March 8, 2012 at 10:48 AM ET
In the new TV series “Awake,” a detective, his wife, and son, suffer a severe car crash. The detective wakes up. But he seems to live in two realities: In one, his wife is dead and his son lives. In the other, his son is dead and his wife lives. Psychiatrists in each reality tell him the opposite existence is a dream. Yet clues from these parallel lives leak into crime investigations, helping the detective solve them.
But could any such thing happen in real life?
“My first suggestion is that the person who wrote this needs to get some counseling,” offered University of Florida neurologist Dr. Kenneth Heilman.
That would be a “no.” But similar phenomenon do occur.
Heilman himself has a personal experience with something like it. When his mother was in the hospital after a severe heart attack that had restricted blood flow to her brain, she’d sometimes comment that she couldn’t tell if she was dreaming or was awake.
And he once had a patient with viral encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain, who said the same thing. Dreaming and waking life had become conflated.
Of course, all of us experience this phenomenon when we sleep and dream. In many, maybe most, dreams, we think what we’re experiencing is real because, as Heilman likes to describe it, we’ve engaged the clutch when sleeping and disconnected our reasoning, centered in the frontal cortices.
“That’s why, in the middle of a dream, you don’t think ‘OK, I can’t be hanging on to the top of a double decker bus feeling quite excited but not afraid as the bus charges around Edinburgh,” explained University of Cambridge professor Sue Llewellyn.
We also can have “lucid dreams,” those dreams that occur, often just before we wake, when our reasoning centers in the frontal lobes began to reengage. We’re asleep, and dreaming, but slightly aware. Also, drugs like LSD can induce hallucinations that blur the boundaries between dream and reality.
Damage to the centers of reasoning and sensory input can create a variety of delusions. Reduplicative paramnesia, for example, was named in 1975 (though it was known as early as 1903) when a doctor realized that a few patients insisted, incorrectly, that the hospital was actually located at another location. Today it’s the insistence by suffers that places, people or events have been duplicated. Parkinson’s disease and strokes can cause the frontal brain lesions that lead to this syndrome, but so can severe trauma.
Like a car accident.