In 2018, I carried out a pilot study that aimed to investigate subjective experiences of conscious dreamless sleep. The study aimed at collecting data on a phenomenon that has been widely reported in Indian philosophical traditions as ‘witnessing-sleep’ or ‘pure awareness’. According to these traditions, and contrary to mainstream views in neuroscience, during dreamless sleep (the period of sleep in which we are not dreaming) consciousness is not lost. Instead, during this period, we maintain a particular sort of awareness that is contentless and objectless – consciousness prevails, but there is nothing to be aware of.
While these experiences have been extensively described in contemplative traditions, very few studies to date have carried out systematic and rigorous research on the phenomenology of conscious dreamless sleep. A large amount of research has been carried out by the Transcendental Meditation programme (TM; Maharishi, 1972), which coined this phenomenon as ‘witnessing-sleep’ (Alexander et al., 1990). The research done by the proponents of the TM programme gathered anecdotical reports of a peculiar sort of consciousness maintained during deep sleep. According to the individuals experiencing it, this state is compared to a higher state of consciousness similar to that one reached during transcendental meditation practice.
The specific goal of the study was to gather new reports of experiences similar to those ones reported in Indian philosophical traditions – experiences of bare awareness during dreamless sleep and nothing else – and examine the phenomenological profile of these experiences. For this purpose, five participants reporting similar experiences to that of ‘witnessing-sleep’ were interviewed following the Micro-phenomenological Interview method (MPI; Petitmengin, 2006).
All participants reported an experience in which there was no scenery and no dream but still preserved some phenomenology. This period labelled as ‘No Scenery/Void’ was either preceded by the dissolution of a lucid dream or by an experience of other forms of dreamless sleep. The analysis of the results presents four experiential dimensions that were common for all subjects during this phase, namely (1) Perception of absence, (2) Self-perception, (3) Perception of emotions, and (4) Perception of awareness
A paper on this study is currently under review. In the meantime, you can email me for more information about it. Besides, you can check some of the talks in which I’ve presented the results of this study.