Mon. Apr 15th, 2024

The science of lucid dreams — and how to have them

Have you ever found yourself in the midst of a dream — you were in high school again or had forgotten to study for an important exam or were flying with your dog — and realized that you were dreaming?

What you probably experienced was a lucid dream — a state of being aware in your dream that you are dreaming.

A small percentage of people have several lucid dreams weekly or even nightly; 20 percent experience them monthly; up to 50 percent report never having had a lucid dream.

Surprisingly, lucid dreaming is a skill that can be learned.

Lucid dreaming could be an opportunity to “reach new heights of self-exploration and self-knowledge” by opening a new way to explore your mind, said Benjamin Baird, a psychology research assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies cognition, consciousness and dreaming.

It’s also fun, a strategy for unlocking creativity and a therapy for nightmares.

Some people find it easy to learn to lucid dream. Others find it more challenging. Baird said he “threw the kitchen sink” at learning to lucid dream and went from “nothing” to having a lucid dream weekly at his peak.

“Most people just do it for fun because you are a director in your own movie, basically,” said Martin Dresler, principal investigator of the Sleep and Memory Lab at the Donders Institute in the Netherlands. “And even if you do not have much control over the dream, most people have control over themselves and can therefore sort of do whatever they like in their dream.”

Controlling what happens in a dream is separate from being lucid and aware, he said.

A community on Reddit dedicated to lucid dreaming has over 529,000 users sharing their adventures and swapping tips.

Lucid dreaming can also be a font of creative inspiration.

Baird said he knows of several visual artists who literally dream up their next creations by imagining an art gallery with those creations behind a closed door before opening it. When they awoke, the artists would reconstruct what they saw.

But what the artists saw in the dream art gallery was produced by their own brain. “It’s like the coolest thing ever,” Baird said. “They’re sort of tapping into some other part of their mind-brain using this technique for creative inspiration that we don’t normally have access to.”

Clinically, lucid dreaming is also used to treat recurring nightmares, which affect about 4 percent of adults. In a 2018 position paper, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommended lucid dreaming therapy as a way for people to confront their nightmares directly.

Though more research is needed, it seems “people are able to achieve some level of healing in some cases by engaging in these practices and working in the right context with a qualified clinician,” Baird said.

The science of lucid dreams

Dreams can occur throughout sleep, but lucid dreams occur almost exclusively during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a stage where our body is mostly immobile save for our eyes.

Lucid dreams also tend to happen most frequently during periods of higher central nervous system activation such as increased heart rate, faster breathing and more frequent eye movement, Baird said.

The neurotransmitter acetylcholine — already known to be important for REM sleep regulation — seems to be involved.

In a 2018 double-blind study on 121 trained participants, Baird and his colleagues reported that the drug galantamine, which increases acetylcholine by inhibiting its degradation, stimulates more lucid dreaming.

Participants at the highest dose had lucid dreams 42 percent of the time; those receiving the placebo reported lucid dreams only 14 percent of the time.

What a lucid dreaming brain looks like is not entirely clear, however.

There have been just a handful of EEG-recording studies and one functional MRI neuroimaging case study on one person over the years, yielding mixed results on what brain activity signifies lucid dreaming, Baird said.

It appears that the prefrontal brain areas may be important in lucid dreaming, Dresler said. These areas are involved in “critical thinking and self-directed thought and metacognition” — thinking about thinking — which corresponds to the state of lucid dreaming in which “we are conscious of our own consciousness,” he said.

More neuroimaging data is required, but such studies are expensive, and there are technical hurdles inherent to the research subject.

“It’s difficult to get people to fall asleep in the scanner and to get into REM sleep and to have a lucid dream,” Baird said.

Worse yet, lucid dreaming, when it does occur, lasts “rarely more than 30 seconds, a minute or two minutes,” Dresler said. “It is such a rare state, and therefore we have very little data.”

Naturally occurring lucid dreaming does not seem to be harmful. One 2020 study of 20 participants reported that people tended to wake up in a better mood when they achieved more lucidity.

It can take weeks or much longer to master the skill of lucid dreaming, and you can lose it if you don’t practice. Learning how to lucid dream doesn’t mean you can control the topic or other elements of the dram. It means you will be aware you are dreaming.

Practice remembering your dreams.

Keep a dream diary. As soon as you wake, recall and write down your dreams.

Identify themes in your dreams.

The more familiar you are with your dreams, the more you will notice themes that recur, Baird said. These themes are signs you are dreaming.

Remind yourself that experiencing these themes again is a dream sign. Tell yourself as you fall asleep, “when I see that flying dog, I will remember it’s a sign I’m dreaming.”

No matter how bizarre our dreams, our brains are great at tricking us to accept them as real. Reality checks — attempting tasks that are difficult when dreaming — can help you become aware you are in a dream.

Ask yourself what you did five or 10 minutes ago and how you got here. “During wakefulness, you always know what you did the last 10 minutes and how you got there,” Dresler said. “But during a dream, it’s very difficult.”

Another reality check is to try to read some words, look away and try to reread them, something that is often difficult to do in a dream, Dresler said.

Practicing these reality checks during your waking hours means you are more likely to do them while dreaming.

Set the intention to lucid dream.

As you are winding down for sleep, tell yourself you will recognize you are in a dream when you are in a dream, Dresler said.

Consider lucid dream aids.

There are specialized eye masks that detect when you are in REM sleep and flash a red light that may become incorporated in your dreams, acting as another cue that you are dreaming.

Do you have a question about human behavior or neuroscience? Email BrainMatters@washpost.com and we may answer it in a future column.

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