In a BBC Future article, David Robson wonders “Do dreams occur in slow motion?”
“When my alarm wakes me up, I’ll often hit the snooze button before returning to the warmth and safety of my duvet for another quick doze. But although what follows can seem like a short dream – perhaps a single conversation or a short walk – I’ll sometimes awake to find that a whole hour has passed. And I’m left puzzling: how could such few events have taken so long to play out in my head? Is this a common effect?”
Robson then goes on to describe research by Daniel Erlacher, using people skilled in lucid dreaming. Erlacher asked the dreamers to perform tasks in their dreams, like walking 10 paces or counting to 30. He found that the dreamers took up to 50% longer to complete these tasks than they would in real life, even though they reported that it felt exactly the same as in wakefulness. Erlacher has no explanation for the phenomenon, but David Robson suggests that this might account for his experience of a short dream filling a whole hour.
To me, Robson’s question seems odd, because I more often experience the opposite effect. My experience is more aligned with Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film, Inception, a sci-fi thriller that involves agents who can invade another person’s dreams. One of the premises is that the mind functions faster in a dream, so time moves more slowly. As one character says, “Five minutes in the real world gives you one hour in the dream world.”
In my own experience, the time dilation doesn’t follow such a strict rule. But often I’ll emerge from sleep enough to be aware of the time on the clock, drift back into dreaming, and awaken again just a few minutes later after what I’ve experienced as a long, complicated dream that must have taken an hour to play out. How can this be?
If we pay attention, we can learn a lot about how our minds work just by self-observation.
If you’ve ever devoted yourself to a meditation practice – or even attempted it once or twice – you have almost certainly experienced the “monkey mind” effect. The Buddha described the human mind as being filled with dozens of drunken monkeys clamoring for attention. It’s difficult to focus your mind on a mantra or your breath because your monkey mind is busily reminding you of unfinished business from yesterday, things you have to do today, wishing you were somewhere else, wondering what’s for lunch. Your attention skips freely from here to there as your unfocused mind engages in free association.
When I allow myself to daydream, I’m setting my monkey mind free to roam where it pleases – but within bounds that my conscious mind imposes. Scenarios that are too fantastical to be believed rarely occur in my daydreams. But when I’m sleeping, those boundaries disappear, and the impossible can seem not only possible, but normal and unremarkable.
Sometimes when I awake suddenly from a dream, or when I find myself in that middle state between dreaming and wakefulness, I have a fairly clear awareness of the wandering path my mind has been following. Often I realize that the dream I’ve just had did not come to me in the chronological sequence that’s required for it to make sense. Instead, my mind has conjured up some strange situation, and only then invented a story about how this situation came to be.
In our normal conscious state, our minds are constantly involved in “sensemaking” – taking what our senses are telling us and putting it into a context that allows us to understand it. From the Wikipedia article on sensemaking:
Klein et al. have presented a theory of sensemaking as a set of processes that is initiated when an individual… recognizes the inadequacy of their current understanding of events. Sensemaking is an active two-way process of fitting data into a frame (mental model) and fitting a frame around the data. Neither data nor frame comes first; data evoke frames and frames select and connect data. When there is no adequate fit, the data may be reconsidered or an existing frame may be revised.
Whether we’re awake or asleep, our minds can flit across vast spans of time and space in an instant. Our thoughts and fantasies are not bound by the arrow of time, the laws of physics, or other realities of the physical world. At a moment’s notice we are able to conjure up an image of ourselves swimming with dolphins, climbing a mountain, or riding through Venice in a gondola – and then, if asked, almost instantly come up with a fairly plausible explanation of how we might have gotten there.
I believe this explains how I’m able to dream a seemingly long and complicated story in the space of a few minutes. I’m pretty confident of this because I’ve directly experienced it many times.
I’m less sure about what accounts for David Robson’s opposite experience, where an apparently short dream can consume a lot of clock time. My guess is that when he wakes up, he’s only remembering his very most recent dream, which probably lasted just a minute or two. He may have had dozens of other fleeting dreams in the past hour that have already vanished from memory.
Dreams are like that. As Mick Jagger sings in “Ruby Tuesday”:
Catch your dreams before they slip away.