For most of us, dreaming is a normal and unremarkable facet of life. But, what if this didn’t have to be the case? What if instead of waking up in the morning and having to try and recall your dreams, you could be aware of them as they happen and even have the power to control what happens during the dream. Good news! It’s possible. This phenomenon, known as lucid dreaming, is the act of becoming cognizant that you are dreaming. Even better, lucid dreaming is a learnable skill .
The utility of dreaming is still not well understood; researchers can only speculate about what evolutionary function dreaming serves. The most popular theory for why lucid dreaming specifically occurs share a common idea: the waking state and the dream state are not two opposite states of consciousness; rather, there is a continuum between them, and lucid dreaming occurs when the waking and sleeping states overlap . Whether this theory offers the best explanation for why lucid dreaming occurs has yet to be determined, as there are still numerous unanswered questions regarding this unique feat. The history of lucid dreaming provides a rich opportunity for knowledge which research can expand on by exploring the biological basis of lucid dreaming. Moreover, researchers have begun to investigate and refine techniques to induce lucid dreaming in order to discover the possible benefits resulting from this phenomenon.
Records of lucid dreaming trace all the way back to the Upanishads, an ancient Hindu philosophy and set of proverbs believed to be dated anywhere from 5000 B.C.E. to 200 B.C.E . In western culture, the first written record of lucid dreaming came from Aristotle’s treatise On Dreams in 350 B.C.E . Despite the fact that records of lucid dreaming have been around for centuries, it was not until relatively recently that this phenomenon was scientifically verified. In 1980, Stephen LaBerge, a leader in lucid dream studies, developed a technique to induce lucid dreaming, known as the Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (MILD) technique . The basic idea behind this technique is that the more a person believes that they can lucid dream, and the more they visualize the lucid dream they want to have, the more likely they are to actually have the dream they desire . The following year, LaBerge and his colleagues conducted a study in which subjects self-induced lucid dreams using the MILD technique . Once in the dream state, subjects were asked to perform particular actions, such as specific sets of eye movements, that could be detected on a polygraph. When these actions were detected, the researchers would know that the subjects were lucid. By doing this, LaBerge uncovered crucial evidence to suggest that lucid dreaming is a real phenomenon, and thus opened up doors to new questions about the biological basis of lucid dreaming .
Biological Basis of Lucid Dreams
To understand the biological process of lucid dreaming, scientists use the neurological basis of the sleep-wake cycle. Electrical activity is a crucial factor in determining one’s state of consciousness, and the brain generates electrical activity that oscillates at different frequency levels during different states of consciousness . The lowest frequencies primarily occur during deep sleep, while slightly higher frequencies are typical during light sleep. The highest frequencies are most common when awake, with frequencies typically being at their peak during high-level thinking and cognition. .
But how do these levels of frequency relate to lucid dreaming? Scientists have found that lower frequency wavelengths active during non-lucid sleep are similarly active during lucid dreaming. However, unlike during normal dreaming, lucid dreaming also produces high frequency activity of similar caliber to that associated with cognition. This high frequency activity was primarily found in frontal regions of the brain commonly associated with conscious awareness . These findings supplement more recent research that shows brain activity while lucid dreaming is particularly prominent in a brain region called the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which has been linked to high-level metacognition, such as self-reflection and self-awareness . Another study found larger prefrontal cortexes in those who were able to lucid dream when compared to those who weren’t. Furthermore, scientists also discovered that similar neural systems utilized during metacognition are also used in lucid dreaming . Because multiple studies have identified these links between brain activity during metacognition and brain activity during lucid dreaming, there is a strong likelihood that skills such as self-reflection and self-awareness can have major impacts on the ability to lucid dream. Unfortunately, there is not currently any conclusive evidence on this theory.
