What Coma Dreams Are Really Like According To Formerly Comatose Patients

Describing what goes on in the mind during a coma isn't easy for those who haven't lived through the experience. Researching the topic is extraordinarily complex in several different ways. A range of causes can affect how the brain reacts to a coma, as does the physiology of the patient in "the deep sleep." It certainly doesn't make the subject easier when every former coma patient describes an experience that's unique to their specific unconscious state. One person may not know they're in a coma. Another may have been aware the whole time. Some may have control of their dreams, while others couldn't tell you if they'd dreamed at all. On top of that, there are several different types of comas along a scale of severity. The coma is a serious web of mystery that might not be unraveled anytime soon.

Even though coma dreams are subjective experiences created in the mind, like snowflakes, where no two are exactly alike, many of them share enough commonalities with others of the same type that they form unofficial pocket categories of dream experiences. And, it seems, coma survivors aren't shy about sharing their experiences. Here's what coma dreams are really like according to formerly comatose patients who were brave enough to share their stories.

Disembodied voices and paranoid delusions

In 2013, a woman with a cooler name than yours fell into a spiral of downturned luck. Stephanie Savage was vacationing in Italy when she developed the autoimmune disease dermatomyositis. The medication that was used to treat the disorder put a damper on her immune system that led to a nasty case of Legionnaires' Disease, which in turn led to multiple strokes, sepsis, and a coma. When she awoke six weeks later, she started telling her story.

According to Vice, Savage had a series of interesting dreams that ranged from the weird to the terrifying. The first dream the former coma patient remembers having was of a disembodied voice that said, "hold your breath, exhale." Nobody likes hearing disembodied voices, and when you're in a state of alternative mental function, like that of a coma, your mind tries to explain the experience away in whatever way it can. Savage recognized the voice from the get go but couldn't quite place it. She thought the words might have come from a serial killer, because it reminded her of something out of a movie. When she heard a second disembodied voice, she thought maybe — just maybe — some entity had installed a chip in her brain. Luckily, the voice would morph into her dream's iteration of her new boyfriend, and things would get a little less scary for Savage.

Lucid dreams where the dreamer can "edit"

Just like with regular, everyday dreams, it seems like some coma dreams are more controllable than others. The same former coma patient who spoke with Vice also mentioned having points of lucidity within her dreams where she could, essentially, step back and take a more editorial approach to the happenings. Stephanie Savage mentions being able to view her dreams and edit them like she was the writer behind her coma-reality before falling back into a homogenous blend with her dream state. She's not the only former coma patient to experience this sensation either.

In 2018, a Redditor asked coma survivors if it was true that they were aware of their consciousness during their deep, unfortunate sleep, and the answers she got were a mixed bag. Some of the responses, and it's important to remember that this information is self-divulged and not easily verifiable, corroborates Savage's experiences. U/fat_loser_junkie recalls having lucid points while being weaned out of a chemically induced coma, which helped break up the torturous monotony of dreaming of being on a constantly sinking boat through most of their coma.

Hopping over to Quora where a user asked a similar question, one anonymous user talks about knowing they were unconscious during a medically induced coma and wanting desperately to wake up. The others who claim to have been lucid during their dream state didn't seem to have the same editing abilities that Savage manifested during hers.

Seeing unknown, faraway places

Not that any coma could be considered a "blessing in disguise," but some coma dreams are definitely more pleasant than others. Imagine, though, if you will, traveling to the distant and exotic places your pocketbook couldn't afford to let you see while you were conscious, but now, in your prolonged coma dream, you're able to party in the Caribbean or visit the Sahara. It's not as good as taking a fantastic vacation during your consciousness, but it sure beats a lot of other coma experiences. Few survivors have been so lucky.

After being put in a medically induced coma for two weeks to deal with a lung infection made complicated by her cystic fibrosis, the then 18-year-old Claire Wineland visited the Alaskan wilderness while comatose. In a video she released after waking in 2015, Wineland talks about the experience as if it were a wondrous event. "It was so beautiful," she says. She describes the coves and the trees as "the most beautiful scenery ever." For dream hour upon dream hour, she'd sit and stare at the landscape in front of her. Animals were present. The air was freezing, but she didn't mind. Everything was too gorgeous for a little cold to have bothered her.

Here's the thing though — this Alaska experience wasn't a memory of a time before the incident. The young woman had never been nor had she expressed any interest in going to the northern state, but her coma brought her there anyway.

