By Javeria Shahid
What is lucid dreaming?
Have you ever found yourself in control of a dream? Lucid dreaming is a state in which a person is aware that they are in a dream and, in some cases, they may be able to control some aspects of their environment. In fact, deliberate control is possible in around one-third of lucid dreams (Aspy, 2020). Since it has to do with awareness of our thoughts and reflection of this awareness, we often associate it with metacognition, an understanding of one’s own thought patterns. Therefore, people who are more aware of their thought processes are more likely to experience lucid dreams.
Saunders et al. (2016) have performed a cumulative analysis of multiple studies conducted on lucid dreaming among a population consisting of video gamers, athletes, children, students, interest group and research group. The paper concludes that 55% of people have experienced at least 1 or more lucid dreams in their entire lives and 23% of people experienced lucid dreams once a month or more.
What happens in the brain during your lucid dream?
Lucid dreams often occur during REM sleep. It is a stage of sleep lasting about 90 minutes, occurring 3-5 times every night. The REM stage is characterized by rapid eye movements, lack of muscle tone, and a tendency to dream. Lucid dreams are associated with increased physiological arousal, such as elevated heart rate and respiration as compared to non-lucid REM sleep. Moreover, lucid dreams are much more common during REM sleep later in the night and are associated with increased cortical activity that peaks during active REM sleep (Baird et al., 2019). However, there have been reports of people experiencing lucid dreams in the non-REM stages. For instance, in one study on a single subject, the participant reported 42 dream reports throughout three nights out of which 25 were lucid dreams (Baird et al., 2019).
There is a very small percentage of people who have also reported experiencing lucid dreams several times a week or almost every night. This led researchers to investigate if there were any anatomical or functional differences in the brains of people who often experience lucid dreams (Baird et al., 2019). They found increased gray matter volume in two regions of the frontal pole, as well as the right anterior cingulate cortex, left supplementary motor area, and bilateral hippocampus in people with high lucidity. These are all areas of the brain associated with higher cognitive functions, including attention, memory, planning, self-consciousness, and/or self-reflection. Hence, these differences in brain activity between those with high lucidity and low lucidity may indicate that the brain is more online during lucid dreams.
How are lucid dreams induced?
Lucid dreaming is a learnable skill that can be acquired through practice. Training in memory techniques, paired with external sensory cues and/or interrupting sleep with brief spans of wakefulness can help induce lucid dreams (Aspy, 2020). Some common strategies include:
Reality Testing (RT)
This technique is based on a person continuously taking tests throughout the day to differentiate between waking and dreaming. The idea is that if you do it enough times, these check-ins will become habitual. The next time you sleep, force of habit will eventually lead you to perform the test and trigger lucidity. You may perform one of the following reality tests such as:
- Take a look in the mirror to see if your reflection is normal.
- Try pinching your nose, then see if you are still able to breathe. If you are, then you are probably dreaming.
- You can try to put your hand against a wall or a solid object. If you are dreaming, your hand might pass through said object.
- Take a few looks at a clock. If you are dreaming, the time may be dramatically different each time you look.
The Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (MILD) technique
The MILD technique is based on a state of memory known as prospective memory, or the capability to remember future plans or intentions. For instance, you may repeat the phrase, “next time I’m dreaming, I will remember I’m dreaming”, to activate a lucid dream state the next time you’re asleep.
Wake Back to Bed (WBTB)
WBTB involves waking up in the middle of the night and then going back to sleep after a while. The goal is to go back into REM sleep while you are still conscious. This technique is mostly used simultaneously with the MILD technique. For instance, you can set your alarm to ring after five hours of sleep. Then you wake up and stay up for 30 to 120 minutes and perform a quiet activity, such as reading. The key is to choose an activity that requires full alertness. After you fall back asleep, you will have increased chances of experiencing a lucid dream.
This technique involves the use of external stimuli such as flashing lights during the REM sleep cycle to trigger lucidity. These external stimuli serve as sensory cues that are incorporated in a person’s dream to let them know that they are dreaming without being woken up.
What are the benefits of lucid dreaming?
The phenomenon of lucid dreaming is so intriguing because it allows you to explore your inner dream world with more awareness. Some of its potential benefits include:
Reducing nightmare frequency
Lucid dreaming is often used to treat nightmare disorders. During a lucid dream, an individual is able to recognize that they are experiencing a nightmare that is not real. Once they recognize this, they are also able to control said nightmare (Vallat & Ruby, 2019). While lucid dreaming does prove to be effective for frequent nightmares, much research is still required to prove the usefulness of lucid dreaming in practical applications.
