On the occasional morning, Lydia Stepanek ’12 wakes up as a 30-year-old mother on the way to a baseball game with her son.
She rises abruptly out of bed at the sound of her alarm clock, her packed collegiate schedule no longer allowing her the time to awaken fully before bolting for class. And the result has been that, at least for a few seconds, she will confuse her dreams with reality.
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“Three seconds after I wake up, I usually realize I’m not actually 30,” Stepanek said. “And then I feel kind of sad.”
Stepanek, regularly finding herself awoken amid the last dream of her seven-hour sleeps, has been mistaking the lifelike impression of a dreamt motherhood — of driving her children around, from school to Yankees games — with the reality of her collegiate life at Yale.
She speculated that she began dreaming of herself through an older alter ego as a result of her subconscious mind’s preparation for college while in high school. She started imagining herself as a college student during her freshman year of high school, around the time when she embarked on her college search. And now that she’s at Yale, her dreams have jumped a decade, preparing her for her next phase in life as a mother, she said.
“I feel older than I am,” Stepanek continued. “I’m not sure why, but seeing myself older in my dreams is making me feel older.”
For Yalies, busy schedules, extreme ambitions, stimulating conversations and drunken nights often cause irregular sleep patterns, which in turn interfere with or result from dreams. Students, like Stepanek, may be able to differentiate their dreams from tangible experiences just after waking, but their realities are inevitably altered by their dreams.
“It’s hard to draw a line between dreams and reality,” Stepanek said. “The two are just so intertwined.”
SLEEPLESS IN NEW HAVEN
The mechanisms that allow Stepanek to remember her dreams in such rich and seemingly realistic detail puzzled scientists for centuries.
First coined by sleep researchers Nathaniel Kleitman and Eugene Aserinsky in 1953, Rapid Eye movement (REM) sleep — the period when a person’s eyes shift beneath closed eyelids — was identified as the phase when dreaming occurs. A secondary discovery of Kletiman and Aserinky’s studies revealed that later REM cycles allowed for longer and more detailed dreams. Thus, allowing sleepers to experience more REM cycles before waking up lets them remember dreams in more vibrant detail.
According to researchers, sleepers do not reach their first REM cycles until they have passed through at least an hour of non-REM sleep. Meanwhile, the average sleep pattern requires a period of approximately three hours of non-REM sleep before they can experience dreams long enough to be memorable.
With some students sleeping in staggered periods of 20 minutes, and others cutting their sleep down to two or three hours a night, dreaming is virtually eliminated.
For Yemile Bucay ’13, three to four hours of sleep a night is more than enough. But, she has noticed that she doesn’t dream on a regular basis.
“Actually, I dreamt last night,” Bucay said after dinner Wednesday. “But that was only because I had had three days of only getting two hours of sleep a night and I just crashed.”
By “crashed,” Bucay went on to clarify, she meant she had slept for six hours. During this time, she said, she dreamt of “a creepy guy from [her] philosophy class who showed up at [her] house” and would not leave until he fully discussed the merits of each piece of art in her family’s collection.
She has noticed that whenever she gets more than four hours of sleep, she dreams, and those dreams reflect sights and thoughts from her daily life.
While her dreams generally reflect nothing of particular importance, Bucay said, the strong emotional effects of her dreams often color her mood for the remainder of her waking hours.
“Two weeks ago I had a dream that made me really sad when I woke up,” she added. “I remember I felt sad for the rest of the day, and I really couldn’t help it.”
As Dorothea Leicher, a Philadelphia psychoanalyst, explained, “There is an overlap between the subconscious of waking life and dreaming life … A lot of what we consider intuition is what Sigmund Freud described as ‘primary processes,’ which are ways of processing information that don’t follow our declarative force of logic.”
For Justine Kolata ’12, dreams prior to arriving at college were reflections of deep-seeded memories of hardships she had seen while living in Bulgaria between three months and seven years of age. She recalled heading out onto the streets on Christmas with her family, seeing amputees and homeless people being ignored and neglected in the gutters. As she grew older, her dreams began to compound an inner sense of helplessness, which emphasized her pessimism about the state of the world.
“It wasn’t a good state of mind,” Kolata said of her negativity.
But upon arriving at Yale, Kolata found herself dreaming differently. Inspired by her professors and peers, by her newfound opportunities and the kindnesses she saw students expressing, she began to see the world as a more hopeful place.
“I stopped dreaming about amputees,” Kolata said.
Instead, she began to see images of her peers speaking with homeless people. Rather than seeing isolated instances of goodwill, Kolata said she saw large groups — representations of society — helping one another, in her dreams.