Playing in episodes like a sci-fi TV show

When Stephanie Savage relayed her coma experiences to Vice, she mentioned having quite a few different dreams, and these dreams kind of followed an episodic trend. The former coma patient describes some of her dreams like serialized bits of the same story and others as episodes of a sci-fi movie or TV show. She doesn't go into a detailed explanation of these dreams but does believe, being a non-religious person, she saw sci-fi movies in the same way other people see their deities during near-death experiences.

One of the Quora commenters, Haruka Satou, claims to have been living in the year 2319 during his coma, a time of world peace, space colonization, and eternal youth. Cancer was cured, and Earth was a sci-fi utopia. Satou also believed he'd lived a whole life in the month he was out, coming back to the past when he finally woke.

Daniel Gray over on the Quora thread recalls his coma dreams being like short episodes of a TV show as well, though without most of the sci-fi elements Savage and Satou experienced. Instead, he had nightmares or dreams about being stuck in a drive-through line that never ended while waiting for a Coke he'd never wanted so bad in his life. Which, in itself, is one of the most nightmarish things that could happen to a person.

A world of terrifying nightmares

Coma dreams, like the regular variety, can play out in any imaginable direction. They can be weird like riding a big wheel that's pulling an ice cream cart, like Stephanie Savage experienced (via Vice), or they can be prolonged, horrific nightmares that make you wish you'd never dreamed at all. The latter seems to be oh-too-common.

As he pulls at his beard and stammers nervously during his YouTube video, former coma patient Robert Mobley describes the horrid nightmares he had while he was unconscious in hopes of releasing some of the trauma the dreams brought him, a feat that he seemed to find rather difficult and understandably so. The worst recurring nightmare Mobley claims to have had during his coma was about a giant machine that stretched beyond sight, a horrible machine with the sole purpose of chewing up his then-infant child. "Thousands upon thousands, millions of copies of her," he says, fed into this machine by demonic, laughing versions of the same child turned sadist.

Others have allegedly had equally terrifying dreams of a different nature. Reddit user u/AUCE05 claims his friend spent six months in a continuous dream about being stuck in a wall, unable to move. Users on the comments section of a Scientific American article about medically induced comas (found via TheJournal.ie) say they spent their entire comas stuck in nightmares too. These claims, unverifiable as they are, shed some light into the awful truth some coma patients endure.

Real world influences on coma dreams

For those formerly comatose patients who had and remember their dreams, there seems to be one striking similarity — the real world influenced them. Take Claire Wineland's ongoing Alaska dream for example. After waking, she'd discovered that the frigid cold, the cold that didn't bother her, was due to the hospital staff packing her unconscious body with ice packs to lower the fever her infection had brought about. The serial killer voices Stephanie Savage told Vice she'd heard in her dreams were coming from the MRI instructions. Now, these two cases are fairly benign, but they aren't always so.

The Reddit user, u/realbasilisk, claims their mother had legs amputated due to sepsis while in a coma, and the whole time she envisioned demons and vampires gnawing her legs to stubs. Similarly, Daniel Gray's nightmare of not being able to get a coke (found via Quora) was influenced by the dry mouth comatose patients tend to develop. And where these and several other examples out there are terrifying instances of how the real world influences coma dreams, others are heartfelt reminders of the good in people.

A teacher on the Reddit thread tells a story of visiting one of her teenage students everyday after he was hit by a car and left in a comatose state. She'd tell him everything would be okay and feed him tidbits of life going on outside, and according to this user, the student heard every word.

Living a normal life

There's nothing worse (or better, depending on how you look at it) than living out your life during a coma dream only to wake up and have to do it all over again. In a piece by Psychology Today, a former coma patient describes being torn "violently from one world [she] knew to another." She'd dreamed of an imaginary town, complete with apartments and stores, where she'd been living a life during her coma. To her it was real, and after she was brought back to the real world, the dreams didn't stop. After laying her head on her pillow at night, she'd be transported back to her "incredible" coma town. She knew the people who lived there, she had the layout memorized, and she had a fairly luxurious apartment of her own.

A man who'd spent time in a medically induced coma after being hit by a vehicle while cycling, according to the Boston Globe, had a less immersive experience but a fictional life nonetheless. He'd woken with false memories of interviewing for MI6, believing that his girlfriend was pregnant with twins, names for whom they'd picked out together. He'd even tucked the ultrasound picture in a non-existent notebook. Another person, who commented on Reddit, claims they mourned the loss of her fictional children after awakening from a coma where she'd believed she'd been living a normal life with a family she'd never had for ten years.

