He who sleeps worse but dreams more is someone who plays video games.
According to some research, video games also affect our sleep habits and dreams. Let’s see what an expert on the subject thinks about this suggestion.
Have you ever dug into the skin of your favorite video game character in your dream and acquired skills that have made you invincible? Research shows that video games can affect our sleep and even positively affect our dreams. Although early assumptions suggest that gamers ’sleep habits differ significantly from those of a person not playing video games, studies have not revealed drastic differences. In contrast, researchers have shed light on the fact that players are more likely to encounter the experience of a conscious dream and take up the fight against nightmares more easily.
The physiology of sleep
The evolutionary function of sleep is still surrounded by conjecture, but we know that its lack impairs our performance, reduces the resilience of the immune system, and negatively affects our attentional capacity. In the initial stages of sleep, the activity of brain waves slows down, the number of breaths decreases, and the body’s energy balance is restored. This stage is called NREM, or slow-wave sleep. This is followed by the REM (rapid eye movement) phase, during which we show strong brain activity. Breathing becomes more irregular, heart rate rises, and rapid eye movements are made in all directions. Most dreams are born at this stage, when areas of the brain that play a significant role in learning and thinking are activated.
The study of the physiological effects of playing immediately before falling asleep is interesting in several respects. On the one hand, previous research has revealed that video games increase player activity, which is also seen in the increase in respiration and heart rate, a condition that contrasts with the physiological processes experienced in the early stages of sleep. On the other hand, brain imaging procedures have shown that play also involves cognitive effort, especially during action-packed scenes, which may be associated with reorganization of sleep patterns, i.e., alternation of the NREM and REM phases.
Sleep research with gamers
Early studies mostly aimed to explore the negative consequences of direct play before falling asleep. In doing so, it was reassured that young players would later retire, sleep less, and feel more tired during the day than those who did not play video games. However, research by Edward Weaver and colleagues has revealed that these negative consequences are far from as drastic as previously thought. Their study was conducted with adolescent boys who reported “owl” -type sleeping habits. Owl-type individuals typically go to sleep late, get up late, and often have difficulty waking up. Participants were divided into two groups: one group played Call of Duty: Modern Warfare for 50 minutes on a PlayStation 3 game console, while the other group watched The Penguins Wander for the same amount of time before falling asleep. The researchers found that teenagers playing video games had a harder time falling asleep after turning off the lights than viewers of the film, many of whom dozed off during the film. The playful subjects also showed cognitive alertness, but this state of standby had no effect on the time between turning off the lamp and falling asleep, nor on physical alertness (e.g., heart rate, respiration). However, no differences were found in the sleep patterns of the two groups.
Another study measured the effect of long playing time before sleep in two groups of adolescent boys. One group played with Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine for 50 minutes and the other 150 minutes before falling asleep. The results showed that adolescents who played longer slept harder, slept less, and reported poorer sleep quality than players who played less before falling asleep. It is also an interesting result that adolescents who were able to play for 50 minutes were more dissatisfied with the length of play than those who were able to play for 150 minutes. However, the length of the NREM and REM phases did not differ between the two groups here either. The research pointed out that long playing time before sleep may have a more negative effect on a player’s sleep quality.
According to another survey, video games are not one of the entertainment media responsible for restful sleep: nearly a quarter of 7th and 10th grade students who used it used video games to fall asleep, but this did not prove to be an appropriate strategy, as they slept less and felt more tired during the day. This connection has also been explored in connection with watching TV and listening to music.
A gamer’s dream diary
According to dream researcher Jayne Gackenbach, the common feature of dreams and video games is that they both lead us to alternative realities, but while dreams are generated biologically by the human brain, video games reach us through technical means. In an early study, the researcher found that gamers were more likely to report conscious dreams in which they realized at one point that they were actually just dreaming. In addition, they experienced an out-of-body experience in their dreams more often, scanning themselves as an outside observer, and taking control of the events in their dreams than those who did not often play video games. According to psychologist Antti Revonsuo, in some of our dreams we find ourselves in threatening situations because it allows us to prepare for their appearance in real life in a safe environment. In a 2008 study, Gackenbach tested Revonsuo’s theory on players and found that players reported fewer threatening experiences in their dream diary, moreover, they themselves posed a threat to their dream environment.
Gackenbach’s research also revealed that gamers are more resistant to nightmares, but could only justify the observation in the case of male gamers. The researcher attributes this to the male-centered gaming environment and the fact that female players are more likely to show a fear reaction in real-life emergencies rather than immediate, active combat. According to Gackenbach, the effective combat of male gamers against nightmares may be rooted in the fact that the heroes of video games serve as role models for them, who bravely take up the fight against the enemy and never back down. Due to this, gamers are not so disturbed by nightmares and often do not even wake up to a creepy dream image, as opposed to those who do not play video games regularly.
Gackenbach’s research has drawn attention to the fact that video games can also have a positive effect on sleep quality, and the negative consequences previously identified are not as dramatic as assumed. If the player pays enough attention to playing time and their own need for sleep, video games can also be a protective factor against unwanted dream content, while enriching their imagination with experiences that help them develop their real-life skills.
The article was written by Ágnes Zsila, a psychologist, writer and PhD student at the Doctoral School of Psychology at Eötvös Loránd University, who is an active participant in the research group of Prof. Zsolt Demetrovics.
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