Inducing Lucid Dreaming
A quick online search of lucid dreaming results in thousands of articles suggesting methods and techniques by which it can be induced. While some methods seem strange, such as hypnosis or purposely inducing sleep paralysis, others are shown to be effective. The most popular technique is the aforementioned MILD technique which is used not only by individuals hoping to lucid dream, but also by researchers seeking to increase the chances of their participants having a lucid dream. The MILD technique is relatively straightforward, and quite user-friendly. It merely takes commitment and patience.
Broken down into four parts, the MILD technique first asks participants to practice dream recall and record all regular dreams they have. Secondly, the participant must regularly check if they are dreaming by attempting to perform tasks that cannot be done when awake, A popular task is attempting to push your finger through your palm– if a participant is successful, they will know they are in a lucid dream. Next, participants must vocally affirm their ability to lucid dream, using phrases such as “tonight, I will lucid dream.” It is important not only for the participant to say these things regularly, but also to believe what they are saying. Finally, in order to successfully complete the MILD technique, the participant needs to visualize the dream they want to have before they go to bed. While this technique is not foolproof and cannot guarantee a lucid dream every time, it has been shown to be an effective method in increasing the occurrences of lucid dreams .
Techniques focused on self-inducing lucid dreams have been popular for some time now, but more recently researchers have begun to examine the idea of using drugs to stimulate lucid dreaming. There are already a number of drugs on the market that list lucid dreaming as a possible side effect, some of which include varenicline, most commonly used to help quit smoking, and huperzine A, used to treat symptoms of dementia . Neither of these drugs, however, have had their relationship with lucid dreaming conclusively studied. Moreover, another dementia drug known as alpha-GPC that, like huperzine A, works by increasing the levels of a brain chemical called acetylcholine, has been shown to have almost no effect on dreaming . Despite this lack of scientific research on the matter, huperzine A has become a popular drug for those seeking to induce lucid dreaming, but other studies suggest that another similar drug known as galantamine may be more effective.
Galantamine, like huperzine A and alpha-GPC, stops the breakdown of acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is important in processes such as memory and thinking, and has been linked to activity during the sleep stage most closely associated with dreams. One study hypothesized that, based on the increased physiological activity during lucid dreaming, medication that increases cortical activity during sleep could also increase the chance of experiencing a lucid dream . Due to its effects on acetylcholine levels, this study chose to use galantamine to test their hypothesis. The study found that the intake of galantamine for three nights drastically increased the likelihood of lucid dreaming, with 57% of participants who took galantamine reporting at least one lucid dream during the study compared to only 14% of participants who took the placebo. Though the reason galantamine may help stimulate lucid dreams is not yet understood, it is likely that acetylcholine is connected in some way to their occurrence . These findings suggest that those turning to medication to induce lucid dreaming should forego huperzine A and opt for galantamine instead.
Researchers are beginning to make progress in understanding what lucid dreams are and why they occur, but this progress is slow due to the matter’s subjectivity. Stimulating lucid dreams in a laboratory setting can be difficult, as lucid dreaming is relatively rare. Even when participants signal that they are lucid, it is often hard for researchers to be completely sure this is not a false signal . Additionally, studies done outside of labs have to rely on their subjects to be truthful and accurate about their lucid dreaming experience. As lucidity signaling techniques improve, and as researchers find new ways to increase the frequency of lucid dreams, scientists are hoping to pick up clearer lucidity signals to leave less room for false positive readings. Future research also plans to delve further into the connection between metacognition and lucid dreaming by studying how learning metacognitive skills affects the subject’s ability to lucid dream. Along this line, scientists also hope to address the possible effects and/or benefits of lucid dreaming. It has been suggested that lucid dreaming could potentially help treat nightmares, combat depression, and even aid in our understanding of psychosis . However, these avenues have yet to be explored thoroughly. While researchers have yet to uncover scientific or medical benefits to lucid dreaming, there are numerous uses for regular people. Lucid dreaming can be used as a creative outlet, as a safe way to live out their most daring fantasies, or even as a tool to relax and destress. Whatever the reason may be, anyone can find enjoyment in lucid dreaming if they try!
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