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Inspired by Can we use science to explain a creature that feeds on emotion?

I was wondering if we can somehow use science to explain how a creature that devours dreams and nightmares might have came about.

Well it seems that dreams are images, ideas, emotions and sensations, nightmares are dreams that invoke a strong sense of negative emotions like fear and despair.

In order to ensure a constant food source, the creature would possibly also require a way to make people experienced nightmares and to dream about stuff. [It seems that 75% of dreams are nightmares anyway]

How would the creature go around achieving this?

How would such a creature have came about to exist?

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    $\begingroup$ dream or nightmare depends on the person... Personally i hate dreaming and I consider all of them nightmares. Would this creature care about my opinion or still search and select what dreams seems more stressful from their viewpoint? $\endgroup$ – Charon Aug 16 '16 at 13:55
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    $\begingroup$ Hey maybe it's a nice guy who takes away bad dreams like that Japanese Baku? Haku? Urm mythological thing that eats dreams $\endgroup$ – Skye Aug 16 '16 at 14:07
  • $\begingroup$ I edited in a science-fiction tag. You are free to take it down if you think it messes with the scope of the question. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Aug 16 '16 at 17:02
  • $\begingroup$ Do you specifically want it to eat dreams for some sort of nutrition/energy or can it simply need to eat dreams to function well? I think I have a good thought for the latter. $\endgroup$ – Captain Man Aug 16 '16 at 21:00
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    $\begingroup$ I don't have an answer for you. But it's name can be Oneirophage. I just made that word up but it's based on Greek "oneiro" means dream. "phage" is to eat. Oneirophagos would also work $\endgroup$ – wiredniko Aug 17 '16 at 17:06

21 Answers 21

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While I agree with Michael that dreams would offer no nutritional value, I might be able to offer something of a go-between.

Yes, it can be argued that your nightmare-eating creature/being could revel in the control of giving someone a nightmare. But it can also be argued that you have a creature that drinks the perspiration of humans. Now, it is quite possible to do this while they are awake, but depending on how large you make them, it might just make them seem like little more than flies or mosquitoes.

However, if you were to have an insect that secretes a nightmare inducing substance? The more vivid nightmares do tend to make the 'dreamer' toss and turn, often accompanied by sweating and elevated heart rate. This means that you essentially have the ideal situation for a bug that can drink the dreamer's sweat, which could be viewed as an evolutionary jump within a certain sub-species of insect.

While this doesn't give you your 'dream/nightmare eater', it certainly would be readily explainable. And it certainly would make for an interesting folklore, and likely some sayings surrounding it -- "Darn dreameaters got me!", meaning I had some vivid nightmares.

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    $\begingroup$ They could also feed on blood like mosquitoes or vampire bats, and the evolutionary advantage of the nightmare inducing chemical is that the subsequent movement/perspiration/skin temp fluctuations attracts other creatures of the species to feed. A folklore grows around them because people have nightmares then wake up covered in bloodsucking creatures. $\endgroup$ – patstew Aug 16 '16 at 19:26
  • $\begingroup$ @patstew It's possible, I suppose. But that's up to the Sky to decide :P $\endgroup$ – Fayth85 Aug 16 '16 at 19:37
  • $\begingroup$ That's sounds fun, I was thinking of a small nocturnal creepy little ninja mouse like thing that would be able but a horde of night buggers would be real cool. $\endgroup$ – Skye Aug 17 '16 at 11:45
  • $\begingroup$ Would it be accurate to say that the advantage of inducing nightmares to produce sweat, rather than directly inducing sweat by manipulating hormones (cortisol, adrenaline), is that the victim is less likely to wake up and kill the insect? $\endgroup$ – alexw Aug 17 '16 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps the bugs have evolved so that cortisol and/or other stress hormones are vital to their function, but they can't produce them themselves; thus, they need to induce stress in mammals. An evolutionary quirk provided them with the means to induce nightmares, which proved better than feeding off conscious humans (because conscious humans tend to get murderous on anything that tries to bite them). The elevated cortisol levels present in the sweat of someone having a nightmare would attract other bugs, thereby also providing a means of finding mates. $\endgroup$ – Doktor J Aug 17 '16 at 21:16
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Plants contain chlorophyll, which absorbs electromagnetic energy in the range 400-800nm, which happens to coincide with light tossed toward earth by the sun. Quite convenient. The plant uses this to synthesize glucose, which it later consumes for its energy and growth.

