Does Everyone Dream?

By Neuroskeptic | September 1, 2015 4:47 pm

Everyone dreams – even people who believe that they “never dream” and can’t remember any of their dreams. That’s according to a group of French researchers writing in the Journal of Sleep Research: Evidence that non-dreamers do dream.

dreams

In questionnaire surveys, up to 6.5% of people report that they ‘never dream’. Although most of these people report having dreamed at some point in the past, roughly 1 in every 250 people say that they can’t remember ever dreaming – not even once.

But is it possible that these “non-dreamers” do in fact have dreams, but just can’t remember them?

To study this question, Herlin et al., authors of the new paper, looked at people with REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD), a condition in which patients make movements, sometimes violent ones, while they sleep. Sometimes these movements are accompanied by speech. The movements seen in RBD are often quite complex and, interestingly, they seem to correspond to the content of the dreams that patients are experiencing. At least some of the actions seen in RBD are ‘acted out’ dreams.

Herlin et al. report that some RBD patients report never dreaming: out of 289 diagnosed RBD cases, 2.7% reported that they had not dreamed for at least 10 years, and 1.1% said that they had never dreamed ever. However, in many cases their actions during sleep (captured on video in the sleep clinic) suggested that they were dreaming. Herlin et al. quote some examples:

Patient 1 was a 73-year-old man… He used to recall dream as a child, but stopped recalling dreams from the age of 20 years. At the age of 53 years, he started talking, yelling, and moving his legs and arms while asleep…

[Videos show] the patient arguing, swearing profanities, kicking, boxing and throwing items towards an invisible individual during REM sleep, as well as fighting again in another REM sleep episode 1 year after, with no subsequent dream recall despite the nurse’s immediate inquiry.

The patient was recorded as saying (in French, translated)

What can I make to eat, I saw … You listen… (incomprehensible words, then high-pitched voice) Stay here before doing such a thing, you b*tch!

This certainly sounds like dream-like speech and actions. On the basis of these cases, Herlin et al. conclude that “dreaming production is universal, while dreaming recall is variable.”

Which raises an interesting philosophical question: what is a dream? Is it simply a subjective experience during sleep? If so, how can be sure that these patients are dreaming? Maybe they are just behaving as if they are dreaming, but without any conscious content. Maybe non-dreamers are a concrete example of philosophical zombies (P-Zombies) – a hypothetical creature that behaves like a normal human, but has no conscious experiences.

On the other hand, maybe some people do have dreams but never remember them. Maybe we all experience this – we might have many dreams every night, and only remember some of them. But are they really “my” dreams if I don’t remember them? Or is memory what binds together experiences into my identity?

I do note, however, that there is a selection bias in this study. All of the patients were undergoing evaluation for sleep behavioral problems, which seems to mean that they were making movements in their sleep that were a risk to themselves or others.

However, if the movements in RBD are related to dreams, then someone who really never dreams would never make such movements. Such a person could develop full-blown RBD, but no-one would ever know about it, because they would have no dreams to act out. In other words, genuine non-dreamers might be out there, and would never make it into a study like this.

ResearchBlogging.orgHerlin B, Leu-Semenescu S, Chaumereuil C, & Arnulf I (2015). Evidence that non-dreamers do dream: a REM sleep behaviour disorder model. Journal of sleep research PMID: 26307463

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  • Enzo Tagliazucchi

    Brain imaging can help with some of these questions, e.g. what are the differences in activity between reportable vs. non-reportable dreams? Getting fMRI during sleep (even more during REM and even more in subjects with REM sleep disorder) is really challenging, but hd-EEG could be an interesting first step.

  • https://plus.google.com/u/0/101046916407340625977/posts Rolf Degen

    It is only through the same kind of analogical reasoning applied in this paper that we can infer that animals do dream. Michael Jouvet removed cats’ muscular paralysis (sleep atony) and found that they snatched at imaginary mice during REM sleep.

    • M_1

      Heck, own a dog for a day. They clearly run, sniff, move their ears around, and bark in their sleep.

      • https://plus.google.com/u/0/101046916407340625977/posts Rolf Degen

        They won’t do that during REM sleep, because then they are paralyzed by a process called atony.

        • M_1

          It’s definitely restricted activity, they aren’t actually up and running around, but it is very clearly all the activities I have described. Nearly all of the dogs I’ve owned in 40 years have exhibited such behaviors.

          Edit: Ah, overlooked the REM sleep qualifier. Perhaps. Can’t say I know much about dog sleep cycles except that it often involves laying on something I’ll need later on!

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  • daqu

    “The patient was recorded as saying (in French, translated)

    “‘… … Stay here before doing such a thing, you b*tch!'”

