Many people barely remember their dreams when they hit snooze on the bedside alarm clock beckoning the start of a new day. However, a few are walking among us who not only vividly remember their dream after waking up but also know that they are dreaming while asleep! Yes, such magicians do exist. If you are someone who is pinching yourself right now, wondering in half gratitude that you are not the only one who can control the fall out of the story playing in your dreams and experience real emotions, then allow us to walk you down the aisle of dreamers like yourself, the brain areas that light up, their level of self-awareness and their heightened creativity levels.
The word for the above-explained type of dream is lucid dreaming. This phenomenon is thought to happen during REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement). Some sections of lucid dreamers have expressed control over the situation and the bizarre events. For instance, you might dream of flying over the clouds, knowing you are in a dream and feeling the air whistling in your ears while experiencing the soft cottony texture of the clouds!
In the era of virtual reality and immersive video games, where everything is possible, spontaneous lucid dreaming is not frequent. While many people experience it at least once in their life, they do not occur often. Reportedly, more than half the global population has experienced such dreams at least once in their lives, with 11% claiming to experience two or more such episodes per month. Though the jury stands divided on the effect lucid dreaming has on the quality of sleep and its adverse impact on health. Only a few recent studies have documented the link between the frequency of lucid dreaming and hampered sleep quality.
A Quick Definition
Imagine directing a film, sometimes getting to change a few action sequences. Now, the only difference here is that you know you are not awake, and this is a dream sequence, yet far from reality. In this sequence, you look at a clock but can’t tell the time. Or you can look at a map but don’t know the directions to a place. You can control things, but not everything! Everything makes sense except the interplay of time and space. Intriguing, much?! Yes, we would say!
This phenomenon has been studied extensively, and some people are more predisposed to experiencing such dream states, and the recurrence of lucidity is stable in such individuals. According to a host of studies, “Both normal and lucid dreaming are most commonly reported following awakenings from REM-containing periods of sleep. Whereas there is a substantial rate of reporting normal dreaming following awakenings from non-REM (NREM) sleep, lucid dreaming appears to be much more closely related to REM sleep.”
Some neuroscientists believe lucid dreams stem from activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. The first three stages of the four sleep cycles constitute Non-REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, where non-lucid dreams take shape. The general understanding among neuroscientists is that lucid dreams come from non-lucid ones during the REM stage of sleep. Interestingly, this stage is known for brain activity levels similar to the awake state, with intense dreams and body atonia except for the eyes and the respiratory muscles. It is important to note that though dreams can occur at any stage of the sleep cycle, their frequency and intensity are less than in comparison to the REM period.
How Are They Researched?
The brain is a tough “nut” to crack! (Quite literally, if you get the similarities between the brain and a walnut!) And neuroscientists are not sure about the how and why of lucid dreaming. But the proof lies in the physical differences observed in the prefrontal cortex (the front part of the brain), which is the site of higher-level cognitive tasks like memory recall and decision-making. The prefrontal cortex is bigger in lucid dreamers than in those who don’t experience lucid dreams.
Researchers and neuroscientists have tested several techniques to induce lucid dreaming to discover more about them. The two cognitive techniques that are most widely researched include Reality Testing (RT) and the Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (MILD). Let’s have a look at the different techniques used to examine lucid dreams.
- Reality testing (RT): This technique strengthens the participants’ self-awareness, which will ultimately seep into their dreams, empowering them to achieve lucidity and successfully differentiate between the state of dreaming and being awake. They are required to conduct certain tests throughout the day, such as questioning whether they are awake. If they can answer this question, they are genuinely awake since self-awareness is not possible during non-lucid dream sequences.
- Mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (MILD): In this technique, the subjects are made to realize the distinction between the state of sleep and being awake by waking them up after five hours of sleep. This is followed by developing the intention to remember that you are dreaming before returning to sleep, by repeating the phrase: “The next time I’m dreaming, I will remember that I’m dreaming.” It is done to increase wilful access to the lucid dreaming state.
- Wake back to bed (WBTB): As the name suggests, it involves waking up for some time and indulging in activities, such as writing in a dream journal before returning to bed. The WBTB method is often used in conflation with MILD. When used together, the ideal period of wakefulness between sleep is thought to be 30 to 120 minutes.
- External Stimuli: The use of external stimuli, such as flashing lights while the subject is in REM sleep, is thought to induce the stimuli in their dreams, thereby introducing lucidity. Certain studies also use drugs and supplements to induce a state of lucid dreaming. Researchers use various devices to measure the activity levels in the brain’s prefrontal cortex and other areas. An electroencephalogram (EEG) employs metal discs attached to the subject’s scalp, enabling the researchers to register brain activity levels in different sleep stages. An electrooculogram (EOG) can be used to track eye movements, thereby helping decipher the point of entry of the subject into REM sleep.
