Wake Up! How Cannabis Actually Affects Dreams

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Article published by MerryJane.com
Written by Lauren Maul
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This article comes complete with a dreamy soundtrack to listen to while you read about the relationship between cannabis and dreams. To increase the vividness of the images shooting through your mind, just press “play.”

 

I’ve been lucid dreaming since childhood, so at this point I’m pretty tapped out on creating crazy dreamscapes. Now, my favorite thing about being lucid in a dream is that I’m able to be irresponsible and leave my purse at a bar and not worry about it—because it’s just a dream-purse and dream-bars are super chill. But I recently found out that most of my friends have NO IDEA what I’m talking about when I babble on about Dream Land.

“Don’t you know?” said my pal with a wistful sigh. “People who smoke weed don’t dream.”

I was shocked. “But I vape weed all the time and my dreams are so intense!” I countered.

“Maybe you’re just lucky?” she said, and then we stopped talking about my dreams because describing your dreams to someone is like explaining an improv scene you saw once. #NoOneCares

My friend’s comment and wistful sigh really bothered me. Why shouldn’t cannabis users be able to dream? Everybody dreams! It’s just that we don’t always remember what happens in Dream Land….

Basic Internet searches for “weed and dreams” seemed to agree with my dreamless friend. Many articles told me that stoners have “shorter REM cycles”—the part of your sleep where you dream—and therefore they don’t dream as much as non-stoners. People in forums also reported that when they stopped using weed their dreams got super intense and scary.

Maybe I’m biased, but I don’t want to live in a world where cannabis is capable of such things. Taking away dreams? Giving you nightmares when you stop? That’s not the Mary Jane I know. So I dug deeper into the research.

In a recent NY Mag article about crazy weed withdrawal dreams, Dr. Timothy Roehrs, a sleep expert at the Henry Ford Health System, explained that there are only “six scientific studies” that say weed shortens your REM cycle. Most of those studies are from the ’70s and ’80s—and none of them are super well-controlled. So, Roehrs and his pal, Leslie Lundahl of Wayne State University School of Medicine, decided to retest this tired old REM theory. The results aren’t yet published, but they are juicy.

As part of a larger sleep study, Roehrs and Lundahl—whom I picture as sleepier versions of the Masters of Sex duo—placed a group of heavy cannabis users in a sleep lab. Some nights they gave the stoners real weed, and on other, less fun nights they gave them placebo weed (weed with a teeny-tiny amount of THC). Turns out the REM sleep of the heavy pot-users was the same amount of time regardless of the amount of THC they consumed. They even got as much REM sleep as the non-weed-using control group. So potheads CAN dream!

But what about those weed-withdrawal nightmares the Internet told me about? Dr. Roehrs has a nice explanation. In any kind of withdrawal situation (nicotine, alcohol, etc.) sleep is disturbed, causing the sleeper to wake up during their REM cycles more frequently, which causes them to remember what they were dreaming about. It’s not that they are having new and weirder dreams, it’s that they are able to remember the dreams they’ve been having because they woke up in the middle of it. Kind of like catching the end of a weird horror movie on TV—disturbing and confusing.

More research is definitely needed into the subject of cannabis and sleep, but there is no shortage of scientific information available on lucid dreaming. Sleep scientists have recorded a ton of lucid dreaming adventures and have even documented a lady experiencing an orgasm during a lucid dream. And the International Association for the Study of Dreams exists IRL and is not just a thing I made up.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin and the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich have discovered that lucid dreams even have their own special area of the brain—the prefrontal cortex (the front of the frontal cortex), which is the region of the brain that allows us to self reflect. Scans show that this frontal area is larger in the brains of people who are lucid dreamers.

Which made me wonder…what area of the brain is affected by cannabis? It’s the frontal cortex! What a coincidence….

The German researchers now want to know whether these self-reflection skills can be trained. In a follow-up study, they intend to teach volunteers how to lucid dream, so they can see if it will improve their capabilities of self-reflection. You know what I think would really help that study? Cannabis, a plant known for enhancing meditation. Scientists, call me. I have lots of ideas.

So, if cannabis doesn’t shorten REM sleep but does affect the same area of the brain where lucid dreaming happens, it would make sense that potheads have a ton of potential to lucid dream their asses off. As of now, there are no formal studies looking at lucid dreaming and regular cannabis use. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be your own guinea pig….

When you first start trying to lucid dream it’s important to not freak out. Going into a dream scared is like going into a psychedelic trip while scared—it can lead to some spooky shit. So, relax! Consume some cannabis, get your blankets on, and as you drift off to Dream Land, tell yourself that you want to be aware in your dreams, and that you want to remember them. Keep a dream journal by your bed to jot down symbolism right when you wake up, then try to make sense of it later. This self-reflection will help you to lucid dream, just as the lucid dreams will help you to self-reflect.

You’ll find the language of your dreams is distinctly your own—dream dictionaries are nice novelties but you are the best person to interpret your own dreams.

Our dreams affect our decisions and attitudes just as much as our decisions and attitudes affect our dreams. If you believe that you’re unable to lucid dream, then you won’t lucid dream. Don’t be the Debbie Downer of dreaming. If you are open to lucid dreaming then the gates to Dream Land will open up to you, whether you use pot or not. Sweet dreams!

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