Sundowning, and Daydreams vs. Hallucinations

Recently, I read The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey. It’s a great book, and it emphasizes managing your time, attention, and energy. One of my key takeaways was to stop fighting my natural sleep patterns, to shift my schedule, and go to bed and wake up a little later, like my body wanted. 

However, this meant sacrificing the hour of writing I had scheduled early in the morning, before brunch with my wife. This didn’t feel like a huge loss, though. I frequently didn’t get much done in that hour, when my body wanted to be asleep. I had to fight for every word, and it wasn’t actually when most of my writing happened. 

So, I looked to reschedule my official writing time according to the book’s principles, figuring out when my energy naturally peaked. Except I realized that I didn’t want to write at that time. I wanted to write when I had less energy, when the daydreams that fuel my fiction are sleepier, more like full dreams. I wanted to write at night, perhaps right before the daily dose of my antipsychotic, when its concentration in my body would theoretically be lowest. But not in the morning, too tired to get words down at all—which also sometimes happened at night—when my daydreams were too hazy, not vividly dreamlike. 

I ended up not structuring my writing time via strict daily timeblocking at all, for now preferring the flexibility of a monthly goal, the ability to separate sleepy, creative, psychotic daydreaming/brainstorming with pen loosely in hand and the part where I actually get coherent paragraph after paragraph down on paper. But it was an interesting observation. 

I more recently started reading another book: Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks. From that, I learned about sundowning—a behavioral phenomenon that occurs in people with Alzheimer’s and other conditions. It involves symptoms of confusion and distress that start around sunset and continue through the night. It can also cause hallucinations and occur in people with psychosis. 

I found that interesting, as someone who had recently expressed a preference for at least brainstorming at night—because my semipsychotic daydreams ranged closer to full psychosis at that time. Even more so than in the morning, when my daydreams didn’t seem to have the same grip despite my initial theory of low energy being the important part. I also pondered the stereotype that writers are night owls. 

Additionally, I’ve long struggled with determining what my daydreams are. Just a bit of creative type syndrome? Maladaptive daydreaming? Part of my actual psychosis? I’ve had a lot of creative type friends, though, and my daydreams don’t work like theirs do, much more all consuming; reality goes away entirely, not picture in picture. They fit well into the maladaptive daydreaming category, but I still feel like they go a step further; I don’t only struggle to control compulsively slipping into daydreams, but the contents of them also slip out of my grasp. Thus I have always defined them as semipsychotic, though they also don’t fit the way I describe my more typical hallucinations. 

But in reading Hallucinations, I stumbled across something else: the difference in eye movements between seeing, normal and maladaptive daydreams, hallucinations, and dreams. While your eyes tend to scan real areas and track real motion, most people’s eyes go still—glaze over, zone out, if you will—when they are visualizing or daydreaming, unless maybe it’s something very dynamic, or if it’s scanning a visualization of certain kinds of information. In maladaptive daydreaming, this is also common, though some people sometimes truly act out the daydream, usually reserved for private situations. The eyes move—while eyelids are closed—when dreaming, during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep (current research suggests this is part of processing new/changing imagery, not scanning visuals in dreams). 

When hallucinating, the eyes often move as if seeing something real. This has been studied a lot in terms of Charles Bonnet syndrome (visual hallucinations connected to loss of vision), as it has interesting implications about the difference—or lack thereof—in seeing versus perceiving

So I tried a few informal experiments. I asked around, watching as others visualized/daydreamed, and asking what they saw when I did, and a few times, I sat in my office, left a recording Zoom meeting with just me in it open on my laptop in front of me, and sank into my daydreams, then watched the recordings and what my eyes did. 

While I had no dramatic behaviors to note—I didn’t fully act out the dream, and didn’t do anything consciously—my eyes, always open, definitely moved. Remembering what I’d been daydreaming about, I noted that they sometimes tracked motion within the daydream, from roughly the perspective of the point of view character (all in third person, but kind of flipping back and forth at times the way the camera does in a movie)—following a character scrambling away in a chase. Or, my eyes acted out the way the observed character’s eyes darted back and forth looking for a way to escape. Different bits. 

But this helped confirm for me that my daydreams might go a bit beyond, and I was clearly able to observe that they did so more at night, in a way that made sense as a form of sundowning (among other evening symptoms—a heavier leaning towards more typical hallucinations, mood symptoms, dissociation, PTSD flashbacks, hypervigilance, the negative symptoms of schizophrenia, catatonia).  

It can be very beneficial, validating, to find the word for something, a more objective way to look at it, to find out that other people do it, too, even for phenomena I had already casually observed. 

So, I was glad to come across these things. 

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