Lucid Dreams: What They Are and How to Experience Them

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If you’ve ever been aware that you were dreaming before waking from a dream, you’ve experienced what’s known as a lucid dream.

While some dreamers are able to control what occurs in the dream as well as the characters and visual elements, this is not necessary for a lucid dream. What makes a dream lucid is the awareness of dreaming.

Sleep Education article graphics, lucid dreaming

The term lucid dream was first used in an article written by Dutch psychiatrist Frederik Willem van Eeden in 1913. Van Eeden had studied his dreams for nearly twenty years before coining the term in an attempt to describe dreams of unusual mental clarity. Lucid dreaming as a concept has long been a subject of fascination, and goes back hundreds of years. The first recorded mention of lucid dreaming may have been in 350 BC, in Aristotle’s treatise On Dreams.

Lucid dreaming is an essential element of Tibetan Buddhist dream yoga, as well as the ancient Hindu practice of yogic sleep. Both practices encourage the control of dreams as a pathway to enlightenment. In dream-related yoga, the lucid dreamer may be encouraged to change the size of objects that appear in the dream, and to eliminate fear in the dream by touching fire or other normally threatening substances.

Note: The content on Sleepopolis is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t be taken as medical advice, and it shouldn’t take the place of medical advice and supervision from a trained professional. If you feel you may be suffering from any sleep disorder or medical condition, please see your healthcare provider immediately.

Lucid

Easily understood, clear, transparent.

What is Lucid Dreaming?

In normal dreams, consciousness, control, and self-awareness are typically absent. In lucid dreams consciousness and dreaming overlap, creating the unique sense of awareness during sleep. This awareness may allow the dreamer to direct events, perform impossible physical feats such as flying, and control the actions of characters.

Lucid dreams were the subject of much speculation and debate until 1978, when sleep studies began to prove their existence. Sleep researcher Keith Hearne realized that, like other types of dreams, lucid dreaming tends to occur during REM sleep. Though most of the body’s muscles are paralyzed during REM sleep, the eyes are not.

Sleep education article, Lucid dreaming graphic, flying dream

To communicate during a lucid dream, one of Hearne’s study subjects was able to move his eyes left and right eight times successively to communicate his awareness of dreaming. His signals during dreaming tended to occur early in the morning toward the end of a stage of REM sleep.

Later studies showed that lucid dreaming often occurs during moments of particularly high arousal, or change in brain wave activity, in the outer layer of the brain. Recognition of dreaming may occur specifically in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, where working memory, planning, and abstract reasoning occur.

Arousal in the brain tends to occur during times of transition from one sleep stage to another, for instance, from non-REM sleep to REM sleep, or REM sleep to the wake state. Changes in sleep and wake states may be indicated by reductions or increases in heart rate and breathing. (1)

Lucid dreams typically incorporate elements of the vivid dreams that occur during REM sleep, when activity in the brain closely resembles that of wakefulness. It is, in effect, a “hybrid state of consciousness” between REM sleep and waking. (2)

FAQ

Is lucid dreaming the same as dream control? Though similar, lucid dreaming and dream control are different. Lucid dreaming is the awareness of dreaming, though it may involve little to no control over dream events and characters. Dream control may be practiced by rehearsing dreams while awake, and attempting to guide what occurs through conscious intention before dreaming begins.

 

Why Does Lucid Dreaming Happen?

Though it may not be possible to understand exactly why lucid dreams occur, some research reveals that dreams of this type may be associated with times of stress and anxiety, as well as with particular personality types. People with a propensity for lucid dreaming may be more likely to score highly on self-assessments of creativity, and to see themselves as capable of influencing events, also known as possessing an internal locus of control. (3)

Gamma wave activity in the brain appears to be a strong trigger of lucid dreaming. In a German study, 27 people who had never experienced lucid dreaming received a weak electrical current to the frontal lobe of the brain during REM sleep. The gamma wave frequency stimulated lucid dreaming in 77% of volunteers, while the alpha, beta, delta, and theta brain wave frequencies did not create this effect. Other volunteers received no electrical current during the study, and none reported experiencing lucid dreams.  (4)

Sleep education article graphics, lucid dreaming

Gamma waves may trigger lucid dreaming due to their connection with consciousness and memory during the wake state. (5) These types of brain waves are not normally seen during REM sleep, and are the fastest brain wave of the five visible on brain scans. Gamma waves are notable for their tight, consistent pattern on EEG. They are typically associated with high-level information processing, insight, and relaxation.

Studies of Zen Buddhist monks have shown that gamma waves increase and synchronize during meditation, particularly among monks who are long-term practitioners of meditation. Gamma waves appear to modulate perception and consciousness, and may be controllable through long-term training. (6)

Gamma Wave

A pattern of brain waves (or neural oscillation) in human beings, with a frequency between 25 and 100 Hz.

False Awakenings

False awakenings differ from lucid dreams in that the dreamer dreams they have awakened and are going about their normal waking life, when in reality they are still asleep. False awakenings may be associated with sleep fragmentation, as well as the overlapping of the sleep and wake states. Fragmentation may occur as a result of a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome, or due to another disturbance to sleep such as noise or light.

False awakenings seem to be remembered more frequently than typical dreams, and occur just before awakening for the day.

False awakenings appear to be associated with lucid dreaming. Though little research exists about false awakenings, one survey of lucid dreamers revealed that 75% had experienced a false awakening in the last thirty days. (7)

Sleep education graphic, lucid dreams

Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett studied the dreams of 200 subjects,  and discovered that false awakenings were more likely to occur before, during, or after a lucid dream. Because a false awakening is a dream and not bound by narrative limits, more than one false awakening may occur within a false awakening dream. This is called a double dream, or a dream within a dream.

