Nightmare was traditionally believed to be an evil spirit that oppresses, torments, haunts or suffocates people. However, it can be described as just a terrifying dream. Here victims see themselves, or complains that it was like being under pressure on the bed. It is like being suffocated; trying to fight or take to flight, but the body seems several times heavy, slow to response, and sometimes total immobility in the dream and physically the same. In the helpless state, trying to call for help or yell, is either muffled, low as if under water, or absolute loss of voice.
It can also be without all the pressure but a lot of fear, stark fear from what is seen or perceived. We can recall that while sleeping, several of the information being processed by our brain finds its pathway from the brain stem to the centre of visual processing, the visual cortex, such that the dream appears like a reality. We can also recall that during REM periods, meaningful dreams of which nightmares are part of occurs due to the mental processing mostly on memory, and that the cortisol stress hormones are being released just as if we are active. Thus, REM sleep is called paradoxical sleep, since the similar actions while active occurs during this period. Also, we can remember that the external environment influences the content and feeling of our dreams as explained with the cold wind when the window is open before we sleep. Now, not just the physical aspect of the environment, but also the various forms of perceptions that can be sensed in the environment, such that a dream or nightmare is as a result of all these stated reasons.
In the case of a nightmare, the presence of the terrifying sights generated by the forebrain and the brain stem is always due to what we had experienced, what we believe, what we fear, what we love, and what we perceive in the present. It is important to note that each of them has the ability to supersede each other, and a nightmare can be as a result of one or a combination of two or more of them. Hence, what we believe has a way of influencing what we dream to a large extent, as much as what we love. Since stress hormones such as adrenaline are being released during sleep, here is the reason why dreams convey a reality along, and the subconscious nature of it hereby dampening reasoning and other biasing create the stark single feeling common to it.
When a dream is terrifying, the body senses danger, and all typical responses to danger when the conscious is activated, such as the release of adrenaline to prompt flight or fight, the increase in blood glucose level, the increase in temperature associated to sweating all come up in response to this nightmare. However, in REM sleep, the muscles have been deactivated, so that mechanical response is greatly weakened. The motor part of the nervous system cannot activate itself, of which there is continual stimulation to flee or yell. The result of the struggle to activate is the muffling sound, heavy hands and legs. Sometimes, there is absolute immobility but the heart thuds all the way since it is an autonomic response. In fact, all autonomic responses continues, and are under pressure alright from the emergency.
The stress generated within the body causes the release of hormones and other sensations which the forebrain notes and has to come to consciousness so as to rectify the anomaly. This is why we wake up. Most times with catapulting response… since the muscles are sort of released abruptly, the victim seems to jump out of sleep. We can call it the Wolverine response, since this is similar to the behaviour of the character in X-men 1 when he jumped out of sleep and plunged his metallic claws into Rogue.
Some rare cases occur during night-mares or dreams. The fore-brain can sometimes be immersed in its subconscious such that the termination of the nightmare is not possible. This will sometimes result in a prolonged nightmare, or the nightmare sometimes ends, and a new one begins making the night a gruelling one. If the nightmare instead continues along with the increased tension generated in the body, this might result in a continual high blood pressure and increase in glucose level which is not being metabolized. This high pressure can result in haemorrhage – bursting of stiff arteries. If this occurs in the brain, or a sensitive part of the body, it can result in death. The individual dies while asleep.
Another fatal case that can result from nightmares might be “Delusional Death”. Here, the individual might die in the nightmare (not see himself die). The mind on basis of this assumes death, releasing the fatal death enzymes to shut down the body. Most times, however, the forebrain avoids this by sending impulses to the limbs and other parts of the body to check or confirm the delusion just like the case of atonia. There is a jerk back to life, but in this case the feeling is quite different. It looks like a resurrection or resuscitation, a drag back to life. There have been several reports of people having this experience and thus feeling that they were sent back to this world. Indeed, they were sent back, since there is a high probability of passing out during such experiences.
Look out for the last posting on “Dreams (Part III) – “The Power of Dreams.” next week!!