A false awakening is a vivid dream about awakening from sleep. After a false awakening, subjects often dream they are performing daily morning rituals such as cooking, cleaning and eating. The experience is sometimes called a "double dream", or a "dream within a dream".
A false awakening may occur following an ordinary dream or following a lucid dream (one in which the dreamer has been aware of dreaming). Particularly if the false awakening follows a lucid dream, the false awakening may turn into a "pre-lucid dream", that is, one in which the dreamer may start to wonder if they are really awake and may or may not come to the correct conclusion.
A false awakening has significance to the simulation hypothesis, which states that what we perceive as reality is an illusion, as made evident by our mind's inability to distinguish between reality and dreams. Therefore, advocates of the simulation hypothesis argue that the probability of our "true" reality being a simulated reality is affected by the prevalence of false awakenings.
Another, more realistic type of false awakening, is a continuum. In a continuum, the subject falls asleep in real life, but in the dream following, the brain simulates the subject as though they were still awake. The movie Nightmare on Elm Street popularized this phenomenon.
Certain aspects of life may be dramatized, or out of place in false awakenings. Things may seem wrong: details, like the painting on a wall, not being able to talk or difficulty reading (purportedly reading in lucid dreams is often difficult or impossible). In some experiences, the subject's senses are heightened, or changed.
Because the mind still dreams after a false awakening, there may be more than one false awakening in a single dream. Subjects may dream they wake up, eat breakfast, brush their teeth, and so on; suddenly awake again in bed (still in a dream), begin morning rituals again, awaken again, and so forth. The French psychologist Yves Delage reported an experience of his own of this kind, in which he experienced four successive false awakenings. The philosopher Bertrand Russell even claimed to have experienced "about a hundred" false awakenings in succession while coming round from a general anaesthetic.
Type 1 may be thought of as the "common-or-garden" sort, in which the dreamer seems to wake up, but not necessarily in realistic surroundings, that is, not in their own bedroom. A pre-lucid dream may ensue. More commonly, dreamers will believe they have awakened and then "fall back asleep" in the dream.
The type 2 false awakening seems to be considerably less common. Green characterized it as follows:
the subject appears to wake up in a realistic manner, but to an atmosphere of suspense.[…] His surroundings may at first appear normal, and he may gradually become aware of something uncanny in the atmosphere, and perhaps of unwonted sounds and movements. Or he may “awake” immediately to a “stressed” and “stormy” atmosphere. In either case, the end result would appear to be characterized by feelings of suspense, excitement or apprehension.
Charles McCreery drew attention to the similarity between this description and the description by the German psychopathologist Karl Jaspers (1923) of the so-called "primary delusionary experience" (a general feeling that precedes more specific delusory belief). Jaspers wrote:
Patients feel uncanny and that there is something suspicious afoot. Everything gets a new meaning. The environment is somehow different—not to a gross degree—perception is unaltered in itself but there is some change which envelops everything with a subtle, pervasive and strangely uncertain light.[…] Something seems in the air which the patient cannot account for, a distrustful, uncomfortable, uncanny tension invades him.
McCreery suggests this phenomenological similarity is not accidental, and results from the idea that both phenomena, the Type 2 false awakening and the primary delusionary experience, are phenomena of sleep. He suggests that the primary delusionary experience, like other phenomena of psychosis such as hallucinations and secondary or specific delusions, represents an intrusion into waking consciousness of processes associated with Stage 1 sleep. It is suggested that the reason for these intrusions is that the psychotic subject is in a state of hyper-arousal, a state that can lead to what Ian Oswald called "micro-sleeps" in waking life.
Subjects may also experience Sleep paralysis.
False awakenings are sometimes used as a device in literature, and especially films, to increase "shock" effects by inducing a feel of calm in the viewer following something disturbing. For example, the viewer is led to believe that the subject has awoken from a nightmare or dream, only for some element of the nightmare to reappear suddenly and cause a "second" or "true" awakening. This technique was used in the film An American Werewolf in London.
The film Vanilla Sky begins with the main character having a Type 2 False Awakening.
The Twilight Zone episode Shadow Play involved a man having a dream in which he is sentenced to die, with the various roles (judge, jury foreman, attorney, fellow inmates, etc.) being played by people from his past. At the moment he is executed, the dream re-starts, with the characters shuffled.
In the first volume of Neil Gaiman's graphic novel Sandman, the newly freed Morpheus, lord of Dreams, punishes his captor, Alexander Burgess, with endless false awakening nightmares. The episode was part of the original series, and re-made as part of the 1985-89 revival.
In an episode of South Park, City on the Edge of Forever, a clip show, at the end of the episode Eric Cartman wakes up and realizes all the episode had been a dream. He proceeds to eat bugs and then Stan wakes up, for real, from this false awakening.