Falling asleep, falling in love, falls off buildings, tripping and falling, falls from innocence, falls from grace, rain, leaves, Icarus, Adam and Eve, and Humpty Dumpty — falls captivate our greatest fears and our flights of imagination.
NY-based “therapist for creatives” Melissa Daum, LMFT, draws from ancient symbols, Greek mythology, fairy tales, and alchemy to shed light on modern-day conundrums. This realm of feminine magic and symbolism is easily overlooked, on a cultural level and in turn, within ourselves. In an effort to better identify and explain some of this magic, Melissa wants to field questions from YOU! Feel free to share with her your deepest secrets, strangest dreams, most absurd single behavior.
SEND YOUR QUESTIONS/DREAMS/SECRETS to: email@example.com
This week’s question comes from M:
I often have a recurring dream, and I’m not really sure what it means besides that it kinda freaks me out! A little bit about myself: I’m 14, in school, play lots of sports. For a while I’ve been having a interesting dream… It starts out black. I’m wandering around, not knowing what’s going on. Then suddenly I’m on top of a pretty tall building, jumping off and, right before I hit the ground ,I wake up. But the thing that really freaks me out is how everything is always the same. The same darkness, building, little people, trees, and cars moving around in the slight breeze. The dream also ends the same, waking up very confused and not understanding what really happened or what it meant.
This dream really confuses me, and I would really appreciate your help.
It sounds to me like you’re doing the hypnic jerk! What sounds like a retro dance move is actually a completely normal and benign sleep disturbance. It usually occurs as you’re drifting off to sleep, literally falling asleep. Whenever it happens to me I’m always tripping on the sidewalk…relatively uneventful compared to your jumping off a tall building! You mentioned you play lots of sports; sometimes hypnic jerks can occur more frequently if you are physically active in the evenings. Caffeine and anxiety can also exacerbate them, yet they also occur in perfectly healthy individuals.
So why does this happen? Like many other of our nocturnal experiences, the research is only speculative. Sleeping and dreaming still contain mysteries that evade scientific understanding, not unlike the deep sea or outer space. It is widely accepted that dreams play an important role in the survival of the fittest in human evolution. Most of our dreams illustrate anxieties, which is highly adaptive if you think about dreams as rehearsals for waking life. Imagine a tribe member waking up startled from a typical dream, like being naked or chased. He or she will likely assure extra-preparedness for the following day’s excursions, and even communicate about this to the rest of the tribe, thereby securing greater chances of success and survival.
In this same vein, hypnic jerks are also thought to be archaic reflexes that helped with survival of the species. Paleoneuropsychologist (yes, that’s a thing) Frederick Coolidge, along with archeologist Thomas Wynn, are leading the research on human brain evolution. They noted that primates almost always incur a hypnic jerk upon falling asleep. Thus, they hypothesized that, for tree-sleeping primates, the hypnic jerk could be either a signal of actually falling out of a tree, or a signal to wake prior to deep sleep to adjust to a more secure sleeping position. So for our own tree-sleeping primate ancestors, life depended on the hypnic jerk! Today, what remains is perhaps a misinterpretation of the quickening relaxation that occurs in Stage 1 of sleep, and it triggers the same jerking response as if we were falling out of a tree.
Falling asleep, falling in love, falls off buildings, tripping and falling, falls from innocence, falls from grace, rain, leaves, Icarus, Adam and Eve, and Humpty Dumpty — falls captivate our greatest fears and our flights of imagination. From our pre homo erectus days over two million years ago, to a modern day high schooler like you, M, the law of gravity is a thread that binds us together. So perhaps the next time you take a nocturnal plunge off a building, you can delight as you hit the ground — not on the dangerous forest floor, but in the safety of your bed.
 Coolidge, F. L., & Wynn, T. (2009). The First Major Leap in Cognition: The Tree-to-Ground Sleep Transition. The Rise Of Homo Sapiens, 128-150. doi:10.1002/9781444308297.ch8