Dreamivores contain handwavium, which absorbs electromagnetic energy in the range 4 to 8 Hz, which happens to coincide with the theta waves produced by humans brains while dreaming. Quite convenient. The dreamivore uses this to synthesize some-or-other-ose, which it later consumes for its energy and growth.

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  • $\begingroup$ I feel like this is an expansion on existing answer. $\endgroup$ – wizardzz Aug 16 '16 at 16:29
  • $\begingroup$ Where does one acquire "handwavium"? Do you find it with unobtanium? $\endgroup$ – Cody Aug 16 '16 at 16:33
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    $\begingroup$ @wizardzz- You and I were typing simultaneously. Yours is time-stamped 2.5 minutes before mine, so you did technically beat me, but otherwise GMTA. $\endgroup$ – cobaltduck Aug 16 '16 at 16:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Cody- Wherefore art thou dysprosium? A trope by any other name would feel as trite. $\endgroup$ – cobaltduck Aug 16 '16 at 17:05
  • $\begingroup$ @cobaltduck Dysprosium is well...real, used to make rare earth magnets resistant to higher temperatures. Has probably a few more uses I can't even dream of. $\endgroup$ – WalyKu Aug 16 '16 at 17:27
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It all started with a parasitic organism somewhat like a slime mold. Animals (including humans) would come into contact with its spores, which would subsequently invade the host's brain and take up residence. In order to get a steady supply of nutrients, it would induce states of arousal (such as fear) in order to increase blood flow to the brain. Over time it evolved in such a way that it preferentially induced these states while the host was sleeping, so as to avoid causing their host to act recklessly while awake and die.

That, of course, was only the first step in its history. What really changed things was when it developed a form of biological radio. Suddenly colonies could 'communicate' over significant distances. This wound up creating strange and subtle feedback loops between colonies and the brains they inhabited. Nightmares began to become synchronized and a sort of hive mind awareness began to develop from the linked processing capacity of the troubled dreamers in the network.

Thus was the creature of nightmares born, the collective subconscious made manifest, growing ever stronger...

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Look to the gut biome.

Microorganisms in the human gut biome can actually induce specific food cravings to get a dinner in your belly that they can eat faster than their neighbors, so it's not that much of a stretch to imagine an internally-hosted microorganism that causes nightmares to feed on the delicious cortisol produced by them.

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  • $\begingroup$ Do you have a reference for this? (Not doubting, would just like to see details.) $\endgroup$ – Mr.Mindor Aug 16 '16 at 22:45
  • $\begingroup$ I don't have any easily linked articles, but I've lately read a couple of books that mention the phenomenon. I most likely saw it in 10% Human by Alanna Colleen. $\endgroup$ – SudoSedWinifred Aug 17 '16 at 0:47
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    $\begingroup$ Wow! News to me, but I found some articles from 2014: The source journal article, a UCSF news summary, and an article from The Atlantic based on the published review. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Bowman supports Monica Aug 18 '16 at 5:54
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There are two ways that I can think of that you could possibly explain this.

1) The creature can get energy from the brain waves that occur during sleep. Perhaps it physically absorbs energy from the host's head when the brain wave signature matches that of REM sleep (saw tooth pattern).

2) The creature physically feeds off the neurotransmitters that occur during sleep (acetylcholine, norepinephrine). It would need to invasively access the human's body/brain though.

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Here's a proposed evolutionary tale: A long time ago, there was a predatory creature that senses electric fields to hunt (like sharks do). But some of those predators evolved a benefit from the electric field itself (like, let's say the electric fields of prey induced magnetic field in predator which helped improve its navigational powers temporarily, like how that pigeons and migrating butterflies navigate by the earth's magnetic field.). Whatever. So predator learned not to kill prey immediately but latch on for a while before killing (especially before migration season). Then, predator learned that dreamers are easier to latch on to, and learned to latch on very very gently. (CAT scans of dreams/nightmares indicate they are the same as waking state.) So, violent electro-hunter predator evolved to become gentle latcher-on to sleepers. Then, say, the predator's magneto powers got crazy powerful and predator could actually project magnetic/electric fields (like electric eels).

