Dreaming Up High


Recently, my dad and I went to Sun Valley, Idaho for a ski trip. Both of us, every night that we were there, had extremely vivid dreams.  Vivid dreams and poor sleep at high altitudes are somethings that are frequently reported by mountain climbers (Thompson, 2007). What is it about high altitudes that cause such vivid dreams?

At high altitudes the air is thinner and less oxygenated and periodic breathing occurs. Periodic breathing is the alternating of deep and shallow breathing, or even a complete pause in breathing following deep breathing (Thompson, 2007). This alternation of breathing patterns contributes to the insufficient amount of oxygen that already exists at high altitude, causing bodily tissues to receive less oxygen than normal and affecting both breathing and sleeping. More specifically, it causes one to experience a decrease in sleep efficiency, reduced total sleep time, slow wave sleep and REM sleep (Lemos et al, 2012). The reduced slow wave and REM sleep may be what causes the vivid dreams, but how this happens remains unanswered.

During slow wave sleep a person is in their deepest sleep and their brain slows, becoming less responsive to external stimuli, while during REM sleep a person is dreaming (Harvard Medical School, 2007). Many people are able to better recall their dreams when they awake from REM sleep; it is like they are waking up in the middle of a dream so the dream is readily available to their consciousness. It is possible that at higher altitudes the cycles of sleep happen quicker so we are more likely to wake up during a bout of REM sleep, and therefore more likely to recall our dream. It could also be that the decreased oxygen levels somehow affect our dream recall, making dreams seem more vivid. Even another possibility is that the decreased amount of slow wave sleep, proposed to have the function of consolidating memories from the day, leads the brain to try to make-up for that loss of consolidation through vivid, realistic, dreams. Any of these ideas could be the reason that dreams are reported as more vivid at high altitudes, but these ideas are simply ideas and need to be investigated for their validity.



Lemos, V. A., Antunes, H. K., Santos, R. V., Lira, F. S., Tufik, S., & Mello, M. T. (2012). High altitude exposure impairs sleep patterns, mood, and cognitive functions. Psychophysiology, 49(9), 1298-1306.

Natural Patterns of Sleep. (2007, December 18). Healthy Sleep. http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/science/what/sleep-patterns-rem-nrem.

Thompson, A. R. Sleep at High Altitude. Altitude.org. from http://www.altitude.org/sleep_at_high_altitude.php.

4 thoughts on “Dreaming Up High

  1. This is really interesting that the environment can have an effect on sleep. I also found it interesting that in REM sleep the brain is very active. A few times this year I have woken up in the middle of the night to very weird experiences. I would wake up and my brain would be going through spanish and chemistry, all subjects I was studying, in a completely illogical way. It would go straight from spanish things I don’t even understand to chemical equations that made no sense to me. One time it even was trying to calculate how to balance the pH of my stomach, I do not know why. It would make sense that I woke up in REM sleep to feel this happening, but what would make me wake up in REM sleep when I was not at a high altitude?


  2. I find this article very interesting, that our dreams, and the memory of them can be so greatly affected by our oxygen balance or other factors as a result of our environment. I frequently wake up in the middle of a dream and find myself extremely disoriented. It takes me a few minutes to decipher what is real and what is not. It had never occurred to me that my overly dream-filled sleep could be a result of the environment I’m in and not simply the amount of stress or exhaustion I have. This article makes me wonder about lucid dreaming. Is lucid dreaming a result of a person being consciously asleep or partially awake? Can this be affected by our environment and will the altitude or oxygen levels affect not just our memory of dreams but our consciousness throughout them? I think that would be interesting further research!


  3. I really liked this post, as sleep and dreaming is something we can all relate to. Like Erin and Bridgette brought up in their comments, I too have had the experience of waking in from a vivid dream, disoriented and confused for a few seconds. It is really interesting to think about the factors that can influence our dreams and sleep stages, and I never knew that environmental factors, such as high altitudes, could cause a disruption. I am really curious about what actually causes the vivid dreams at high altitudes, as more investigation is needed to identify the reason. I found the potential reasons to be interesting, such as the proposition that higher altitudes make our sleep cycles go quicker, making it more likely that we would wake up during REM sleep and thus remember the dream better.


  4. I believe that your vivid dreams, were caused by your body producing and releasing amounts of N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is an incredibly powerful hallucinogen, the primary ingredient in Ayahuasca. It is also the chemical that a womens brains releases (in a cocktail with oxytocin) directly after childbirth, and also our bodies dump it at the moment we die (which understanding this phenomena and the effects of DMT makes for a very interesting conversation).

    Science has shown us that when our blood O2 saturation stat gets into the low 60% range, DMT is ‘released’ into our system.

    General and Epi Genetics have a large part to play in the markers and intensity of each person’s experience.

    I personally believe that as our O2 stats drop, the DMT secretions increase, as to say that the experience is intensified relative to the blood oxygenation level decrease.

    Also, understanding the stages of our circadian rhythms could add insight into your query.

    So you can understand that, the combination of altitude, periodic breathing, physiological stresses, genetic expression, etc would all contribute to the effects and intensity for you and your father.


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