Real-Life Fantasy: The Neuroscience of Lucid Dreaming
Think back to the recent dreams you’ve had. What was it like to experience that world inside your mind?
If you’re like most people, your dreams probably seem cryptic and confusing. Dreaming feels like plunging into a world where nothing makes sense, and strange things happen outside of your control. It’s only when you wake up that you realize it was only in your mind, not in reality.
But what if you could write your own dream narrative? What if you could shape your dreams in whatever way you please? That’s the concept behind lucid dreaming.
Lucid dreaming refers to a special type of dream where you’re consciously aware that you’re dreaming. You’re able to take control of what happens in your dream world, and how you react.
In a lucid dream, you’re limited only by your imagination. You can give yourself superpowers and visit faraway lands. It’s truly a magical experience.
Researchers estimate that 55% of people experience at least one lucid dream during their lifetime.¹ Let’s examine how and why lucid dreams occur, and whether you can learn to lucid dream.
Conscious in Dreamland
Our waking and dreaming states exist in different levels of consciousness. When we’re awake, we’re fully conscious and aware that we’re awake. When we’re in a non-lucid dream, we don’t realize that we’re dreaming—we’re unaware of our state of consciousness.
Psychologists describe this difference with the term metacognition: the ability to evaluate our own state of consciousness.² Metacognition is essentially thinking about thinking.
Ann Danilina / Unsplash
So how does lucid dreaming fit into this equation? We can think of it as a hybrid state, somewhere in between wakefulness and non-lucid dreams.³ We’re not awake, but we’re aware that we’re in a dream state.
Neuroscientific evidence supports the idea of the hybrid lucid-dream state. Areas of the brain involved in metacognition and self-reflection, such as the prefrontal cortex, are typically deactivated during non-lucid sleep, but show increased activation during lucid dreams.⁴ Measures of electrical activity reveal distinct patterns of brain activation during a lucid dream.⁵
The types of metacognitive abilities that you experience in a lucid dream are also unique. While conscious planning ability is highest during the waking state, the ability to act out our conscious intentions is enhanced in lucid dreams.⁶ In a lucid dream, we can think about what we want to happen and make it happen—free from the constraints of logic and reality.
Benefits of Lucid Dreaming
Bruce Christianson / Unsplash
It turns out that lucid dreams are both fascinating and useful! Research shows that lucid dreaming has many benefits, including:
1. Nightmare Reduction
For people who suffer from nightmares, lucid dreaming can be a powerful tool. In one study, lucid dreaming training significantly reduced nightmare frequency when combined with traditional cognitive therapy.⁷
When you’re able to take conscious control of the narrative, the dream world feels less scary and unpredictable. You’re no longer at the mercy of your own subconscious—you get to decide what happens!
2. Stress Relief
Research on the stress-relieving properties of lucid dreaming is still in its early stages. However, subjects in one study reported lower stress levels and higher self-esteem after successful lucid dreaming.⁸
Lucid dreaming is also just plain fun. Controlling your own dream allows you to have experiences that are impossible in the real world. In a lucid dream, the rules of the waking world don’t apply. This freedom from the constraints of reality can feel liberating and deeply exhilarating.
Serkan Turk / Unsplash
Lucid dreaming sure sounds great, but how do you do it? For some people, lucidity comes naturally—but for most of us, it doesn’t.
Unfortunately, there’s no scientific consensus on the best way to induce lucid dreams.⁹ But many ideas are being tested, with promising results.
Several studies¹⁰ have found lucidity-inducing effects of the drug galantamine, which acts in brain pathways related to learning and memory.¹¹ Scientists have also attempted to induce lucid dreams using electrical brain stimulation, with mixed results so far.¹²
Some researchers view lucid dreaming as a skill that can be learned using cognitive training. The most popular training program is called Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (MILD), and has yielded weakly positive results.¹³ MILD involves a four-step process:¹⁴
Wake up early in the morning.
Immediately try to recall any dreams that you had, then stay awake for 10-15 more minutes.
Say to yourself repeatedly, Next time I dream, I’m going to remember I’m dreaming.
As you fall back asleep, visualize yourself being in a dream. Picture your body lying in bed, engaged in a dream.
Zoltan Tasi / Unsplash
Next time you sail off to the dream world, consider using this MILD protocol—or try out a lucid-dream meditation on YouTube. Lucid dreaming is all about finding what works for you, so you might need to try many different methods before succeeding.
If you’re attempting to lucid dream, make sure you do so safely. People who experience psychosis or hallucinations, for instance, are advised not to try lucid dreaming—it may worsen symptoms.¹⁵ Safe lucid dreaming requires you to enter your dreams with a calm, peaceful mindset.
Don’t be discouraged: it may take some time, but as many lucid dreamers will tell you, the experience is well worth the effort!
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. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2016.06.002
Baird, B., Castelnovo, A., Gosseries, O., & Tononi, G. (2018). Frequent Lucid Dreaming Associated With Increased Functional Connectivity Between Frontopolar Cortex and Temporoparietal Association Areas. Scientific Reports, 8. doi:10.1038/s41598-018-36190-w
Voss, U., Holzmann, R., Tuin, I., & Hobson, A. J. (2009). Lucid Dreaming: A State of Consciousness with Features of Both Waking and Non-Lucid Dreaming. Sleep, 32(9), 1191-1200. doi:10.1093/sleep/32.9.1191
Dresler, M., Wehrle, R., Spoormaker, V. I., Koch, S. P., Holsboer, F., Steiger, A., . . . Czisch, M. (2012). Neural Correlates of Dream Lucidity Obtained from Contrasting Lucid versus Non-Lucid REM Sleep: A Combined EEG/fMRI Case Study. Sleep, 35(7), 1017-1020. doi:10.5665/sleep.1974
Voss et al. (2009)
Dresler, M., Eibl, L., Fischer, C. F., Wehrle, R., Spoormaker, V. I., Steiger, A., . . . Pawlowski, M. (2014). Volitional Components of Consciousness Vary Across Wakefulness, Dreaming, and Lucid Dreaming. Frontiers in Psychology. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00987
Holzinger, B., Klösch, G., & Saletu, B. (2015). Studies With Lucid Dreaming as Add‐on Therapy to Gestalt Therapy. Acta Neurologica Scandinavica, 131(6), 355-363. doi:10.1111/ane.12362
Konkoly, K., & Burke, C. T. (2019). Can Learning to Lucid Dream Promote Personal Growth? Dreaming, 29(2), 113-126. doi:10.1037/drm0000101
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. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2012.07.003
LaBerge, S., LaMarca, K., & Baird, B. (2018). Pre-Sleep Treatment With Galantamine Stimulates Lucid Dreaming: A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Crossover Study. PLOS ONE, 13(8). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0201246
Sparrow, G., Hurd, R., Carlson, R., & Molina, A. (2018). Exploring the Effects of Galantamine Paired With Meditation and Dream Reliving on Recalled Dreams: Toward an Integrated Protocol for Lucid Dream Induction and Nightmare Resolution. Consciousness and Cognition, 63, 74-88. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2018.05.012
Baird, B., Mota-Rolim, S. A., & Dresler, M. (2019). The Cognitive Neuroscience of Lucid Dreaming. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 100, 305-323. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.03.008
Stumbrys et al. (2012)
LaBerge, S. P. (1980). Lucid Dreaming as a Learnable Skill: A Case Study. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 51(3), 1039-1042. doi:10.2466/pms.1980.51.3f.1039
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 in Neuroscience. doi:10.3389/fnins.2019.01423