Similar to the false awakening is the continuum dream. In a continuum dream, the dreamer believes they are still awake and that dream events are occurring during the waking state, when they are occurring during sleep. Because continuum dreams tend to happen during the first stage of sleep when muscles are not paralyzed as they are during REM, the dreamer may respond to certain parts of the dream by moving or speaking.

Lucid Dreaming as Therapy

Lucid dreaming may be beneficial as a type of therapy, for nightmares in particular. Some studies have shown that using lucid dreams along with guided imagery and relaxation techniques can lead to a significant reduction in the frequency of nightmares.

In these studies, lucid dreaming was induced through the practice of certain awareness techniques, such as questioning the dream while it was in progress, and attempting to recognize the frightening elements of the dream as a nightmare instead of reality. Study participants were trained to alter certain parts of disturbing dreams as well as their endings. (8)

Most study participants reported improvements in recurrent nightmares, and some reported improved sleep overall. Interestingly, while some participants were unable to experience lucid dreams, they, too, reported an improvement in recurrent nightmares. This may support the idea that simply the notion of exercising control over nightmares could be sufficient to reduce their frequency and intensity in some sufferers.

FAQ

Can lucid dreaming cause sleep paralysis? Sleep paralysis occurs when the mind wakes during REM sleep, but the muscles remain paralyzed by neurotransmitters that prevent the acting out of dreams. Because lucid dreaming involves a level of consciousness during REM sleep, a lucid dreamer may simultaneously experience a brief episode of sleep paralysis.

 

Learning to Experience Lucid Dreams

It may be possible to practice lucid dreaming through a series of techniques, including:

  • Attempting to remember dreams
  • Performing frequent “reality checks” during wakefulness so that such checks become second nature and occur even while asleep
  • Keeping a dream journal
  • Adhering to a regular sleep schedule to encourage regular REM sleep
  • Rehearsing dreams and dream events while awake

Lucid dreaming may also be triggered by practicing MILD, or the Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dream approach. A study from Australia’s University of Adelaide outlined the practice as follows:

  • Set an alarm for five hours after going to bed. Most people dream in the two or three hours before waking. Setting an alarm for five hours into the sleep cycle will increase the odds of waking in the midst of dreaming
  • When the alarm goes off, aim to recall whatever dreaming about before you woke up. If that’s not possible, recall a dream you had recently
  • Continue to lie in bed and repeat this phrase: “Next time I’m dreaming, I will remember I’m dreaming.” Imagine yourself in the dream you just recalled. Visualize yourself in the process of remembering you’re dreaming
  • Repeat the affirmation process while falling back to sleep

Last Word from Sleepopolis

Lucid dreams may sound like something from fiction, but studies and reports from lucid dreamers show that they are quite real. These types of dreams offer a tantalizing glimpse into the world between consciousness and REM sleep, when brain activity allows awareness to penetrate the sleep state.

For many people, lucid dreams offer a feeling of power over the mind (9) during a time when consciousness and awareness are typically absent. The more we understand about lucid dreaming, the better we may understand the connection between the waking and sleeping psyche, and the more accessible our deepest reveries may become.

References

  1. Stephen LaBerge, Pre-sleep treatment with galantamine stimulates lucid dreaming: A double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study, PLOS One, Aug. 8. 2018
  2. Voss U, Holzmann R, Tuin I, Hobson JA., Lucid Dreaming: A State of Consciousness with Features of Both Waking and Non-Lucid Dreaming, Sleep, Sep. 1, 2009
  3. M. Blagrove, Lucid dreaming: associations with internal locus of control, need for cognition and creativity, Personality and Individual Differences, Jan. 1, 2000
  4. Ursula Voss, Induction of self awareness in dreams through frontal low current stimulation of gamma activity, Nature Neuroscience, May 11, 2014
  5. Mikael Lundqvis, Gamma and beta bursts during working memory readout suggest roles in its volitional control, Nature Communications, Jan. 26, 2018
  6. Lutz A, Greischar LL, Rawlings NB, Ricard M, Davidson RJ., Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice, PNAS, Nov. 16, 2004
  7. Buzzi, G., False awakenings in light of the dream protoconsciousness theory: A study in lucid dreamers, International Journal of Dream Research, 2011
  8. Zadra AL, Pihl RO., Lucid dreaming as a treatment for recurrent nightmares, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 1997
  9. Bourke, P., & Shaw, H., Spontaneous lucid dreaming frequency and waking insight. Dreaming, 2014
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Rose is the Chief Research Officer at Sleepopolis, which allows her to indulge her twin passions for dense scientific studies and writing about health and wellness. An incurable night owl, she loves discovering the latest information about sleep and how to get (lots) more of it. She is a published novelist who has written everything from an article about cheese factories to clock-in instructions for assembly line workers in Belgium. One of her favorite parts of her job is connecting with the best sleep experts in the industry and utilizing their wealth of knowledge in the pieces she writes. She enjoys creating engaging articles that are chock full of information and make a difference in people’s lives. Her writing has been reviewed by The Boston Globe, Cosmopolitan, and the Associated Press, and received a starred review in Publishers Weekly. One of her proudest moments as a writer was when she learned that a corporate wellness manual she co-authored helped an office of forty people lose a collective one thousand pounds. When she isn’t musing about sleep, she’s usually at the gym, eating extremely spicy food, or wishing she were snowboarding in her native Colorado. Active though she is, she considers staying in bed until noon on Sundays to be important research.
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