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Dear Matt:

Have you ever been told that while dreaming, if you die, you will also die in real life? I have never been able to test this theory, because if I am close to an astral death, I will always wake up just before it actually happens. My good sense tells me there is no truth to this fable, but is there? And where did this come from in the first place?

-- Dreaming in North Park

You sound disappointed that you can't test the theory. But if I recall correctly from science class, the only reason to test a theory is to prove you're right so you can brag about it, then write a journal article and get tenure. In your case, proof of the old wives' tale would spoil all the fun, correct? It's certainly possible to die in your sleep, but to be killed by a dream -- well, I don't know that it's been documented. It's hard enough to conduct reliable dream research on subjects who survive the night. Getting data from a corpse would raise insurmountable barriers and undoubtedly require a larger grant. Dreaming, even now, is such an intangible subject that it's like a Petri dish for propagating old wives' tales.

Because there is a connection between our dreaming brains and our lower brains, the part that controls vital basic life functions, dream content can trigger the same physiological reactions we might have in a waking state. Sheer terror usually gets our attention, under any circumstances. Nightmares are bad dreams we have during deep REM sleep; night terrors, the things that wake us up thrashing and yelling, occur during lighter sleep or half-waking states and are the ones that we're more likely to remember. Thrashing and yelling will wake us up, even if it's just so we can figure out who's doing all that thrashing and yelling.

Notes from the Other Side

From Tom Saladino in San Diego comes a note in response to our answer about whether you die in real life if you die in a dream. Our questioner said she always woke up just before the fatal moment, so she couldn't prove it one way or the other. We patted her on the head and sent her on her way, saying not to worry, though there are definite problems in gathering data from people who die in their sleep. Can't get them to answer a questionnaire describing the circumstances. But if we can't prove that dream death can do you in, Tom can testify for the survivors. "I have occasionally had dreams in which I have died.... Most recently I dreamt I was playing around on some train tracks with some old childhood friends. I saw the train coming but was unable to get out of the way in time. I got hit and died. My dream just continued on as if nothing unusual had happened, and I watched as my horrified friends tried to revive me. This didn't seem at all odd while I was dreaming, but I have to admit it's a bit disconcerting once you wake up and lie there thinking, "What the heck was that all about?" Just thought you'd want to know."

And Tom adds that he has no particular interest in any freelance dream analysis, so save your breath.

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