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How does time change when we dream? © Getty Images

How does time change when we dream?

With the help of lucid dreamers, scientists have examined how our brains interpret time during shuteye.

As many of us know, dreams can feel like they span several days or occur in slow-motion. And they can also be perceived to take place in real-time.


Although difficult to analyse time-perception in people’s dreams, promising research has emerged when studying lucid dreamers. These are people who are aware they are dreaming while dreaming – and can consciously influence the dream content.

For instance, in a study by scientists based in Switzerland and Germany, the time taken to perform pre-arranged tasks when awake and when dreaming lucidly was compared. The participants moved their eyes left-right-left-right to indicate the start and end of a task.

Motor tasks, such as performing squats, took significantly longer when dreaming as compared to when awake (although non-significant differences were found for a non-motor counting task). The authors hypothesised that this could be due to a lack of feedback from muscles when a motor task takes place while dreaming. A difference in neural processing speed when dreaming as compared to when awake was also given as a possible explanation.

Some people wonder why their dreams appear to take place just prior to waking. One possible explanation is that we need to wake up to remember our dreams, which means that those taking place earlier in the night are less likely to be recalled. Dreams are most likely to occur during Rapid Eye Movement sleep, which is more abundant as the night progresses and towards our waking time, providing a further explanation.

Asked by: Charlotte Hewes, Aylesbury

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Alice is a Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths. She has contributed to several diverse research areas, including the longitudinal associations between sleep and psychopathology, behavioural genetics, sleep paralysis and exploding head syndrome. In addition to her scientific contributions she also excels in the public engagement of science. She has published two popular science book (Nodding Off, Bloomsbury, 2018 and Sleepy Pebble, Nobrow, 2019). She regularly contributes articles to the media and has had her work published in outlets including the Guardian, GQ UK, Sud Ouest, Slate Fr, Independent.


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