Here's how it started: I was standing in the garage. My mom was throwing something in the trash. I remembered that in my dream, I was standing in the garage, holding a 7-11 Slurpee when my grandpa grabbed his chest and fell over.
Now I was awake, standing in the same place as I had in my dream, and I asked my mom if everything was okay with Grandpa. He's fine, she told me, he was having some chest pains and had to go to the hospital the other day, but he's fine.
This is the first dream coincidence I remember. The first of many strange experiences I've had during the third of my life that I spend sleeping. Experiences that have left me wondering, what the heck is happening when we sleep?
Sleep involves a process of cycling through various brain states involving four primary brainwaves: beta, alpha, theta, and delta.
Beta waves are present in an awake, alert, actively engaged mind. These are the fastest brainwaves.
Alpha waves are slower and show up when we are at rest, meditating, reflecting, taking a break, walking through a garden, etc.
Theta waves are even slower than alpha waves. They show up when we're daydreaming or engaging in something so automatically that we are mentally relaxed and ideas are free to flow (like when showering, highway driving, etc.).
Delta waves are the slowest waves, and when we reach delta, we are fully asleep.
The first two stages of sleep are dominated by variations in theta waves. The next stage is dominated by deep sleep delta waves. During a sleep cycle - which lasts approximately ninety minutes - our brains move from theta 1, theta 2, delta, theta 2, theta 1, and into REM.
In REM (rapid eye movement), we experience a mixture of brainwaves, including alpha and beta waves. Our brain is highly active and engaged, but our bodies are literally, completely paralyzed. The length of each REM period increases over the course of the night and can last for up to an hour.
So what exactly happens when our brains are highly active and engaged but our bodies are paralyzed? We dream. Every night, we dream, but not all dreaming is the same.
Fun Fact: Alpha and theta waves are highly present in experienced meditators. These brainwaves are thought to dominate meditation, yoga nidra, shamanic journeying, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, and Reiki. These practices are all working to alter your brain state and your experience of consciousness, helping you experience a relaxed, free-flowing state of consciousness.
Lucid dreaming occurs when you're asleep and aware that you're dreaming. With that awareness, you can make conscious choices to bend the illusion of your dream to your liking. For instance, once I dreamt that I was being chased in a rundown house. Then I realized it was just a dream, and I could fly the hell out of that house, so I did.
Research has shown that people who experience high lucidity when dreaming have an increase in gray matter in their brain's prefrontal cortex. Lucid dreaming research also suggests that the more aware and self-reflective a person is when awake, the more likely that person is to experience lucid dreaming.
And like lucid dreamers, experienced meditators also have an increase in gray matter in the prefrontal cortex. Given that meditation is a practice designed to help you gain awareness of your mind, this is not surprising. It also suggests that people who meditate are more likely to experience lucid dreaming, and as any experienced meditator will tell you, the more you meditate, the more dreamlike waking life becomes.
So what exactly is happening in the prefrontal cortex?
This is the brain region associated with working memory, decision making, differentiation, and rule learning. Differentiation and memory specifically explain how meditation improves awareness. Awareness - stemming from increased information in the form of memories and improved ability to differentiate between things - allows people to gain a greater understanding of what is happening and to make more empowered choices both while awake and asleep.
Fun fact: The prefrontal cortex typically shrinks with age, causing memory impairment, etc., but meditation counters this shrinkage. So much so that the gray matter volume of a fifty year old meditator's frontal cortex can match that of a twenty-five year old. And meditation's effects are fast. Gray matter increase has been observed after only eight weeks of regular meditation.
It's common knowledge that the same dream imagery and stories show up again and again from person to person. Stories such as having to take a test you haven't studied for or standing naked in a room full of fully-clothed people or losing your teeth in a myriad of bloody, horrifying ways. Just to name a few.
At this point, we've largely just accepted that our dreaming minds conjure up similar stories. We commiserate over shared nightmares and shared dream pleasures - like having the ability to fly. But beyond just shared imagery and stories, many people have described having had the exact same dream.
These claims include minor variances in details (or memory) of the dreams, but otherwise, the dreams are exactly the same. Most cases of shared dreaming have occurred between people who are close in waking life - spouses, twins, therapist and patient, etc. But there are also stories of strangers recognizing each other on the street because they've seen each other in their dream.
According to Patrick McNamara, a neurologist and dream expert at Boston University, thousands of cases of shared dreaming have been documented. He's of the opinion that shared dreaming is a very real thing. But the question remains, what does it mean? Where does the shared dream reside? Is it a spontaneous coincidence arising between two totally separate minds or are the minds - when sleeping - accessing a shared consciousness?
Is the Universe Conscious?
Earlier twentieth century psychologist and philosopher Carl Jung argued that dreams allow us to access a collective unconscious. A collection of conscious experience that extends to every conscious being and exists beyond personal experience:
"In addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals."
His theory of collective unconscious has not been scientifically proven, but the latest trend in scientific theory aligns with his. Increasingly, physicists, cognitive scientists, and philosophers are exploring the idea that the universe itself is conscious. New York City College of Technology physicist Gregory Matloff recently published a paper detailing a possible method to scientifically test this theory, and just two weeks ago, NPR was all over it.
And if this theory is true, it would explain not only experiences of shared dreaming but also experiences of dreams that come true - as if those dreams were accessing a source of information that we are typically not personally consciously aware of.
Dreams that Come True
I personally experience dream coincidences nearly every week. This shows up in various ways. Here are just a few examples of the types of dream experiences I regularly have:
I've found that dreams are often warnings:
I had a wonderful conversation with a fellow writer at a bar. We exchanged contact information. That night I had a dream that he was stalking me. I woke up late the next morning to multiple emails and a voicemail from him. The messages as well as unexpected in-person encounters continued for weeks.
I've found that dreams are often helpful messages for other people:
I recently dreamt about someone I knew but wasn't particularly close to. I didn't have her phone number, and I hadn't spoken to her in months. But she showed up in my dream. The images and our conversation in the dream were specific and vivid. When I woke up, I immediately reached out to her, and it turned out that everything I dreamt was directly related to actual experiences she was having in her life. Experiences that I previously didn't have any knowledge of.
I've found that dreams can help answer questions:
I was collecting ingredients for a project, but I didn't know where to get one of the ingredients (flakes of real gold). Before falling asleep, I simply asked to be shown where to find the ingredient. Who or what I was asking I have no idea. But that night, a person showed up in my dream. Again, this was someone whose phone number I don't have, and someone I hadn't spoken to in months. But in my dream, she possessed a bottle of gold paint or ink as part of her art supplies, and it was clear that she would be able to direct me to a source for gold flakes. The next morning, I emailed her asking her if she knew where I could get the ingredient. She knew exactly where because it's where she got a bottle of gold ink, which she has in her collection of art supplies.
Make of This What You Will
Do I know what any of these coincidences and weird experiences mean with any certainty? No.
What I do know is that my experiences are real. That these stories - like every story I tell - are completely true. That for whatever reason, dreaming seems to open us up to a world of possibility and altered experience.
I don't know whether this is because of increased grey matter or theta waves or universal consciousness or something we haven't yet uncovered, but next time, before you go to sleep, maybe ask for clarity and see what answers you receive.