You may have heard that eating cheese before bedtime brings on lucid dreams of a more fantastic nature, but now researchers believe there’s another factor that heavily influences the way we dream: the position we’re sleeping in. It turns out that the way you lie while sleeping might be having an effect on the way your mind wanders.
Matt Berical over at Van Winkle looks at a couple of studies that suggest the way we sleep influences the way we dream. The first was published in the journal Sleep and Hypnosis back in 2004, and involved 63 volunteers who were asked to sleep either on their left side or their right side. They were then asked to fill out a sleep quality survey upon waking. The survey covered dreams and nightmares, their vividness, and how the participants felt in the morning.
The researchers found that the left side group were far more likely to have nightmares. They report that 40.9 percent of the volunteers reported having disturbing dreams, compared with just 14.6 percent of those who slept on their right-hand side. The right side group were more likely to remember dreams involving feelings of relief or safety, but they also reported lower quality sleep overall.
While the study had its limitations – a small sample size and self-reported results – it does indicate that there could be a difference in dreaming depending on how we’re lying in bed.
“Our preliminary observations indicate that dreaming and sleep quality are associated with underlying brain functions and may be affected by body posture,” concluded the researchers. “Future research also needs to show how individuals who are skillful in controlling their dreams by hypnotic manipulations or lucid dreaming change their dream process by intentionally changing their posture.”
Though stomach sleepers are in the minority, they seem to be having the most erotic dreams. In fact, a study published in the journal Dreaming found that switching to your stomach might be better than reading Fifty Shades of Grey.
Lead researcher Calvin Kai-Ching Yu, PhD, says that physical pressure on the body when sleeping facedown could be the reason for the erotic dreams. “Different sleep positions may create pressure to different parts of the body, and body feelings may be the sources of dream elements,” says Yu.
Then there’s the 2012 study carried out by researchers from Hong Shue Yan University in Hong Kong. They looked at the habits and sleeping positions of 670 adults and found that those who slept face down had the most vivid dreams: ones involving UFO sightings, love affairs, being locked up, being unable to breathe, or having a sexual relationship with someone famous.
“This effect cannot be fully explained by personality factors, which are merely weakly associated with sleep position,” concluded researcher Calvin Kai-Ching Yu, suggesting that sleeping position does indeed influence dreaming. There’s also some evidence, albeit anecdotal, that sleeping at an incline makes dreams more vivid – the thinking goes that we’re closer to wakefulness when we’re closer to the standing position.
No conclusive proof at this stage then, but certainly something to think about the next time you go to bed. If you’re in the mood for a vivid dream (or nightmare), try sleeping face down or on your left side – but don’t say we didn’t warn you.
How Sleep Positions Influence Dreams (and Nightmares)
Yu believes that if you change your sleep position, your dreams will change too, but he doesn’t recommend it. Sleeping in an unfamiliar or unnatural sleep position interferes with the quality of your sleep. You may pay a high price in the morning for sexier dreams at night.
Each sleep position can influence your dreams — for better or worse — and your overall sleep.
On your side. Sleeping laterally is the most common sleep position. Studies have found that right-side sleepers experienced more positive dreams and fewer nightmares than left-side sleepers.
For people with heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), doctors say the left side is best. “GERD is a frequent cause of sleeplessness and could affect dream content,” explains Breus. “Sleeping on the left side keeps your stomach below your esophagus, and gravity may help with reflux. Sleeping on your right side may cause you to dream of swallowing or burning.”
On your back. Sleeping supine, or on your back, may lead to lower back pain, and it could cause other problems that may alter your dreams. The face-up position may lead to snoring, encourage sleep apnea, and interfere with restful sleep.
“Studies have shown that people who sleep on their backs experience more nightmares and find it harder to remember their dreams,” says Yu. “Breathing-related sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, have been found to have significant impacts on the intensity of dreaming.”
On your stomach. Despite the reports of erotic dreams, “you should avoid sleeping face down with your face against the pillow,” says Yu. People who sleep on their stomachs report increased restlessness caused by frequent tossing and turning to get comfortable. Sleeping prone, on your stomach, may also put strain on your lower back and cause neck pain.
Multiple positions. Many people sleep in more than one position, changing positions during the night. Of the 670 Shue Yan University students surveyed, 194 reported sleeping in two or more positions with a similar frequency. The sleep position you find yourself in when you wake up could be the one that’s influencing your dreams. Dreams usually happen during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when the brain is very active. REM sleep occurs three to four times a night, and the final stint of REM sleep, when dreams are most vivid, takes place late in the sleep cycle, usually in the morning before you wake up.
Yu says more research on sleep position and dreams needs to be done. The students in his study weren’t monitored as they slept; they filled out surveys about their dreams after they woke up, and he says that “the accuracy of self-reported sleep positions is uncertain.” Outside influences also can have a major effect on dreams, he adds. So, before you flip over, keep in mind it could just be that scary movie, spicy Chinese food, or rattling window that’s causing your unusual dreams.