I'm just saying.

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Given some known things:

  • State of mind can be seen as fluctuating chemical buildups and depletions in the brain
  • Parasitic creatures exist that are capable of chemically modifying the behavior of their host
  • There are drugs known to induce various states of unconsciousness, including REM sleep
  • There is a branch of medical science which researches drug-induced nightmares and night terrors

We can envision a parasite that enters the cranium and, as part of it's life cycle, induces sleep and nightmares, not for their own sake, but as an evolved technique to create a chemical environment more suitable for gestation.

Such a creature might end up as the cause of folk lore involving an unseen creature that steals into your home and causes you to fall into fitful sleep so as to feed on your nightmares.

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As with the emotions-eating creature: all investigations show that the nutritional value of dreams and nightmares are pretty much zero, in all terms relevant to sustenance: caloric intake, minerals, vitamins, trace substances, proteins, et cetera

Well you asked for science-based! Sorry but dreams cannot provide any kind of nutritional sustenance.

However, if it comes to finding pleasure in such things, well then you have a whole thesaurus of possible mechanisms. Empathy, sympathy, antipathy, and sociopathic sadism are real things.

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I would use the content of the dream as the essence of what is being consumed, instead of it providing calorific content have it provide a narcotic dependence that way the creature always needs another hit to survive.

Withdrawal can result in death and I think it's a nice plot device to explain the extremes of behaviour.

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What does it mean to devour a dream, or a nightmare? If a being devours my dream, does it mean that I would have experienced it, and yet because of the creature's influence, I do not? Or does it mean that it simply gains some sort of energy by being in the vicinity of me while I dream?

If we allow ourselves a fairly broad definition of what it means to gain some sort of sustenance from a dream, we could have a creature with some psychic ability but a comparatively low level of intelligence. The creature latches onto sleeping hosts, and uses their brains in order to think at a higher intellectual level than it would be capable of by itself. It uses this time to make plans and contingencies for the next day/night cycle, and being forced to, for hours, be conscious of this strange creature manipulating your mind is horrifying and nightmarish!

Since the creature can't think well by itself, it needs to perform this psychic-parasite effect on a regular basis, a part of its life-cycle on an equal footing to regular feeding.

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I didn't read all the replies to this, so forgive me if I am just reiterating someone else. It seems to me that such a creature would be small and cold blooded (think small spider or something), and thereby it doesn't require much energy to survive. It evolved the ability to detect and absorb electromagnetic radiation (em fields)from beings (such as humans) while they sleep, much like an mri machine. Not much energy is gained, but that's okay it doesn't need much anyway. This works well for the creature because it's 'prey' isn't harmed, thus creating what is essentially a renewable food source. Also most creatures are relatively docile while asleep and aren't prone to attack and easily kill the creature. Natural selection often favors this, there are a lot of small creatures, mites, bacteria, and such in and on you right now, some of them are even keeping you alive. you don't notice them, so you tend to not care or think about them, none the less, they are thriving. Also the creature might also be able to read these em fields to know when to leave because the being is about to wake. Also it doesn't seem unreasonable that such a creature, especially if spider like, could evolve a venom that would aid sleep, nightmares and/or dreams being a common side effect of the venom.

If the creature is meant to be scary and/or deadly in some way: Think Swarm, too many bites and it would be like a fatal overdose of sleeping pills.

I hope this is at least amusing, if not helpful in some way.

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REM sleep has been observed in rodent studies to regulate body temperature and metabolism. It's possible that a species evolved a genetic mutation at some point which protected it from a viral epidemic (similar to sickle cell anemia granting immunity to malaria) which had the side effect of compromising the creatures' temperature regulation.

In this environment those creatures who survived the viral outbreak would then struggle to maintain their body-heat, seeking out other species to stay warm during cold nights. Skin conducts electricity fairly well, and these creatures evolve to mimic their host's nervous system, allowing them to fool their host's spinal column into regulating the functions of both bodies. This imbalance stresses the host's nervous system, manifesting in nightmares and strange dreams.