Nothing but darkness

Not all of us remember our dreams in the morning, and many feel like they don't dream at all. It's not such a big deal when talking about a single night's sleep, but it can be a serious problem when you've been unconscious for days or weeks or months. Some former coma patients report total darkness during their prolonged slumber, where they remember absolutely nothing happening at all, going from their pre-coma life to awakening with no knowledge of what occurred in between. Like, a terrifying blink from the past to the future. They don't remember having been in a coma or even the incident that put them there, and from what alleged former comatose patients describe, it's a shocking experience that takes some time to adjust to.

One alleged coma survivor on Reddit, u/Bgirl813, says they went from being pregnant to waking up with a more than week-old daughter. She didn't remember the stroke she'd had, the C-section that safely delivered her daughter, or the coma that followed. U/DrejmeisterDrej claims they went from shutting their eyes the day before their two-story fall to opening them after waking up from their 13-day coma. "My memory cortex took some time to boot back up," the user says. They'd been conscious already for two weeks by the time their memory kicked back in.

An out-of-body experience

The typical out-of-body experience tends to entail floating above one's body in a near-death situation or during surgery or whatever and can include things like passing through a tunnel of light. You know the jam. Well, this sort of thing also happens to coma patients, according to Pacific Standard's piece on Steven Laureys, a scientist who's collected stories from 18 coma survivors and those who've allegedly had near-death experiences. Such was the case for Reddit user u/FerbMcFerb, who claims they were in a coma for two months after a terrible car accident when they were just a child. They remembered floating above the room, watching members of their church come through their hospital room to visit them.

Let's step back to how real-life factors tend to affect coma dreams. Many of these "floating up out of the body"-type experiences, like the one Stephanie Savage had at one point (via Vice), have occurred while a patient was being lifted to switch positions and prevent deadly bedsores. The act of them being lifted translated into floating by their coma-dream-influenced view of perception, which they'd discover after they finally came to.

It's worth mentioning that another common type of out-of-body experiences during comas, such as the one Reddit user u/panamared78 had with their deceased son, seems to be comatose patients communicating with dead loved ones. The Q&A coma pages on social sites are full of examples of these final yet beautiful encounters.

An experience in death

When one goes from some sort of life-threatening incident into a prolonged dream state with alternative rules to reality, it seems only natural for them to believe they've died somewhere along the way. Who wouldn't? The coma dream then becomes their affected mind's interpretation of the afterlife. For example, Vinati Singh, a user on Quora, alleges that his mother spent a total of nine months in two different comas, during part of which she was accompanied by the god Shiva. The god supposedly tried to lead her to the afterlife, telling her she'd already died, but the woman refused to go since she had children waiting for her among the living.

A former COVID-19 patient, Francis Wilson, tells the Washingtonian he floated up through the sky into a purple light where he was met by a female voice who'd told him he'd died. Wilson says he "fully believed [he] was dead."

If that's not enough, let's add a little credibility to the fire. In 2008, coma-surviving neurosurgeon, Dr. Eben Alexander, dreamed — well, he believes it was real — he traveled to the place where consciousness lives on after the body's death, a place described by mystics throughout history, a place high above the clouds, filled with shimmering, flying beings of an unknown type. He writes about his experiences in both Newsweek and his book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey Into the Afterlifeif you're into that kind of thing.

Aware and unable to interact

There are those who don't dream during their comas and those who have coma dreams filled with nightmares. Then, there are the ones who truly have it worst of all — the ones who regain consciousness while their bodies remain paralyzed. Luckily, this seems to be few and far between, but it's certainly not "lucky" for the few that have to experience this torture.

After a car crash in 1983, doctors in Belgium assumed Rom Houben wasn't just in a comatose state but in a vegetative state where no cognitive function remained, according to ABC. As it turned out, they were painfully wrong. Houben laid in a hospital bed, fully conscious and unable to communicate his condition, until doctors finally figured out the truth of his state and brought him "back to life" 23 years later. The patient says that day was a "second birth" for him.

What Houben was suffering was a type of pseudo-coma known as "locked-in syndrome." The patients in this state, according to the research paper The locked-in syndrome: what is it like to be conscious but paralyzed and voiceless?, usually begin in a coma and slowly regain consciousness without function, where they're left terrified and accidentally tortured until the condition is discovered.