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“Where do our minds go at night? For more than a century, discussions of dreams have tended to revolve around the interpretation of our dreams’ contents. Do they reflect our unconscious anxieties? Are they an attempt to simulate threats, training us to cope with future challenges? Or are they simply the result of our mental housekeeping, as the sleeping brain reactivates our memories and processes them for long-term storage? In each case, the focus has been on the more immersive, surreal flights of fancy that occupy the sleeping brain.
Yet our most puzzling dreams may not have contents at all. Have you ever woken up with the certainty that you had just been dreaming, yet you were unable to recall even a single detail of the scene your mind was playing out? Various sleep studies have found that approximately 30 percent of the time, participants wake up with the sensation that they have been dreaming about something, yet when they are asked to describe the experience, they draw a complete blank. This is a distinct experience from waking up and having no sense of having been dreaming at all, which occurs about 20 percent of the time, or the rich narratives found in the other 50 percent.
Sleep researchers refer to that first vague sensation as a “white dream”—and its true nature is a scientific mystery. It’s known that white dreams can occur at any part of the sleep cycle, though they are more likely to occur during non-rapid eye movement, earlier in the night. Sometimes, they are explained as a case of simply forgetting what was being dreamed. But some researchers now believe that something much stranger is going on. Rather than reflecting a memory deficit, white dreams might represent a boundary between sleep states, consisting of a basic form of consciousness without detailed sensual content.”
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