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OK, so it's hypothesised that humans dream as a way to process memories and experiences that are accrued throughout the day. This is a calorifically expensive process and takes up about a third of our time.

Now imagine an intelligent species that doesn't want to have to expend its own calories to process its own experiences, so it's evolved some sort of mechanism to input its waking experiences into your brain, and use your neural hardware to do its dreaming in your head.

You wake up the next morning having not had any dreams of your own. Maybe you remember the dream eater's dream, but being of a different species, it's experiences would be completely alien to you, and probably a bit horrifying. The dream eater hasn't directly nourished itself from your dream, but it has saved some of its own energy, and you as the victim will probably be left feeling exhausted and like something of yours has been eaten away.

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A creature that needs REM sleep but can't enter REM sleep

I imagine some type of creature that needs to enter REM sleep in the same way humans do but can't enter into that state itself. It could have evolved alongside humans and developed a commensal symbiotic relationship (relationship where one benefits and the other is unaffected) with us. The creature could be able to cause humans to enter REM sleep more than they need and feed off this excess. This way the creature is not considered harmful and it would increase its own chance of survival.

If it wasn't small like a mosquito or bacterium then it would probably have to develop a way to cause people to fall more asleep so they don't hear it coming, that ability seems like it would go hand-in-hand with making people enter REM sleep (which is sort of a deeper state of sleep, see more below). Maybe insomniacs would keep them as pets?

You could say it's body has a resistance to the hormones needed to enter REM sleep since it has developed an ability to produce them and spread them to people.

You could easily make it parasitic instead of commensal by making it unable to force people into REM sleep and only able to force them asleep. Now it is stealing the dreams instead of sharing (or instead of stealing while giving them more). Insomniacs may even still keep these as pets, maybe they could be trained to only consume so much REM sleep, or maybe a machine could remove them after you were alseep.

But how is it feeding off it?

As for what it means to feed off of or steal the REM sleep, I am not sure. Maybe it has some sort of way to scan people's brains nearby and "harmonize" with them. This way it can enter into REM sleep itself while its host is. That isn't exactly stealing the REM sleep though. Maybe it would work like a splash in a larger pool making a smaller wave -- because the brain waves are spread out between the two they are less "effective" or something.

Random sleep facts

You have "dreams" the entire night. It's just whatever your brain is thinking about while you sleep. For whatever reason your brain doesn't record these memories and that's why you only remember about five minutes when you wake up, if even that. REM sleep stands for rapid eye movement. Your brain is actually a little more active than "regular" sleep at this time. This is the period when you have the most vivid dreams.

REM sleep is the part of sleep that is important for humans, it's sort of like your brain doing a harddrive disk defrag. When you are in deep sleep, when your brain is the least active, is when you have very slow dreams (ones where you feel like you can't move) and is also when people experience night terrors (only during REM sleep is your body paralyzed, so it is during this period when people toss and turn or scream).

All that to say, REM sleep is really the important part. When you miss a lot of REM sleep your body enters it faster and for longer on subsequent nights.

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Perhaps we should go beyond this dimension for answers. Sure, biology as we know it doesn't support such a thing, but reality is stranger than we might believe.

The science needs to get a bit wacky for it to work. But quantum mechanics and alt world theory open up a host of probabilities that seem pretty darn wacky and far beyond science as we know it.

So let's toss away all the biology that we know and love, and embrace an interdimensional creature whose diet consists of the particular brainwaves produced while a person is sleeping and afraid.

They might even have technology to induce such a state. In an episode of Voyager, the crew is experimented on by aliens that they can't see, inducing various states of emotion, among other things.

The creatures can even be asleep and somehow able to use energy created by the dreams of others. I would say that they might need some tech help to augment the effects.

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Well you could go about it in many ways. I would suggest you have them eat something that isn't actually the dream/nightmare, but instead something else that is derived.

For example, the creature literally eats part of the victims life force(or just calories) and uses the dream/nightmare as a gateway to get inside. Like the concept of a vampire and a threshold.

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    $\begingroup$ This is more of a comment than a full answer to the question. $\endgroup$ – Hohmannfan Aug 16 '16 at 20:23
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We do have evolved horror film directors.

