Does Time Actually Pass Slower in Dreams?

By  · Published on December 3rd, 2014

Warner Bros.

One of my favorite things to do as I’ve gotten older is to take naps. I am an expert nap-taker, even a better nap-taker than sleeper most nights. I never understood why children fight them so much, considering they have been a hobby of mine since college.

Four years ago, Christopher Nolan made one of the highest-profile films about sleeping. In the summer of 2010, Inception did more for dreaming than films like 1985’s Dreamscape ever did. Like his most recent film Interstellar, Nolan also brought to life on the big screen some concepts and possible misconceptions about dreaming. One of these was the idea that there is a sort of time dilation in dreams.

As the character of Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) points out rather succinctly in the film: “Five minutes in the real world gives you an hour in the dream.” In other words, it’s a bit like the opposite of what happens to Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway while prancing around black holes in Interstellar.

Is Nolan simply obsessed with time dilation for his characters, or is he on to something? This got me thinking: Does time really move slower in a dream?

The Answer: We certainly perceive it that way, but it’s not a source of eternity in limbo.

Part of what makes Nolan’s Inception work the way it does is the dreams are regimented and controlled, often by outside parties who manipulate other people’s minds into a shared dream state. In the film, the dream team uses tailored pharmaceuticals and a special machine to sync up people’s minds so they can have a shared experience.

This technology, of course, does not exist. While there are some devices that can read and detect what’s going on in someone’s mind as they’re dreaming, based on brain waves and other biological feedback, we don’t have access to anything that will merge people into a single dream together. And we certainly don’t have something that will allow a trained individual to build the dream world from the ground up and project other people into a shared dream.

The concept of shared dreaming does exist, but it falls in the realm of paranormal science rather than hard science and has yet to be proved with reliable scientific investigation.

Still, Inception is a movie, and its dream device is nothing more than a plot device to let things happen. Let’s assume it works.

The added bonus to the dream time dilation is that it can happen again and again in different layers of a dream. Each time, the dreamers experience the five-minutes-to-an-hour time dilation, or they see time slow down by a factor of twelve. So, on the first level, time moves twelve times slower. On the second level, it’s twelve times slower again, or slowed down by a factor of 144. On the third level, it slows by a factor of 1,728 from the real world. As deep as they dare to go in the film, the fourth limbo level, time has slowed by a factor of 20,736.

In other words, each second in the real world takes almost six hours in limbo. Each hour in the real world would take two years and four months in the dream state.

This is how Nolan set it up, but…

Is this how time really works in dreams?

In the documentary Dreams: Cinema of the Subconscious, available on the Inception Blu-ray, Nolan himself says, “I’ve always felt that my brain was working even faster than it can do in waking life. It feels to me that time passes more slowly in a dream. I would drift off for ten minutes, but I would have an hour-long dream.”

This is not an uncommon experience. Many people experience dreams that seem to be hours or days long in one dreaming cycle at night. It’s also not uncommon for people to experience what Nolan describes, which is a long dream in a short micronap when someone dozes off. While difficult to scientifically prove from a perception and communication level, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of people experiencing this phenomenon.

There have been some studies to suggest that there is some truth to this. Certain studies involved waking people up in the middle of the dream cycle and having them accurately identify approximately how much time has passed. However, like everything with dreams, this all relies on perception.

Cillian Muphy Inception

Warner Bros.

Dreams are not the only time human beings perceive time dilation in the everyday world. As people get older, it is generally accepted that time appears to pass quicker. While it never seems abnormal as you experience it, it’s common for young children to feel like they’re waiting forever for something that takes only a short time for an adult, like driving for a couple hours.

There are several theories surrounding the time dilation related to age. The most obvious one is that an hour is a much larger percentage of his or her life than an hour is to a man in his forties. Other theories for are grounded in biology, suggesting that body chemistry is affected as metabolism slows with age and body temperature changes.

In Dreams: Cinema of the Subconscious, Nolan stumbles into a possible explanation: “I think the simple cut in film grammar is one of the closest film tricks to the way the brain actually thinks, to the way you actually perceive the world.”

In other words, part of the reason we perceive dreams as happening slower than our waking hours is because the mundane bits in the middle are edited out. Our minds simply cut from one point in the dream to another. It seems entirely natural in the dream, but it’s part of the reason we may not remember all of even the most vivid dream, only the most emotional and impactful moments.

This is essentially how memory works, which is tied to dreams. There is a lack of the memory-enhancing neurochemical norepinephrine during dreaming, which helps explain why we forget our dreams within minutes after waking up. However, this also results throughout the day as our brains create our memories. Our thoughts and daydreams between essential moments in the day are not committed to memory any more than our dreams are. Case in point, try to remember exactly what you were thinking and exactly what was happening while you were doing something mundane several days ago. It’s as difficult as remembering a dream.

Still if time really does seem to slow down in dreams…

Can we delve down to our own limbo for decades overnight?

Probably not. Again, it’s all because of how our brains work while we dream.

The idea of a dream-within-a-dream is nothing new. In Dreams: Cinema of the Subconscious, Deirdre Barrett from Harvard Medical School points out, “Some people have chains of these.” However, it is uncertain if they are actually dreams within dreams or a chain of dreams.

Waking up in a dream only to find yourself still in a dream state is more likely your brain trying to explain why you’re not conscious yet. Because REM sleep, the dreaming state, occurs while your mind is preparing to wake up from unconsciousness, it’s possible that your body isn’t fully brought out of sleep when your mind is ready to surface. So, instead of actually having fallen asleep in your dream to have another dream, your brain just thinks your off to another dream. It’s a chain in the same level of consciousness rather than the descending rabbit hole we see in Inception.

Even if you dream that you are dreaming, the time dilation would not happen again. Dreaming and sleep are physiological process as much as they are psychological ones. However, once you enter the dream state, you don’t cross that physiological barrier again. In other words, your mind is already self-editing your dreams to take out the brain’s deleted scenes.

So unfortunately, you can’t just jump down the Inception rabbit hole to make your 20-second orgasm take place over four or five days, and you can’t add decades to your life on the beach of your subconscious. Our minds just don’t work that way. And it’s a good thing, too, or we’d probably end up spending more time napping then ever before.

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