Problem solving & enhanced creativity
A lucid dream may be beneficial in creative problem-solving and the improvement of physical skills through dream rehearsal. When a person can exert some control over their surroundings within a dream state, they may be able to explore things creatively and safely within the dream — things they would not be able to do in real life.
Some potential drawbacks
In addition to the many advantages lucid dreaming can offer, there are also some drawbacks. Researchers debate whether lucid dreaming is all that beneficial because it tends to blur the lines between reality and fantasy. Some potential drawbacks include:
Lucid dreams can interfere with the quality of a person’s sleep, as they are associated with higher levels of brain activity throughout the night (Vallat & Ruby, 2019). Another problem is that the most common types of techniques used for inducing lucid dreams, such as WBTB, deliberately disturb sleep.
Potential effects on mental health
According to Aviram (2018), those who experience more vivid lucid dreams tend to show increased symptoms of psychopathology. Lucid dream induction techniques can also lead to sleep disturbances which in turn can lead to depression and/or dissociation.
Related: Lucid Dreaming: How It Works, Pros & Cons, And Why People Do It?
How can you experience a lucid dream?
If you are interested in practicing lucid dreaming, here are a few ways you can learn to trigger a lucid dream.
Keep a diary to record your dreams
Write down all details you remember from your dreams every morning. These detailed records will help you become more aware and recognize dreams better once you fall asleep.
Maintain a good sleep environment
Keep your bedroom comfortably dark, relatively quiet, and at optimal temperature. This will help you practice a good sleep schedule.
Get more REM sleep
This can be done by maintaining good sleep hygiene. Maintain a consistent sleep schedule and avoid electronics before bed. Try to cut back on caffeine and heavy meals late in the day.
Practice reality testing
Try reality testing throughout the day to check whether you are asleep or awake. By doing it enough times, you may be able to check your reality in your dream as well, thereby triggering lucidity.
Try MILD and WBTB techniques
Try using both techniques in combination to get effective results. The MILD technique is based on prospective memory. You will repeatedly tell yourself that, later on, you will dream and then remember that you are dreaming. This will help you trigger a lucid dream. You can also use WBTB, as it requires waking up after 5 hours of sleep. Stay awake for 30 to 120 minutes before falling back asleep.
There is a strong relationship between meditation and lucid dreaming according to Baird and colleagues (2019). This is most likely the result of either the neurocognitive changes such as increased mental control due to mindfulness or the changes in the REM sleep patterns induced by meditation.
Written by Javeria Shahid
Illustrated by Sarah Barron
Edited by Zoe Dobler, Caitlin Goodpaster, and Lauren Wagner
Aspy, D. J. (2020). Findings From the International Lucid Dream Induction Study. Frontiers in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01746
Aviram, L. (2018). Lucid Dreaming: Intensity, But Not Frequency, Is Inversely Related to Psychopathology. Frontiers in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00384
Baird, B., Mota-Rolim, S. A., & Dresler, M. (2019). The cognitive neuroscience of lucid dreaming. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 100, 305-323. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.03.008
Baird, B., Riedner, B. A., Boly, M., Davidson, R. J., & Tononi, G. (2019). Increased lucid dream frequency in long-term meditators but not following MBSR training. Psychology of consciousness (Washington, D.C.), 6(1), 40. https://doi.org/10.1037/cns0000176
Saunders, D. T., Roe, C. A., Smith, G., & Clegg, H. (2016). Lucid dreaming incidence: A quality effects meta-analysis of 50 years of research. Consciousness and Cognition, 43, 197-215. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2016.06.002
Soffer-Dudek, N. (2020). Are Lucid Dreams Good for Us? Are We Asking the Right Question? A Call for Caution in Lucid Dream Research. Frontiers. Retrieved September 18, 2022, from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2019.01423/full
Stumbrys, T., Erlacher, D., Schädlich, M., & Schredl, M. (2012). Induction of lucid dreams: A systematic review of evidence. Consciousness and Cognition, 21(3), 1456-1475. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2012.07.003
Vallat, R., & Ruby, P. M. (2019). Is It a Good Idea to Cultivate Lucid Dreaming?. Frontiers in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02585