While being one continuous story, the scenes of my dreams change dramatically and frequently. Now I’ve found out why it happens.
I’ve always been a dreamer. Most nights my dreams take place among regular settings – I’m never in outer space or possessing a newfound superpower. They usually occur within backdrops similar to my day-to-day life, reimagined with vivid and rapidly changing settings.
I’ve dreamed of a cool work office on top of an aquarium, attending dinner parties with celebrity guests, teeth being wobbly or falling out, and arguments with my family. They’re simple, mostly out of the ordinary, regular day scenes, but with added snippets of slightly-unrealistic happenings, only possible in my sleep-induced imagination.
I rarely have nightmares or recurring dreams, in fact the weirdest kind of dream I’ve ever really experienced was when I went through a phase of constantly dreaming about the next day’s activities.
If I knew my day tomorrow would start with a train ride to work, a meeting in the morning, lunch with colleagues, ending with a catch up with friends, I’d often dream about those exact events the night before. I’d dream through the conversations, the presentations, the commute, only to wake and have to re-live through the entire thing.
These dreams were exhausting
I put them down to stress of the following day, as they’d usually happen when I was feeling overworked, unwell, or had something important I needed to get through. They were exhausting, like I had to do everything twice.
But the weirdest part of my dreams, and an aspect that’s continued to exist in dreams throughout my entire life, is the scenes constantly and dramatically changing in an instant. One minute I’ll be sitting at my desk in the office and BAM! All of a sudden, the rest of the scene has changed around me and my desk. I’m no longer in the office, I’m at a café working at a desk there. BAM! Now me and my desk are at my friend’s house where I’ve been looking after her cat.
The storyline of what I’m doing, and the objects or people most closely tied to me in that moment, will move with me from scene to scene, but the backdrops will dramatically change. If I’m having a conversation with a group of friends, the conversation will continue and the friends will accompany me. But we’ll suddenly go from being at a party, to being on a mountain, to being in a spa. We’re wearing the same clothes, talking about the same thing, it’s just the background scene that alters.
Does everyone dream like this?
Turns out, I’m not crazy, and I’m not alone. Many people experience a dramatic change of scenery within their dreams, and after a little research I’ve finally found the reason for it.
In 2015, a group of scientists from Tel Aviv University recorded individual brain cells during sleep and while awake. They monitored 19 people over four years, tracking activity from electrodes in different parts of the brain.
According to a BBC report, “After each rapid eye movement (REM) [the scientists] recorded bursts of activity that match what happens when we are awake and we see – or imagine – a new image.”
The findings suggest these common flickering eye movements are accompanied by a change of scenery in our dreams.
Popular Science explains further:
“When people were shown a picture, activity in that part of their brains spiked after 3/10 of a second, as their brains recalled all the pertinent facts to put the image in context. When the researchers took electroencephalograms (EEGs) of patients while they slept, they saw similar spikes during REM sleep, implying that brain activity while awake and during REM sleep are quite similar.”
Awake or asleep, your brain is doing the same thing
It essentially means, when we’re shown a picture, certain neurons in our brain become vigorously active. And when we’re asleep, the same thing happens, but we’re imaging the pictures or concepts, rather than seeing them.
Dr Yuval Nir, who took part in conducting the research, said these rapid eye movements signify a kind of reset, or “moving onto the next dream frame.”
“It’s almost like when I was growing up and we had slide projectors. You move to the next dream slide, if you like.”
Another way to understand the concept comes from Professor Jim Horne of the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University. “The eye movements are not actually scanning your dream – they’re reorienting your visual thoughts” he said, further solidifying the notion of the scene changes.
So will I be segueing from a snowfield to a desert to a rainforest tonight? Most likely. But at least now I know why!