REM Behavior Disorder (RBD) is a sleep disorder where one acts out their dreams. There are different stages of sleep, REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep is when dreaming occurs. Usually, REM is accompanied by physical paralysis and muscle atonia. During RBD, the mind is dreaming while the body is awake. This is the opposite of sleep paralysis where the body is paralyzed but the mind is awake.
RBD differs from sleepwalking, in that one is conscious (subjectively experiencing) and can remember it. In sleepwalking, there is often no conscious experience and one cannot recollect what happened. Furthermore, RBD occurs during dream-sleep, while sleepwalking occurs in non-REM sleep.
I don’t know if I have RBD, I’ll be doing a sleep study in order to figure out what’s going on. It’s important to rule out the possibility of mimics through polysomnography, but it does seem likely that I have RBD considering the presence of a dream-world coupled with movement (or at least, the absence of paralysis). Disturbingly, there seems to be evidence that RBD is correlated with synonucleopathies (like Parkinsons or dementia). So fingers crossed it’s some other disorder.
The first time I acted out my dreams I was 9 years old. The stripes on my blanket had become the lane dividers on a dark highway. Headlights came out of the darkness and I dove out of the way, smashing head-on into my bed post. The pain knocked me out of my dream-state and I wandered over to my parents bed room to tell them what had happened.
I was 15 at my Aunt’s cottage, when the next episode occurred. I dreamt that I was trapped inside a massive Jawa sandcrawler (a vehicle in Star Wars). It was pitch black and I started pounding on the walls yelling “HEY! HEY! WAIT!”. I was filled with terror, before I calmed down and thought “actually, where does my memory place me?”. My aunt came down and knocked on my door, and I told her everything was fine and that I was just having nightmares.
Another time, I was at my grandparent’s cottage (what is it about cottages?) with my ex-girlfriend. I dreamt that I was under a theatre stage that was collapsing around me. I was crawling out on all fours towards a sliver of light that was shining between two boards in the siding. When I reached the boards I started to pull them apart when I heard a girl scream, and shout “MATT? MATT?”. Suddenly, I came to and realized that I had crawled across the bedroom to the window where the moonlight was shining between two curtains. My girlfriend had heard me pawing at the window, and didn’t know what the sound was.
A few years later I was travelling down the west coast of America with my friend. We were staying at a friends place, with her on a sleeping pad, and myself on a couch. I dreamt that I was in an underwater palace. There was a pale watery light shining through a grate in the wall. I noticed a shape on the ground, and when I leaned down to touch it, it snarled at me and I hopped away, realizing it was a baby seal. I ran up the stairs when I saw something that knocked me out of my reverie: a washer and dryer. These two objects were so inconsistent with my dream of a medieval-looking underwater palace, that I could not integrate them properly.
I have also hurt myself. At my cottage, I started trying to escape while in a dream. I stepped off the side of my bed that was against the wall, and put my foot inside a baseboard heater. When I stepped down, my big toe was deeply cut by the razors in the heater. I was holding my foot screaming and covered in blood when my mother (who was scared shitless) came downstairs. I patched myself up in the bathroom, and decided I needed to go in for a sleep study.
At my parents house, I sleep right beside a window. During another “escape dream” I anxiously pawed at the locked window, and then double-foot-kicked it open. Perhaps it was the loud noise, or the intense physical sensations associated with kicking open a locked window, but I sat there stunned as I my brain slowly put together the pieces of what happened (“I was sleep-acting, kicked open the window, and now I am awake”). And once again, my poor parents came to check on me after the huge bang.
When I was in undergrad, several times during the year my roommates were woken up with me banging on my bedroom walls and screaming something like “HEY!! HEY!! OH GOD SOMEBODY HELP ME!” to their absolute terror.
Although sometimes hard to predict, I’ve noticed two regularities to these dream-actions: they happen more frequently when I am sleeping somewhere new, or when sleeping under strange lighting (such as complete darkness or twilight). I only had these episodes a few times during childhood with the frequency increasing drastically around 2015.
III. Philosophical Reflections
While in a RBD experience, the mind is not completely disconnected from the external world. The mind draws on the environment for cues which then become integrated into the dream world. The shaft of moonlight becomes the light peeking between the boards of a collapsing stage, or a sleeping friend becomes a seal. If an environmental stimulus is too divergent from the dream world, such as a washer/dryer set, or the pain of slicing open a toe, then the brain will have no choice but to reevaluate its conceptions.
The predictive processing model of the brain seems to be useful in describing these events. Bottom-up information is the sensory information that comes in via the senses, while top-down information is the predictions that the mind makes about what will occur. The delusion of being in an underwater palace is an internally generated world that my mind predicts is the case. The form of something on the ground is recognized the senses, but my top-down model recognizes it as something related to an underwater palace. So the sensory stimuli (bottom-up) is in a conversation with the predictive model, and the predictive model manages to “recognize” and categorize the stimuli within its framework. Upon seeing the washer/dryer set, the brain is not able to integrate the sensory data with the predictive-model and a reevaluation occurs. There is a realization that one had been dreaming, and the predictive-model changes to one that can integrate the sensory information.
David Pearce uses RBD to explain the “Symbol Grounding Problem”. I don’t think his portrayal of RBD (at least within my experience) is accurate when he says that “chronic dreamers never gain access to extra-cranial reality”. Our perceptions will always be constrained by the “outside world” even if we only ever have a model of it. My episodes have always integrated aspects of the environment, whether it be light, shapes, or even objects as commonly understood (as in the case of kicking open the window).
The connection between the dream world and the outside-world is important. They must be connected sufficiently for the organism to survive and reproduce. People with RBD who jump out a window will remove themselves from the gene pool, or if they are in a constant dream state they will be unable to function in the world and fail to reproduce. Therefore, a dream state must meet a bare minimum of correlation with the outside world. Sufficiency does not mean perfectly optimal, sufficiency is merely the criteria that an organism must model “the outside world” well enough to survive and reproduce. The most ubiquitous world-model will be the one that most successfully promotes survival and reproduction (rather than accuracy).
This is a clear and obvious usage of the map/territory distinction. Our map must have a certain relationship to the territory in order for it to become standard in a population: namely, it must prioritize survival and reproduction over accuracy to the territory. The territory is something that must always be modeled – maps are useful because of their simplification of the territory (not in spite of it). A related point, is that the territory is not a single-level landscape. That is, the world contains niches that are very dissimilar from each other. For example, very small Fairyflies pull themselves through the air since the air acts as a viscous fluid to them rather than as a gas. Their is not a single way of relating to the physical world, but a vast panoply.