Reality’s masquerade: a ballet of dreams and false awakenings
-Gargee Dixit, FYBsc
I wake up. Someone is trying to hold me down. Someone or something. There is an unquantifiable force that I cannot seem to overcome. It’s keeping my eyes shut, my mind scrambled, and my limbs disoriented. I try to fight it off and run away from it. I wake up in bed again. This time the force is seemingly easier to battle against, and I rush out to my mother. Cue pitch darkness. Roll down the curtains.
I wake up. Actually, this time. Now you might be wondering what an unhinged, disorienting piece of prose this is. But mind you, this is exactly what I experience some nights. Air thick with paranoia and anxiety, I go to the internet’s no man’s land called Reddit and find out that this bewildering, blinding experience is called a false awakening.
False awakening is defined as “a vivid and convincing dream about awakening from sleep, while the dreamer in reality continues to sleep.”. It is very reminiscent of the ‘Inception’ movie and the whole dream in a dream ordeal, but instead of being a mere fictional fragment, it is a reality experienced by people around the world. False awakenings happen when we are in REM sleep (the type of sleep where we actually get dreams).
Reddit was a dead end (in terms of scientific research), but it did introduce me to philosophical questions that made my brain scramble:
i.e., the mind cannot differentiate between truth and falsehood, and thus truth is an illusion.
There is a leading philosophical theory that claims we are living in a simulation. (Matrix moment). False awakenings are used to strengthen this argument by saying that the existence of false awakenings proves that the brain cannot differentiate between the truth (reality) and the false (dreams), and thus the truth is an illusion.
Decartes also explored a similar thought in his dream argument, which later formed the basis of his evil demon argument, which basically states, I cannot know whether I am dreaming; thus, I am not sure whether what I am experiencing is a dream or not.
This is exacerbated by false awakenings. When I am experiencing a false awakening, I don’t know that I am dreaming, and this is an illusion created by my mind. When I go through 7-8 cycles of these false awakenings, my innate monkey brain goes into paranoia, and I question my reality. Not kidding, once I woke up, I thought I was travelling through the multiverse through all these false awakenings.But all this paranoia and disorientation goes away after some time. That raises another question. Am I just confused and disoriented when I wake up, leading to distrust in reality, or am I responding to my survival instincts, my flight or fight response?
The research gap
Norman Malcolm explored the idea that we cannot communicate while we dream, nor can we fact-check the dreams we get. Research into dreams is hard, precisely why. We can’t empirically test and analyse the substance of the dreams; we can just monitor the person while they are dreaming. This is horrible for researchers, as we can’t even remember dreams after a short while. We remember dreams most effectively for 90 seconds after we wake up. After that, if we don’t document the dreams, the details may get fuzzy.
Even now, I cannot describe my false awakenings in detail. Just how they made me feel and the emotions they incited. The cause of false awakenings is mostly unknown. (Research into dreams or even sleep is sparse, and false awakenings are a small subset of that sparse unknown field.) From what scientists know about dreams, sleep, and consciousness, false awakenings are attributed to stress and anxiety and are also fairly common in people who get sleep paralysis and lucid dream and have sleep conditions like sleep apnea and insomnia
The baffling trifecta
There is a positive correlation between people who have lucid dreams and false awakenings. (Myself included). Now I am not some kind of lucid dreamer, but in rare cases I have identified myself as part of a dream and changed the course of it (for those curious, the dream was about the Indian nuclear programme in the 1970s and I was a spy). Earlier false awakenings were clubbed in with lucid dreams, but what is fascinating is that both of these occur in a kind of altered REM state. The brain is said to be simultaneously in the REM and waking-up stages. I see it as my brain trying to wake up before my body is ready.
The trifecta is complete with sleep paralysis. But what I experience is slightly more absurd. I get sleep paralysis in my false awakenings. (Yes, I am God’s experiment monkey.) Sometimes I am unable to move my limbs; even my eyes are hard to open, and most of the time it feels like I am fighting against tidal waves of pressure. Now I haven’t found much reasoning for this, but from what I have seen online among people who experience FAs, this is pretty common.
The way I deal with false awakenings in general is to just not nap. I get them most during afternoon naps, but there have been exceptions. They pop up under extreme stress and anxiety (hello, midterms), and now I see them as my body telling me to slow down and not inhale caffeine. Other than that, not many mitigation techniques are available online or doable in my current state. This is a confusing part of my life, and my way to deal with unknown things is to write about them.
False awakenings and my weird dreams in general do feel like my inner consciousness is trying to hint at something and urging me to have difficult conversations about myself with myself. For example I see the demon-like figure in my false awakenings as my anxiety, or dreams about my biggest fears coming true a sign of my insecurities running wild.
I go to sleep. Cue pitch darkness. Roll up the curtains. I go through a series of realistic dreams that target my insecurities. I travel on the cusp of reality, the pen becoming my compass, trying to tether me to the reality I know. I wake up, trying to decipher if its my mind playing games or my reality. A shadow in the dark whispers ‘Every awakening could be a false awakening’ and although the rational and dominant part of my brain agrees that this is the true reality, some dark dusty part of it chimes in and says “I will never know”
Then I wake up