Can They Be Beneficial?
With the rise in popularity of inducing lucid dreams, many believe it can heal those suffering from nightmares, thereby reducing their anxiety levels.
Though more research is needed to understand the effects of lucid dreams on a person’s health and why some people are more predisposed to experiencing lucid dreams than others, let’s discuss the benefits of lucid dreams on their waking life.
- Reduced sense of anxiety: Those who suffer from recurrent nightmares may benefit from the sense of control they experience during lucidity. Self-awareness during a dream can help the dreamer craft the script and situation of the dream and alter the ending to suit their liking. This may result in a therapeutic effect on people.
- Enhanced motor skills: Interestingly, the same part of the brain is responsible for skills like simple motor events during the state of consciousness and lucid dreaming. Therefore, skills “practiced” during a state of lucidity may witness an improvement in the waking state!
- Improved creativity levels: As discussed in the preceding sections, the prefrontal cortex of the brain is involved in higher cognitive functions like memory and creativity and gets activated during the REM stage of the sleep cycle when lucid dreams are most likely to occur. Thus, lucid dreamers come up with new insights and creative solutions to problems through their characters in dreams.
The Different Risks
In the above section, we discussed the possible benefits of inducing a state of lucid dreaming. On the flip side, researchers also believe that such lucid dreams deliberately blur the line between reality and dreaming, resulting in negative implications on one’s long-term mental health. Since lucid dreaming translates into higher brain activity levels, sleep quality may get hampered.
- Poor Sleep Hygiene: Induced lucid dreams can make it hard to get back to sleep after waking if you are focused on experiencing lucidity. Many studies have linked insufficient or hampered sleep to negative impacts on health, such as reduced life expectancy.
- Incidences of hallucination, confusion, and delirium: Those struggling with mental health issues may find themselves unable to distinguish the fine line between reality and figments of imagination when subjected to induced lucid dreaming.
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How to Induce a Lucid Dream
Much like researchers who use varied techniques to induce a state of lucidity in subjects to uncover more about this interesting phenomenon, you may also try experiencing the same with the following methods.
- Enhance your sense of self-awareness: A good sense of self-awareness practiced throughout the day can help you achieve a fine sense of judgment regarding whether you are awake or dreaming. For instance, consciously check your environment for inconsistencies. For example, signboards that may seem illegible, though they aren’t, or a clock that somehow doesn’t show the right time, even if it does, are indications of being in a dream state. Constantly evaluating the objects in your surroundings will help you develop a sense of control and distinction between conscious awareness and lucidity.
- Implement good sleep hygiene: Maintaining an ambient temperature in the bedroom, a quiet and serene environment by using blackout curtains, sleeping masks, and ear plugs to block out disruptive external noise helps foster an ideal sleep-wake cycle. This, in turn, implies the right amount of REM sleep, where lucidity is more likely to occur.
- Employ the MILD & WBTB methods: As discussed in the previous sections, you could try the mnemonic method of inducing lucid dreaming, which involves waking up after five hours of sleep and reminding yourself that you are dreaming once you return to sleep. You can set the alarm if you wish. The wake-back-to-bed method involves a similar approach. The only difference is that you stay awake for 30—120 minutes before returning to bed.
- Maintain a dream journal: After waking up, try to recollect your dreams from last night and pen it down in a diary or use a recording device. Regular recollection will help you get into the groove of staying aware during dreaming, thereby experiencing lucidity.
When to Seek Professional Help
If you experience adverse effects of induced lucid dreaming or are predisposed to vivid dreams that come with an altered sense of reality, you might need to connect with a mental health professional. Look for the following symptoms, which could indicate PTSD, a sleep disorder, or a mental health disorder.
- Recurrent nightmares that disrupt sleep
- Somniphobia (extreme fear of sleep)
- Flashbacks that may become traumatic
- Emotional upheavals
- Trouble with memory
Get Started With a Trusted Therapist on DocVita Today
The first step toward holistic healing is acknowledging the presence of an issue that needs to be addressed. If you are struggling with sleep disorders or wish to ease anxiety to manageable levels, you may want to seek professional help from qualified counselors and psychiatrists that can offer the healing you seek.
One such platform is DocVita, where you can choose from a plethora of skilled and experienced mental health professionals that speak the same language as you! With a few clicks, your care manager will ensure a smooth journey to holistic healing and living! Cheers to seeing you on the other side!