Now it would seem that you were thinking of something more ephemeral. Then what is a "creature"? Consciousness and a sense of self are something attaching themselves to a particular human body and brain and tend to keep around mostly as one consistent entity. Which arguably "feeds" on dreams it uses to readjust itself to the hardware, and which fosters building hardware structures by its effects.

Now you want something ephemeral like that, only not bound to a particular body. So how will it walk and spread? Humans use various means for air-gapped transfers. Talking and moving in patterns in sleep (patterns can induce trance and hypnosis and sleeping people might be more susceptible to certain signals), hormonal signals and others. The "payload" of such interactions would need to be large enough to allow for establishing an actual coherent entity feasting on common nightmares.

A strong seed would be a common traumatic experience (including watching a horror movie together). There are human cults evolving a common meme culminating in group suicides or murders.

So a whole lot hinges on when you are willing to call something a "creature" and when not.

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Origins:

  1. Somebody wanted one.

    If you thought it really worked, would you by a pet that gives nice dreams/takes away nightmares?

  2. It...came about. While in our universe physics (and conditions and collisions) made things the way they are, in a slightly different setting everything could be different. People could have psychic abilities like mind reading, and somehow there's enough energy for other creatures to feed off your mental energies.

  3. What if it's not just a 'creature' but people with psychic abilities who a) get addicted, b) it's an alternate food source. Perhaps they went vegan after they found a way to survive without killing.

  4. Success = Predators There is a fungus that kills ants and makes them into zombies, because there's so many ants. (There's even a fungus that hunts this fungus so there isn't an ant pandemic, or something, because it's too successful.) Perhaps our intelligence makes us weak to psychic feeding when we're asleep. While there are far more ants, and they're simpler to 'hack', perhaps dream-eaters would be more likely than human zombies.

Supply

  1. If they need to ensure their supply, they could look scary and attack people.

  2. They don't 'feed off nightmares' per se, but how you feel when you're scared and they can manipulate dreams, by entering a joined mental state in which you're asleep, but

  3. Sentience/Skill They either study people and come up with ways to freak them out at night (Jimmy's afraid of spiders, let's do a dream version of that Harry Potter scene with all the spiders) or they have tactics like hunting animals do. Perhaps instead of a group of lions chasing prey into an ambush of other lions, in dreams some of them assume roles as friends in the dream that suggest a visit to the abandoned mansion on the hill, while others wait within to ambush the sleeper.

  4. Nature's Balance In a world with more nightmares, there's more nightmare eaters. But if there are more eaters, there's less nightmares to go around. There's always human population as a guarantee, with the bonus that mass human extinction would be traumatic and cause more nightmares, perhaps enough to store up while humans repopulate. They could also hibernate regularly, and wake up when there's enough nightmares in the world-or just the house. In relation to 1 on this list, they could also attack on a cycle, or when there's enough people, possibly to the detriment of civilization.

Also click here for an example of something that might be like this in a story.

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Somebody wanted one. Whether it's a creature that's helpful-and consumes nightmares leaving people without dreams for an uneventful, rather than tormented, sleep, or consumes all of a day/night's dreams, to treat sleeping disorders, or traumatized people suffering from nightmares-or harmful somebody wanted one so it was made, for an evil plot, by accident, or to sell as a pet.

If you thought it really worked, would you by a pet that gives nice dreams/takes away nightmares?

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You could create a theory of dreams/nightmares which involves a hitherto-undiscovered transfer of particles between sleeping people when their brains enter the REM state. Some hand waving around quantum entanglement and dark matter might do. Then you could say that the creature gains energy by consuming these particles.

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Have a look at the Slake Moth in China Mieville's Perdido Street Station.

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    $\begingroup$ While providing references can often add context, the most important parts should be quoted or summarized in the answer. $\endgroup$ – Brythan Aug 18 '16 at 0:42
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, flea. Good to have you on board. Please give more details. Just a bald statement without any supporting facts or information isn't the most helpful. Flex your typing fingers & punch out the words. Hope to see more answers & questions from you. $\endgroup$ – a4android Aug 18 '16 at 4:23

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