage 4 sleep; it's very deep and confined mostly to the first few hours of a normal night's sleep. Then there are the REM periods during which most of your dreaming occurs. They occur about every 90-100 minutes during the sleep and get progressively longer as the sleep rolls on.

If we wake you up every time you enter a REM period, your brain tries to get you into it sooner and sooner. After such REM deprivation, once your allowed to enter REM, your brain even tries to make up some of what it lost. There is a similar but weaker effect with Stage 4 sleep. None of this happens with the other stages of sleep, so these two are clearly the most important. The rest is just filler.

Weird stuff happens if you go a long time without REM sleep. That's what happened when I slept not at all. I actually began to have REM periods while I was awake - waking dreams. In any other circumstance, these would be hallucinations. What's different is I knew they were dreams. I could visualize objects in them, I could pass my hand right through an object if I wanted to, and I would remain in the dream setting until I consciously ended it by squeezing my eyes shut and reopening them.

Most bizarre was that my wife could speak to me while I was in this state, and I could respond appropriately without it ending the dream state. On several occasions, I even told her I was dreaming while I was having one of these events. 'I'm dreaming now.'

'So cool!' - says the scientist in me. 'Please let me sleep!' says the rest of me. I used to tell my students things like this could happen. Guess I was right.