Why the Body in Your Dreams May Not Match the Real You

A man in a business suit flies over a boardwalk.
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The "you" that stars in your dreams is a stripped-down version of your waking self, new research suggests.

Researchers found that a person's dream self is like a "mini-me" that doesn't change based on what's going on with the body in the real world, according to the findings, which were published Oct. 6 in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.

The study helps explain why people who are born with paralysis or deafness often dream of a body that doesn't have those conditions, and even why people can do fantastical things like fly or breathe underwater in dreams, said study author Judith Koppehele-Gossel.

In the study, the researchers tried to alter participants' dreams by dotting their arms with a red spot and asking them to focus on that spot before falling asleep. If a person's dream self is closely linked to his or her real self, the researchers thought, the people with red dots on their arms should have dreamed more about their arms or the color red. But that didn't happen: The dreamers with red-dotted arms were no more likely than those without to see red (or their arms) while sleeping.

"Although we know it is us who is running, swimming or just sitting around in our dream, and although we know somehow that we have a body in our dreams, we rarely see and feel this body," Koppehele-Gossel told Live Science. [7 Mind-Bending Facts About Dreams]

Dream body

The study that Koppehele-Gossel and her colleagues conducted was a follow-up to an earlier experiment that they had performed in their lab, in which they asked people to read stories that several other people wrote about their dreams, and try to determine which of the dreamers had been born with a disability, such as paralysis or deafness. The readers couldn't tell the difference, the researchers reported in 2011 in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.

That finding suggested that people with paraplegia and those who are deaf and mute "did not dream less about movement or speech and hearing, and they did not dream more often about such experiences" than people without those conditions, Koppehele-Gossel said. Other research on disability and dreams has likewise found that the body is frequently intact in the dream world, she said.

"The question that we wanted to address [in the new study] was: Under what circumstances are waking-life changes of the physical self incorporated into the dream self?" she said. "Does our waking self, in some predictable manner, affect our dream self?"

In the new study, 10 people (seven females and three males) recorded their dreams over a period of about three months. At first, all 10 were simply asked to write down what they could remember about their previous night's dreams each morning. After doing this for 10 dreams, the participants were asked to change the procedure slightly: Each night, they were told to stare at their right arm and focus on it carefully for 2 minutes before falling asleep. Then, the participants were asked to continue to write down dreams until they'd recorded another 10. In the third segment of the experiment, the researchers applied a waterproof red mark to the participants' arm. They were asked to stare at and think about this red mark before sleep and record a final 10 dreams. Throughout the study period, they were also asked to answer questionnaires about how they'd experienced their bodies during their dreams.

Dream world, real world?

The researchers combed through the dream narratives for references to arms, the color red, round marks and the right side of the body, looking to see whether the attention that people paid to their red marks when they were awake and self-suggestion activities had any influence on how they dreamed about their bodies. They found no differences among the three conditions.

"The major finding of our study was that the bodily dream self is not easily influenced by attention, auto-suggestion ('I want to dream about my arm') or experimental alterations," Koppehele-Gossel wrote in an email to Live Science. [Top 10 Spooky Sleep Disorders]

The research suggests that the dream self is a rather minimalist conception, Koppehele-Gossel said, which is why the researchers describe it as a "mini-me." Essentially, people who are dreaming have some sense of having a body, but it's rare for their dream body to appear in detail or to have much of a relationship to their waking body.

Rather, the dream body "is limited to some kind of standard template that is usually employed while dreaming and that is possibly the same for handicapped as well as non-handicapped people," Koppehele-Gossel said.

Dreaming is a special state because people are conscious on some level, Koppehele-Gossel said. They have experiences and emotional responses, she said. But that consciousness is limited: There is little sense of past or future, and typically there's little control over one's actions.

"Experimentally investigating embodiment in dreams is important to [learn more about] the characteristics of different levels of consciousness," Koppehele-Gossel said.

Original article on Live Science.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.