The Surprising Creative Science of ‘Microdreams’

The human brain is a masterful engine of creativity and improvisation during our waking hours. We take images, sounds and experiences and turn them into sculptures, movies and poems. By developing creative talents, we can improve our ability to translate the stimuli of the real world into fantasy, art and escape.

The experience of creativity during our “awake” hours is intentional, though; we have to find time for it among the competing distractions of work, school and social obligations.

It’s during our dreams that the brain gets to indulge in creativity for creativity’s sake, and dream science is a fascinating window into how our brains process the events of our lives.

But where traditional dream research focuses on REM sleep—the deep-sleep cycles when we’re most prone to complex dreaming—a new look at the onset of light sleep reveals a wild world of quick-reflex, hyper-short dreams. These snippets, called “microdreams” by sleep scientist Tore Nielsen, are a clear link between recent memories and the creative world of the dreaming brain—and give researchers new ways to study how our brains store and process the events of our lives.

Fast and vivid: Inside microdreams

Nielsen’s new research, published in the journal Neuroscience of Consciousness, used a laboratory environment to explore how subjects dreamed during the transition from wakefulness to sleep. During this time, the brain is unlikely to create the complex, hallucinogenic-but-lucid images we associate with dreaming in REM sleep.

Microdreams pbs rewireWhereas REM dreams may take minutes or hours to develop narratives, consequences and emotional responses, Nielsen discovered that microdreams often take a specific recent memory or physical stimulus and, combining with existing memories or knowledge, turn it into a fleeting image. In fact, Nielsen wrote, microdreams may be just one second long but possess an incredible degree of creativity and association in the brain.

When we’re falling asleep, our brains are taking real-life experiences and images and turning them into meaningful—but ultra-quick—dream experiences and images. Often times, these quick dreams jolt us awake.

In one microdream, Nielsen’s subject reported seeing an indistinct blue-and-white object to his left. It had a blue-and-white swirled pattern and flew toward his arm, which he flexed to anticipate contact—both in the dream and in real life—only to find it was lighter than anticipated. His surprise and physical reflex jolted his consciousness and woke him up. The total elapsed time of this dream: one second.

In this case, Nielsen discovered, a recent encounter with a blue-and-white plate in real life triggered an association with a photo of the Earth, which then combined to form a “ball” of sorts. This dreamer had played volleyball six days previously, so this “ball” activated the sense-memory of arm flexing; the physical stimulus of actually tensing his arm was enough to wake the subject.

In just a second, Nielsen concluded, the brain is able to combine a huge number of memories, stimuli and associations into a vivid and affecting microdream.

Touch and feel your dream

In prior research, Nielsen explored how physical stimuli during sleep can affect the content of dreams. In one experiment in the 1990s, he placed a pressure cuff on subjects’ legs and inflated it during sleep; participants then reported that leg issues, from tingling to paralysis, wound up being part of their dreams.

Microdreams pbs rewireWith Nielsen’s new research, we can see how physical stimuli can show up in microdreams as well. The things that are happening to you as you sleep are being translated and twisted into things happening to you in your dream.

One participant in the new study fell asleep with his fingers on his forehead while thinking about fretting a guitar chord with his hand. In his microdream, the participant twisted the cap off a plastic bottle using the same fingers; in real life, his fingers twitched against his forehead. Back in the dream, an indistinct person suddenly appeared and touched his forehead in the same spot, jolting him awake.

In general, Nielsen discovered, microdreams draw on a shallower well of memory than REM dreams do. Where REM dreams develop from a lengthy stock of memory—in an experiment Nielsen cites, one REM dream relied on memories ranging from two months to 15 years past—microdreams come from much more recent sources. In this example, thinking about fingering a guitar chord was enough to trigger a memory of twisting a bottlecap.

A blast of creativity

Nielsen’s study of microdreams revealed some common traits:

  • They’re short and often composed of a single narrative “part” (and rarely more than two)
  • They’re “eruptive”—movement in dreams is abrupt, which triggers an “eruption into awareness” that wakes up the dreamer
  • They’re unstable; many dreams involve violent motion, falling or other physical reactions that jolt the dreamer

In all, these microdreams helped Nielsen explore existing theories about how the brain stores and accesses memories during dreaming; in the paper, he proposed a new term, “microdynamic neurophenomenology,” to refer to the study of microdreams.

Nielsen’s research, wrote sleep researcher Michelle Carr in Psychology Today, offers a new tool for sleep scientists.

Microdreams pbs rewire“The mind goes through a process of “sense-making,” creating imagery to make sense of experience, all within the space of milliseconds,” she wrote. “Microdreams provide a much more manageable method of studying the memory sources of imagery.”

The next time you’re falling asleep and are suddenly jolted awake, try to remember your lightning-quick dream—your subconscious could be trying to tell you something.

The Rewire team loves sleep. And it’s really, really important for your health. Check out these insights from us:

How Your Dreams Can Impact Your Relationship

Taking a Weekend Camping Trip Can Reset Your Sleep Clock

Deep Sleep Might Help You Stay Young

Reasons Why You’re Not Sleeping and What to Do About It

Alex Gaterud

Alex Gaterud is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor. As of 2016, the three most important things in his life are Bruce Springsteen, Sour Patch Kids and playing the drums.