    Seriously, an asterisk? OK, Discover is a family magazine. But if it wants to maintains an iota of scientific credibility, please don’t censor relatively innocuous things in a quotation relevant to the science reported in an article. That is insulting to your readers.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Actually, the asterix was in the original.

      Well, in the original it was “b.tch”, I assume “.” is the French way of showing censored letters so I decided to adapt it to “*”.

      • daqu

        They censored it so you censored it. That makes complete sense.

        • SayWhat?

          Whether you use a period or an asterisk, is it truly censored if the meaning is still plain? True censorship requires that the meaning can only be implied or not apparent at all. So why bother with replacing just a single letter if the goal is to censor?

          Another odd human condition worth looking into I suppose; the need to make token changes in order to appear less vulgar when in reality, the only thing that has changed is the representation of it, not the actual meaning. Yet still we feel better about it. Like the “N-word”, or the “F-bomb”. See, they’re not so bad when symbolized that way, even though they still mean the same thing.

          • daqu

            SayWhat?, Maybe *you* feel better about it. I feel as if I’m being treated like an extraordinarily fragile 5-year-old who reads Discover.

  • Lorie Franceschi

    The uneducated masses are not taught that we have to dream in order to survive. It helps our mind relax and order the things that we have done and said for the day. At least that is what I was taught my higher education classes

    • david

      “At least that’s what I taught my higher education classes”. Taught as a theory or as fact? Isn’t it true that we don’t yet know why we dream?

      • Lorie Franceschi

        Why? maybe, but we do all dream.

        • david

          Doesn’t this article above indicate there is a question as to whether or not we all dream? Is this what you are teaching? your opinion as fact?

          • Lorie Franceschi

            I am so glad that you like to troll. I hope that you have fun doing so.

          • david

            Im sorry that my honest question to you makes you feel something you dont like. Perhaps you should try harder to come up with an answer.

  • neuromancert

    I haven’t read the article. Researchers could try to wake up patients during their sleeping actions to ask: “what are you do?”. So, we will have more informations about memory of dreams.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      That’s been tried in the past. According to the introduction of this paper, RBD patients who are woken up will tend to report dreams that match the behaviours they were performing. But many dream non-recallers don’t report anything even if they are woken in the middle of a (presumed) ‘dream’.

  • sonia

    Quote: ‘…..All consecutive patients with idiopathic rapid eye movement sleep
    behaviour disorder or rapid eye movement sleep behaviour disorder
    associated with Parkinson’s disease…’

    Maybe it’s just Parkinson’s disease.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Out of the 289 cases, 79 of the patients had idiopathic RBD and approximately 210 patients had RBD associated with Parkinson’s.

  • What I Dream Of Blog

    There are certainly many times I wish I didn’t remember my dreams. I can remember horrific dreams I had days, weeks, months, and years ago. Even when I was a small child.

    Yet my partner hardly remembers his dreams. So while I’m sure everyone dreams, I doubt everyone remembers their dreams.

    Shameless plug: http://whatidreamof.com/ This is a blog about the dreams I have that I try to go into in great detail about. Though hopefully I won’t have the dreams the 73-year-old had.

  • Jan Roeth

    What about a blind person,especially one who is born blind? If they dream,what do they see ?

  • kortney

    I believe that everyone dreams, they just don’t remember their dreams. I’ve had nights where I woke up and my mother use to ask me as a child, “What did you dream about last night?” and I would reply, “I didn’t dream anything.” But with my new understanding of the sleep cycle, I truly believe that you just don’t remember them. Some nights, I’ll have really crazy dreams and I can remember every detail. I think that your diet plays a role in your dreaming/nightmare habits. I’ve noticed that if I had a relatively healthy food selection that day, with little caffeine, then I will wake with no recollection of having dreams, but if I drink caffeine or eat crap food all day then I will have really weird dreams that I remember well. I guess it would be really hard to determine whether there are people that don’t dream because someone could sleep very still all night and wake up and talk about a weird dream that had. People could lie too, I think there are a lot of intervening variables that would make this difficult to test.

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  • Lady Bird

    I’ve noticed that I don’t have dreams when I’m too tired…

  • ontime2011

    This is a very simple and old question. The answer is that everybody dreams, the thing is that many of us do not remember because the real dream happens when we are in phase REM -the most unconscious part of sleeping-. Sometimes we remember what we dream because we are not 100% unconscious and we are conscious somehow or about to wake up and memory is activated to recall what we have been dreaming.

  • P.Mathivanan

    The two interesting questions are: 1) Why do we often forget dreams? 2) What is the significance of dreaming and the dream itself?
    Some of us can remember the dreams. Others say that they do not dream. Why do some people dream quite often as many as 4 dreams in a night and others cannot dream?
    The difference could be some people give importance to dreams and dreaming, and others do not.
    The most important research would be dreaming the future event.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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