Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake. - Henry David Thoreau
Zombies are all the rage for some reason. A brain dead Principal Skinner recently wrecked havoc on The Simpson's Springfield, and they've even had had their mindless, flesh-eating way with the Bennett girls from Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice .
If they haven't shuffled their way into your neighborhood yet, don't worry, because it turns out we've all got a little zombie in us, with the potential to walk around while our brain's still dreaming.
Scientists really don't know know much about why we sleep so much or what dreaming is all about. However, because sleeping test subjects are pretty easy to work with, there's lots of studies of how brain waves behave in the sleeping/dreaming brain. And, surprise, those EEG readings show that there is a distinct difference in brain waves of sleeping patients and those who are awake.
It turns out the EEGs didn't tell the whole story. For instance, they didn't describe the nightmarish scenario researchers discovered while studying two patients in Italy suffering from a neurodegenerative disorder called multiple system atrophy. These guys never truly slept. :
"They might lie down and close their eyes, but read-outs of brain activity showed none of the normal patterns associated with sleep. Their behaviour was pretty odd, too. Though largely unaware of their surroundings during these rest periods, they would walk around, yell, tremble violently and their hearts would race. The remainder of the time they were conscious and aware but prone to powerful, dream-like hallucinations....the disease had damaged the pair's brains to such an extent that they had entered status dissociatus, a kind of twilight zone in which the boundaries between sleep and wakefulness completely break down."
I'd call what those Italians suffered from The Full Zombie, but New Scientist also interviewed Mark Mahowald, medical director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center in Minneapolis, who described variations of "status dissociatus" that can happen to us all. He told of a less extreme sleep/waking confusion known to doctors as sleep inertia, the grogginess some people get after their alarm clock goes off (or Monday Morning Zombie). It is as if they are socially awake but functionally asleep.
Mahowald has a list of disorders that can be explained as a breakdown in the boundaries between sleep and wakefulness including:
Mahowald says it's no coincidence that alien abductions almost always occur in the recumbent position, in the transition from wakefulness to sleep.
The New Scientist article says that those last two claims (UFOs, NDEs) are "controversial," but doesn't say to whom. In fact, UFO and paranormal researchers such as the late John Keel and Jacques Vallee have long contended that some alien abduction scenarios and weird encounters may be non-physcial in nature yet controlled by entities or phenomenon that are not residing in our heads.
For a thorough and fascinating investigation of of dreaming while awake, Bruce Deunsing at the blog Material Intangibility has a several part series on just this subject in which he speaks directly to waking REM experience:
"I recently had a conversation with a clinical psychologist that returned me back to these seemingly disconnected notes, when he told me of a technique that is utilized to induce a Waking REM State, which led me to consider reorienting myself toward this new concept. Did this have any correspondence to a yet to be discovered state found in certain observers such as those who have had alien abduction events? Could this state be induced? Most accounts have been consigned to the theory that these are hypnagogic events. I would be surprised if a certain portion of these strange encounters were not, as well as a certain proportion being aided and abetted by a fantasy prone personality. I suspect though, at the same time, that not one size fits all."