The Dream Within a Dream Phenomenon

Have you ever had a dream within a dream? It happens when you think you wake up, but it isn't really the case, which you realize later when you really awake. We're going to talk about this curious phenomenon.
The Dream Within a Dream Phenomenon

Written by José Padilla

Last update: 08 October, 2022

Dreaming in your dreams. How and why does it happen? This phenomenon appears in different movies, like Inception, in which Dominick Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), along with his team, is able to access people’s dreams of their dreams.

Waking Life is another movie in which this phenomenon appears. The plot centers on a young man who wanders the streets of a city while engaging in philosophical discussions with other people. He apparently keeps waking up and starting new conversations.

The young man jumps from one dream to another but never wakes up in real life. It becomes a really distressing situation from which he tries to escape. This provides further proof of the complexity of the functioning of the human mind, where one fantasy creates another and where both, in the absence of the awareness of reality, are experienced as the only genuine reality.

A dream within a dream

Having a dream within a dream, dreaming that you’re dreaming, or meta-sleep is a phenomenon that occurs during the REM phase of sleep. This is when one dream develops within another. To understand it better, let’s imagine a dream scenario.

Say that you’re driving down a lonely street and you collide with a car that seems to come out of nowhere. Right at the moment of the collision, you wake up feeling scared. You sit on the edge of the bed and go to the kitchen to get a glass of water to drink. That’s when you really wake up.

In this example, the accident was dreamed of by the version of you who got up feeling scared to have a drink of water. However, this version of you was also dreamt by you, while you were still sleeping soundly.

Woman dreaming of nature

Characteristics of the dream within a dream phenomenon

In this phenomenon, consciousness is the same as when you dream normally. In other words, you don’t know that you’re doing it. However, there may be times when you’re aware that you’re dreaming. This is known as lucid dreaming.

In a dream within a dream, you lack the mental clarity to be able to observe and direct your attention. To be aware that you’re dreaming requires that the dreamlike quality of the state be directly available for attention. It seems that it’s only if you can observe or witness the state of what you dream, that you clearly know that you’re dreaming (Thompson, 2015).

If you’ve experienced this phenomenon, you’ll know that you experience every moment, event, thought, and feeling as something real, in the same way as you’d experience it in your waking state. Your sensation of reality doesn’t change, unless your consciousness about the act of dreaming changes.

If you’re aware that you’re dreaming, your perception and feeling about what you experience in the dream will change, causing you to no longer recognize it as a reality in itself.

Why does it occur?

You go through different phases of sleep: wakefulness, non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The NREM phase is divided into four other phases, which move from superficial states to other deeper ones.

Each stage of sleep is determined by a different brain profile which may be either fully or only partially involved. In the same way, the transition between some states and others can also be total or partial, that’s to say, it can be incomplete.

It’s during these transitions that you experience this phenomenon. In fact, it’s believed that it’s a product of the combination of the REM phase with wakefulness.

McNamara (2020) states that when the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is activated during the REM phase, the individual becomes self-aware and realizes that they’re dreaming.

In a false awakening, such as occurs with this phenomenon, self-awareness is bypassed during the transition to wakefulness. Instead, the awakening process is interrupted and the individual who was anticipating an awakening continues to dream.

Some problems that affect these awakenings, according to Peters (2021), are the following:

  • Snoring, pauses in breathing, gasping or choking, teeth grinding, frequent urination at night, or excessive daytime sleepiness.
  • Periodic movements of the extremities.
  • Frequent awakenings and difficulty in going back to sleep.
  • Ambient noise.
Woman asleep in bed having a dream within a dream

The false awakening

A false awakening happens when you believe that you’ve woken up when, in fact, you’re still sleeping. False awakenings are usually a single dream where you wake up thinking you’re no longer asleep when, in fact, you are.

To illustrate the above, imagine that one night you go to bed and, after a while, you wake up to go to the bathroom. On the way, you notice that something isn’t right and you’re experiencing the world differently. After a while, you realize that you’re still asleep and instantly wake up. It can also happen that you don’t realize that you’re dreaming, but simply wake up and recognize that your previous awakening, in which you got up to go to the bathroom, had been nothing more than a dream.

On the other hand, a dream within a dream implies the existence of two dreams. With only one, the phenomenon doesn’t occur. Remember, one occurs within the other, so one alone isn’t enough, as could be the case in a false awakening.

Whenever you dream within a dream, you have a false awakening, just like in the accident example we mentioned at the beginning of the article. However, in a false awakening, you don’t always have two dreams, as in the example of going to the bathroom. Both phenomena can be closely related, but they’re different.

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