Thinking and hallucinating: Reciprocal changes in sleep


  • We thank Matthew Walker and the anonymous reviewers for commenting upon drafts of this article. The research was supported by the N.I.H. (NIMH MH48,832).

Address reprint requests to: Roar Fosse, Department of Psychology, University of Oslo, Box 1094 Blindern, 037 Oslo, Norway. E-mail:


Internal deliberations (focused thoughts) and endogenous percepts (hallucinations) vary in a reciprocal manner across the states of waking and sleep, paralleling changes in regional brain activation. As subjects go from waking through sleep onset to NREM sleep and then to REM sleep, they report progressively more hallucinoid imagery and progressively less thinking. We have investigated whether this reciprocity in cognition between NREM and REM is maintained throughout the night. To do so, we analyzed 229 REM and 165 NREM reports collected with the Nightcap sleep monitoring system from 16 participants in their homes over 14 nights. The reports were scored for the presence of hallucinations and directed thinking by external judges. As predicted, hallucinations were more frequent in REM than in NREM for each segment of the night, and directed thinking was more frequent in NREM in the first 5 h of the night. Late in the night, directed thinking was equally infrequent in NREM and REM. At the same time, hallucinations increased within both NREM and REM as the night progressed, whereas directed thinking decreased in NREM and remained at a stable, low level in REM. These findings suggest that a reciprocal shift in focused thinking and hallucinating is a general property of cognitive activity across the wake–sleep cycle. Biological evidence supports the hypothesis that these cognitive changes are governed by specific state regulatory and neurocognitive processes at several levels of the brain.