Do We Dream in Real Time?
If you dreamed of walking from one end of your home to the other, would it take the same amount of time as it does when you're awake? Or is there some sort of time contraction or expansion going on?
To answer this question we'll look at:
- the available research,
- why some dreams feel slowed down or sped up,
- and my own perception of dream time.
Does Time Go Faster or Slower in a Dream?
Researchers have tested this using lucid dreamers. They sent start and stop signals to the researchers with prearranged eye movements. This is possible because our real eyes respond to the movement of our dream eyes.
Two studies compared the duration of a task performed while dreaming and while awake. Stephen LaBerge had dreamers signal their start, count to ten, and signal the end. It took them the same amount of time to count as it did when they were awake.
Daniel Erlacher found a very small time difference in a similar counting experiment.
This suggests that dream time and real time are very close, if not identical. That's not the end of it, though.
Erlacher tested dreamers carrying out three different physical actions—walking, squatting, and a short gymnastics routine. Performing the prescribed number of steps, squats, and other movements took from about 25% to 50% longer in the dream. It seems that there is a slow motion effect when carrying out dreamed motor tasks.
Based on these studies, dreams pass in real time or somewhat slowed down depending on what's happening in them. If our dream bodies are still, time is likely passing as it does when we're awake. If we're more active, time is probably slowed.
It's worth noting that more research is needed to establish these findings. The studies suffered from a small sample size. This is understandable, as it isn't easy to find large numbers of proficient lucid dreamers.
Can a Dream Feel Like Years?
Some people have claimed to have dreams that felt like years, or even a whole lifetime. This seems doubtful given that dreams probably have a maximum length of 50 minutes or an hour. Add to this the fact that the available research indicates dreams pass in real time to 50% slower and there's no way they would literally feel like years.
Some people have made a related claim of having dreams where they experienced years passing, or even a whole lifetime passing. This one I can understand, and not just because I've had similar dreams. Dreaming that your life is leaping ahead is a different sensation.
You might dream of meeting someone, getting married, having children, and your children growing up. The dream wouldn't feel like it was lasting for decades, though. You'd have the impression that a lot of time was passing, but you wouldn't feel it. You simply wouldn't notice the gaps in the same way that you don't notice lots of unusual things in dreams.
Upon awakening, you'd have the sense that the dream spanned a long time, not that it actually lasted that amount of time.
Why Did My Dream Feel So Long?
Wondering why a dream feels so long is similar to the previous question of whether a dream can feel like years.
It depends what someone means by saying it lasted a long time. If they mean the dream felt longer than other dreams, that's certainly possible. Most dreams are 5-20 minutes long. If you have one that lasts close to an hour, which is probably the upper limit, that's going to feel much longer simply because it is. Most of the dreams I remember are in this usual range, but occasionally I have one that feels like 40 minutes or more.
A dream could also feel really long because you retained the thread of the narrative through multiple scene shifts. This could make it seem like you've been to different places and done different things, which would normally take a long time. Of course, in the dream you didn't have to experience all the travel time or even complete the tasks you were engaged in.
Conversely, it would also be possible to feel that time was sped up in a dream like this. You could notice the jumps without dwelling on them, as we often fail to do when strange things happen in dreams.
My Own Perception of Dream Time
While a dreamer's perception of time is far from definitive, it seems like a reasonable thing to consider.
When I dream, I have the impression that time is passing at a normal rate. If my physical actions are taking longer than usual, I can't perceive it. I'm referring here to dreams that feel normal. Like many others, I've experienced dreams where it's hard to move, like the air is thick. The other dream characters seem normal, so it doesn't feel like a time difference, it just feels like a problem with my movement.
I've also had dreams that seemed to span a long time. I remember one where I met someone; later in the dream we were married and reminiscing. It didn't feel like it lasted months, though. I just didn't notice the time-tricks my brain was playing on me until I woke up.
So, How Do We Experience Time in Dreams?
Most likely, we experience some parts of our dreams in real time and other parts slowed down.
However, we can perceive our dreams as happening in real time, in slow motion, or sped up.
Further research should provide a more definitive answer to how time passes in dreams.