DID THAT JUST HAPPEN? OR WAS IT A DREAM?

The mind drives the experience in either world


Have you ever been jolted awake at night, confused about whether something happened or not? It could be from something as insignificant as whether or not you ate that late-night bowl of cereal, to something as major as whether you still have your 9-to-5.

Those with dream-reality confusion, or DRC, are often left wondering why their dreams feel like memories later. The condition is prevalent in those with psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, bipolar and borderline personality disorder, for whom the divisions of cognitive states are often blurry, although it can occur in anyone. You think you are awake when you are dreaming, so confusing awake and dream states is universal.

Episodic recall, the recollection of past events, is more of a reconstruction of the past than it is retrieval from some kind of memory ‘store’. This process of ‘reconstructive memory’ – rebuilding and re-enacting past experiences in our head – is not entirely reliable, and many inaccuracies can be produced along the way.

Dreams have a strong experiential component, having the ability to form episodic memories in the brain’s neural networks. Even without delusions, everyone’s had the classic ‘did I just say that out loud?’ or ‘was that person really at that event I went to?’. These micro-errors often pass without awareness and are fast forgotten. Given that episodic memories are highly temperamental and susceptible to interference, it is no surprise that the line between dreams and reality gets fuddled sometimes.


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One particular class of non-psychotic people are disproportionately affected by DRC. Narcoleptics cross between dispositions of consciousness very quickly and very abruptly, making them more susceptible to jumbling dreams with reality. Their dream delusions are more frequent, and also more extreme. While the usual person can become momentarily bemused, usually about an inconsequential thing, narcolepsy patients are often confused for extended periods of time about weightier issues – they take dreams for verity without question.

It is common for people with narcolepsy to have unusually evocative dreams with impressive recollection. Because we usually use perceptual vibrance as a prompt to what is real, narcoleptics often recall their dreams as true events because they are brimming with so much real-life detail and perspicuity.

The hippocampus, the brain region responsible for encoding new memories, also functions differently in those with narcolepsy. Usually, the hippocampus is in ‘write’ mode when you are awake, recording new memories, or ‘playback’ mode when you are asleep, recapping (or reconstructing) past memories as you dream. In narcolepsy, it is thought that the hippocampus remains in ‘write’ mode as we snooze, encoding dreams as true experiences.

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For the time being, there is very little research on DRC. It is not an event that can occur on demand, making capturing revelatory brain scans arduous. Future insight is likely to look into sources of memories, and whether it stems from a general problem in differentiating real life from imagined events, or if it is exclusive to dreams.

Right now, if there are only insignificant events bugging you, relax – it’s fine if you really did eat that late-night bowl of cereal.

Cover photo Elle Pelligrini


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