I’ve been a participant in the Synesthesia List for several years, and I intermittently engage with the queries posted by this global community of synaesthetes, lead by international expert and IASAS President Dr. Sean A Day. Experiencing synaesthesia in one’s dreams is a topic that returns for discussion occasionally on the Synesthesia List. In the past, I have not participated in these dialogues, as I had no specific recollections of “synning” in my sleep. But last night I had two instances of dreamstate synaesthesia, both of which were a little frightening and strangely lovely, both clear in my consciousness upon waking.
My allergies have been unruly this autumn. It’s been warm and dry in San Francisco, which means not only plenty of particulates in the air, but exceptional sunsets as well. With these atmospheric conditions, my two JRT pups are bringing plenty of dust and pollen into the house on their coats. My smoothie Jack Russell “Iris” likes to perch on my pillow, which makes me prone to a stuffy nose and itchy eyes at night. I can get a little wheezy too; last night I had to get out of bed and use my albuterol inhaler to calm my lungs before I drifted to sleep
Sometime in the night, I dreamt that I was about to sneeze. The tickling sensation in the nasal passages that one experiences just before sneezing overtook my dream; at the same instant, I saw a three-dimensional geometric image directly in my field of vision, saturated in shades of pink, gold, and green. In my dreamstate, this visual phantasm was my sneeze; there was no distinction between the tactile/embodied sensation of my itchy nose and the visual projection. This form constant, expanded and vibrated to the rhythm of my inhalations and exhalations, and its luminance increased the itchier my nose became.
I didn’t actually sneeze in my sleep last night. In neurotypical brains one will wake before sneezing, as when we dream, neurotransmitters shut down our motor neurons creating REM atonia, and the inability to physically act out our unconscious experiences. The motor neurons related sneezing aren’t getting stimulated, so they do not send motor signals to the brain. Thus, no dream sneezes.
But I have sneezed in my sleep, and I do frequently break through my REM atonia. I did that yesterday as well. In my dreams last night, I heard people talking on the street in front of my home. Realistically, there likely were people chatting as there’s an Irish pub less than a block from my home, and I might have overheard a sidewalk conversation as folks departed The Four Deuces and walked up Taraval Street. I don’t remember their words, but I do remember dreaming that my partner Timothy asked me “Can you hear those people?”. I struggled to answer him, acutely aware that I was asleep and awake at the same time, and that I could not move. I desperately wanted to wake up and to answer his question, but my body was buzzing with the strange parasthesias that come with my experience of sleep paralysis. So I struggled to say “yes”, that I did indeed hear people out on the street. My field of vision became saturated with the yellow hue that matches my lexeme->color synaesthesia for the word “yes”. The more I tried to speak, the more vibrant the haze of yellow in front of me became. Finally, I broke though my atonia and mumbled “yes”, my voice oddly sluggish and so alarming in its droning quality, it brought me to full wakefulness.
I suspect I have narcolepsy, with its attendant hypnogogic hallucinations in the shape of form constants, sleep paralysis, and other parasomnias. Interestingly, there are neuroscientists who hypothesize that both synaesthesia and narcolepsy have autoimmune origins. I already have one bona-fide autoimmune condition, my allergies to latex, some molds, and many pollens. I will be working toward a diagnosis for my sleep issues over the next few weeks, including the Multiple Sleep Latency Test. I do hope for less interrupted sleep over the course of treatment for narcolepsy, if that condition is indeed my issue. But, I also hope that narcolepsy therapy won’t mitigate my surreal and oddly beautiful moments of synning in my sleep.