THC To REM: Marijuana’s Effect On Dreams
After a night of heavy toking, your head hits the pillow and drifts into an oddly uneventful sleep, unburdened by the strange visions we call dreams. Conversely, after you’ve taken a break from cannabis for a few nights, you may experience a surplus of vivid dreams, as though they were making up for lost time. And in fact, they might be.
Cannabis has a complex effect upon the human mind, but its effect on dreaming seems particularly consistent, with many frequent cannabis users experiencing such a phenomenon as prior mentioned. There is an explanation, and it begins with the ways in which cannabis alters our sleep cycle.
Cannabis and the Sleep Cycle
Our brains experience sleep in four stages, spending the most time in stages known as deep, or slow wave and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Most dreams occur during REM sleep, when the brain is most active, working to create the images and narratives that make up most dreams. Deep sleep, on the other hand, is when our minds are most rested and we’re least likely to be roused by the world.
One study, published in Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics, compared the sleep cycles of frequent smokers, with one group receiving regular doses of THC and the other, a placebo. The THC group had noticeably reduced levels of REM sleep, while the placebo group reported much higher REM activity.
It’s worth noting that this study, like others on the subject, focuses exclusively on THC, ignoring other compounds in marijuana that may affect REM sleep in other ways—CBD, for example, has been found to increase wakefulness in users when combined with the more sedative effects of THC.
Nonetheless, the THC in cannabis has been found to increase the amount of time our bodies spend in deep sleep, which in turn reduces time spent in REM sleep, when dreams occur. In contrast, the placebo group experienced what is called a REM rebound, likely the body’s way of catching up on REM sleep it missed.
These dream-heavy rebounds typically start within 72 hours after quitting and last for as long as seven weeks. Similar rebounds occur upon withdrawal from other drugs known to interfere with sleep, including alcohol, cocaine and certain sleep medications.
So what does it all mean?
THC’s interruption of the usual sleep cycle might not be such a bad thing, as a lack of REM sleep and a surplus of deep sleep have both been tied to more restful, higher quality sleep—which may explain why cannabis is such a valuable tool in treating sleep disorders.
The question that remains is whether or not long-term deprivation of REM sleep results in negative effects, aside from putting our usual dreams on hold? In truth, it’s impossible to say. The rebound effect upon withdrawal suggests that REM sleep is necessary, but scientists have yet to figure out why, just as they have yet to figure out why we dream in the first place.
In summation, the anecdotal experience of most stoners holds true in scientific observation as well: cannabis use limits the time we spend dreaming, until we quit for even a few days. Due to our limited scientific understanding of sleep and dreams, the only obvious effects of these shifts in sleep patterns are personal—you might miss your dreams while smoking or be disturbed by their resurgence after you quit, but as far as anyone can tell, that’s about it.
Why do we dream?
Scientists still don’t know what purpose, if any, our dreams serve. Theories for this fundamental mystery of the mind abound. Among the most credible are:
1. The Psychoanalytical Theory: This approach, first outlined by Sigmund Freud, posits dreams as coded expressions of our unconscious mind’s deepest fears and desires. Thus, all dreams are made up of manifested content—the images and ideas that actually make up the dream reflect the person’s thoughts and emotions.
2. The Information Processing Theory: This theory suggests that we sleep, in part, to give our brains the time they need to consolidate and organize all the new information gathered in the previous day. Dreams, then, are either a byproduct or an integral part of this information processing.
3. The Activation-Synthesis Theory: In 1977, J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley proposed that dreams are simply our brain’s way of interpreting random signals that become active during REM sleep. This interpretation suggests the only real purpose of dreams is to occasionally inspire new ideas amidst randomness.