When I was a young and energetic graduate student in the mid-1990’s, I was told that dreams only occur during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. REM sleep is characterized by the eyes making peculiar bursts of movement beneath the closed lids, and it is during this time that muscle tone is completely lost. This is known as “atonia.” My professor stated that the reason for muscle paralysis during REM sleep is simple: the brain is at an arousal state similar to that of a waking state during actual movement. The muscles are being inhibited to prevent movement (i.e., to stop you from acting out a dream). It sounded reasonable at the time.
During my training I was warned that many clients will often ask about interpreting dreams, a highly speculative area of psychology that is based much more on theory than empiricism. I was told, however, that I could tell clients with confidence “well, at least you won’t act out your dreams while you are asleep, because you’re experiencing a paralysis of sorts.” I shared that “knowledge” with enthusiasm whenever appropriate, until a client reminded me that you shouldn’t believe everything you are told in school.
“So Rob, I had an interesting experience last night with one of my dreams.”
“Oh?” I said, not remembering the information I had passed along to him months ago.
“Oh yes,” he said. “I was sleeping next to my girlfriend, nearly face to face, and I dreamt that I was being approached in a bar by some thug who wanted to fight me.”
“Isn’t it?” he said with just a dab of sarcasm. “In the dream as he approached, he started to lift a fist as if to strike me, so I just hauled off and punched him in the face.”
“Wow,” I said. “I wonder what the dream means. Maybe it’s some un-realized aggression toward your father figure who…”
“No you idiot!” he said. “I really punched her. My girlfriend! I popped her right in the eye and gave her a shiner.”
“But you were in REM-sleep, you couldn’t have acted out that dream” I said.
“I would have thought so too, based on your ever-so-wise words. But apparently you don’t know what the fuck you are talking about.”
Apparently one can dream during non-REM states which is potentially unfortunate due to the fact that atonia does not occur.
“Was she upset?” I asked.
“That’s a great question! Let’s see: a weekend in the Bahamas, a fine day on the beach, a romantic lobster dinner, fine wine, great sex, and deep, satisfying sleep that is interrupted by a large fist in the face. How does that sound to you, Rob?”
“Well I will say that I enjoy lobster but I understand your…”
“Rob, my girlfriend has a golf ball-sized yellow, purple and black mess under her left eye that I created with a swift jab to her face. She was totally confused and in pain and angry that I did that to her. It’s your fault!”
“What? That’s ridiculous. How can it be my fault?”
“Because prior to meeting you I always slept on my back and on my side, away from her, because I had heard that people could sometimes flail a limb or make a jolt in response to a dream. YOU told me that wasn’t true so I assumed we could face each other during the night.”
“I…oh. I was taught that by one of my professors, but I’m sure I qualified my statement by saying that I do not know very much about the physiology of REM and non-REM sleep.”
“No, as a matter of fact you didn’t. You qualified your statement when I asked if a unicorn in a dream means that I hate my mother. You said nothing regarding your ignorance about REM-sleep.”
“I’m really sorry if I wasn’t clear. Would you at least like to try to interpret the dream?”
“Please just stop talking.”
We sat in silence for about a minute or so. Then he said “I accept your apology. But in the future when you provide scientific information I’d like references.”
“References? Like from my previous employers?”
“No, scientific references! From reputable journals.”
From that point on I had to serve as a walking bibliography for the client if I wanted him to believe anything I said, or at least provide him with a Dewey Decimal Number or whatever the hell they used back then so he could look up the fact himself. Looking back, I’d really like to hunt down that Professor of Bogus Knowledge and pummel his face. I wonder how many unintentional episodes of domestic violence he is indirectly responsible for…
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