“I would pick up on simple things,” Kolata added. “That’s when my dreams became more colorful and vivid and began to motivate me to do positive things in the world.”
Inspired by her unconscious visions of small positive actions cascading through a crowd of negativity, Kolata founded the Movement for Beauty and Justice this year, which she hopes will breed global justice.
Kolata’s productive dreaming, inspiring the blueprints for her ideal world, is common among visionaries, according to Barbara Condron — the author of two books on psychoanalysis and a faculty member at the national School of Metaphysics, a not-for-profit educational institute based in Missouri. Condron said our dreams have the potential to be great tools for great achievements, from inventing the sewing machine to attaining enlightenment and creating global religions. She stressed the significance of cooperating consciously with the inner, subconscious mind, which she said was reason for taking our dreams seriously.
“Dreams are not only revelatory — in terms of your state of awareness — but there are historical accounts, across the board, of scientists who have used dreams in their work,” Condron explained.
For example, while he was researching structures in organic chemistry, German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé dreamt of serpents holding their tails in their mouths. That particular image — the way it came across and the way he remembered it — sparked the idea for the hexagonal structure that became the Benzene ring.
Another of humanity’s advancements, the sewing machine, came into being after Elias Howe had a dream about cannibals. He was about to be eaten, and the ravenous men were using long spears, which had small openings at the end, to pierce him. The design of the spears inspired him to create the lockstitch sewing machine design which is now used worldwide.
“The fact that we are now remembering more dreams as a society, as a people, rather than just a select few, shows an evolution of consciousness that’s happening across the planet,” Condron stated. “And that is a very exciting prospect in terms of where we are headed as a species.”
But some Yalies do not dream as productively, or as beautifully, as Kolata.
Under the pressures of junior year, Chloe Gordon ’11 said, she has been finding it difficult to fall asleep — unless she watches episodes of the television show, “How I Met Your Mother.”
At the start of the semester, Gordon found herself staring wide-awake in her bed for nearly four hours before finally drifting asleep. She attributes her mild insomnia, which she said was a new development since returning to college this September, to an overwhelming workload and extracurricular life.
“Junior year is when you become the editor of your paper, or the president of your organization or whatever,” Gordon, the editor-in-chief of Rumpus, explained. “I have about three times as much to do in a day than I can get done in 24 hours,” she added. Gordon also remarked that she is easily overwhelmed.
But since beginning her regimen of watching three to four episodes of the show every night, she hasn’t been having problems falling asleep.
“It puts me straight to bed,” she said. “But it doesn’t bore me to sleep — I really like the show.”
“How I Met Your Mother” stars Neil Patrick Harris, formerly known as Doogie Howser, M.D., has apparently continued to solve medical mysteries.
“One of the most useful tools in falling asleep is to establish a daily nighttime routine,” University Health Services clinical psychologist Carole Goldberg said.
But while Gordon was able to resolve her own sleep disorder, many students find themselves requiring the aid of professionals.
One Yale junior, who asked to remain anonymous to protect the privacy of his disorder, said that after feeling excessively tired throughout the day, despite experiencing a full-night’s sleep, he was sent by his doctor to consult with the Yale Center for Sleep Medicine. Through a number of diagnostic examinations, the Center was able to determine that the student suffered from narcolepsy. He has since been treated with stimulants similar to those given to ADHD patients.
“What helps you focus is also what helps you stay awake,” the student said.
The Center for Sleep Medicine, located inside the 40 Temple St. building on Yale’s medical campus, is not well-known to many students. In fact, none of the more than two dozen students interviewed, except for the junior treated by the Center, knew of its existence.
Functioning as both a research and treatment facility, the Center for Sleep Medicine cures everything from sleep apnea and narcolepsy to snoring. While the facility offers a smorgasbord of treatments, students comprise only 5 percent of the patients treated at the Center, its director, Dr. Vahid Mohsenin, said.
At 10 p.m. this past Tuesday, two security guards daydreamed behind a lone table inside the building’s locked doors. But the Center for Sleep Medicine was just beginning its research in suite 3C, where the test rooms are located. As five patients trickled in, the guards led them to individual bedrooms where they prepared for slumber. There, a lone sleep technician, Diana Miller, attached the patients to sleep monitoring sensors to track their vitals throughout the night.
“I’m here because I snore,” Fairfield, Connecticut’s Notre Dame High School football coach Theodore Boynton said. The Milford resident has come to the Center to seek treatment for the condition to placate his wife and diagnose deeper health problems associated with his snoring.
