Nightmares Becalmed

April 13, 2021

I’m a dream engineer. Through touch, scent and sound, we help people rescript the dramas of their sleeping lives.

Most of us have had a nightmare or a few. They’re a normal response to stress. But for a significant minority of people, they’re so frequent – about 5 per cent of the population experiences nightmares on a weekly basis or worse – that the disruption to sleep can be severely harmful to mental health, increasing symptoms of anxiety, depression and even suicide risk.

People who experience frequent nightmares can feel helpless, doomed to relive disturbing dreams on any given night. Common recurring themes include out-of-control vehicles, falling, being chased or attacked, teeth falling out, and being late or unprepared for an exam. Here’s a typical example:

I was on a bus. I don’t know where we were or where we were going. The sun was moving across the sky way too fast. I tried speaking to the other passengers but none of them seemed able to hear me. I went to speak to the driver but there wasn’t one, the bus was driving itself. It was night-time now and completely dark outside.

The bus speeded up and the engine noise made it clear we were going way too fast. The full moon came up and was moving fast across the sky like the sun had done. I tried to alert the other passengers. I tried to access the driver’s compartment but it wouldn’t open. The other passengers just sat there. I began to panic. I woke up still hyperventilating.

– A volunteer’s description of his nightmare, collected as part of a study I conducted with colleagues at Swansea University

For people who experience frequent nightmares, sleep becomes a constant source of fear and restlessness rather than respite. Repeatedly waking from nightmares is a shock to both their body and mind: heart racing, hyperventilating, palms sweating, with emotional distress that can persist well into the day and further disrupt sleep the following night.

I’m a dream scientist. One of the goals of my work is to help nightmare sufferers. I study dreams to better understand how they work, and what happens when dreaming is disrupted, including by the experience of recurring nightmares. I want to uncover ways to repair nightmares and, in their place, engineer dreams for healing.

Over the past decade, I’ve worked in sleep laboratories all around the world. I’ve watched hundreds of people sleep so that I can wake them up to ask them about their dreams. Today, I work at the University of Rochester’s Sleep and Neurophysiology Research Laboratory in New York state, which happens to be where I fell in love with this research field as an undergraduate intern in 2008.

That same year, in my dorm-room bed, is when I had my first ever lucid dream – when you know you’re dreaming and you can exert some control over what’s happening. In this lucid dream, I opened my eyes, turned around, and saw that my body was still lying asleep! I was literally beside myself, as I realised I was inside a dream. I remember being amazed at how vivid and real everything looked, and that this alternative reality was being created inside my mind.

When I woke up, I knew that this was what I wanted to study; I wanted to explore the world of dreaming through scientific sleep research. And since beginning my career as a graduate student in the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory in Montreal in 2011, I’ve done just that, studying the science, psychology and practice of dreaming.

Expressions during sleep, such as smiling or laughing, correspond to the emotional content of a person’s dreams

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