While more than half of the students interviewed said they saw much room for improvement in their sleep schedules, none had discussed their sleeping difficulties with professionals, saying that they were unsure how much improvement they could expect in their sleeping or dreaming patterns.
While these sleep disorders obstruct dreaming, their cures often get in the way as well. Gordon said her dreams have been overtaken by the cast and plotlines of “How I Met Your Mother,” while Boynton said the various tubes that resolve his sleep apnea prevent him from dreaming as he had before.
One evening, Tess — a sophomore who asked to have her last name withheld for the sake of her future employability — went down into the basement of her home to see her pet rodent. But when she came upon her beloved rat, she noticed something strange: it was hairless, and it had a human head. She was, of course, dreaming.
“At the time, I was very drunk,” she said, “And I have very weird dreams when I’m drunk.”
Tess, who did not drink prior to college, said such dreams are unusual deviations from her otherwise unremarkable dream life.
“When students first come to college, one of the tasks that faces them is to become more independent and to realize who they are,” said Jim Leckman, the Neison Harris Professor of Child Psychiatry and Pediatrics at Yale. It is this fundamental change that is responsible, Leckman said, for many of the changes students experience in their sleeping and dreaming habits.
While the content of Tess’ dreams may not be indicative of her immediate reality, her surreal subconscious visions suggest that college has had a transformative effect on her state of being. But Tess said her dreams had done little to change her perceptions of her pet rodent, or her Saturday night habits.
Condron explained that over-indulgence in drugs, alcohol and even some foods, can blur the line between the subconscious and conscious, which doesn’t always translate to a positive dream process. She said that the body has to go through a cleansing process, which affects thinking, memory and the conscious mind’s ability to distinguish between inner reality and the outer world. In this way, nightmares and strange dreams — particularly those seemingly detached from reality — become common occurrences for college students after nights of debauchery.
SLUMBER UNDER CONTROL
Rather than merely seeing a pet rodent transform into a monster, imagine controlling that transformation — and the entire world — while dreaming.
A few years ago, Lisa Tran ’12 was grocery shopping with her sister when she suddenly had an epiphany.
“Lilly, this is a dream,” she blurted out to her sister. Lilly’s response was a confused look, followed by a conclusive, “No Lisa, it’s not.”
But Tran was convinced, and she wanted to prove her sister wrong. So she hoisted herself into the air and flew around the supermarket.
Her extraordinary experience is known as lucid dreaming — a phenomenon that occurs when a person realizes he or she is dreaming, and then takes control of the fantasy’s direction.
“It’s one of my favorite dreams,” Tran said. “But I haven’t had one since.”
Lucid dreams are recognized as extremely rare occurrences — most people only recall a handful of such dreams over their lifetimes, according to Melissa Lavoie ’12.
But for a group of Jonathan Edwards students, including Lavoie, lucid dreaming is an activity that shouldn’t be limited to off-chance luck.
The Lucid Dreaming Coalition (LDC), founded last year in a Farnam suite, has been working to develop a systematic method to inspire lucid dreams. The group, which has a core membership of 15, has been sifting through the copious literature available on the subject to find successful, efficient techniques that would help them catch their dreams, mid-dream.
“When you’re in a dream, there may be a lot of indications that you’re in a dream,” Coalition member Lavoie explained. Common indications include irregular numbers of fingers on hands and irrational time changes.
While awake, members often check for these indicators, regularly reading clocks and counting their fingers, so that the habits develop to be second-nature. In this way, the hope is that the dreamer will naturally count his digits or read a clock and discover that he is indeed dreaming. After overcoming this initial hurdle, the vision then becomes limited only by the imagination of the commanding dreamer.
Acting as an antithesis to the countless peers whose dreams are subject to inebriation, strained sleep schedules and everyday worries and experiences, this band of lucid dreamers has taken a decidedly different approach to its slumber: They’re in control.
“I think lucid dreaming can be very positive,” Lavoie said. “Aside from its sheer awesomeness, it’s very empowering to be in a world that’s controlled only by your imagination.”
Lucid or not, Coalition member Kate Mayans ’12 highlighted the significance of psychoanalysis, which has fueled her interest in dreaming.
“There’s a lot of debate about whether dreams can inform our wakeful experiences,” Mayans said. “But I think [psychoanalysis] certainly does enhance our lives in general — dreams are a big part of us that we’d otherwise miss when we’re asleep.”
Indeed, the consensus among professionals and students is a cold awakening: Pay attention to your dreams, Yale.