The science behind lucid dreaming


The science behind lucid dreaming


When we dream, we are usually not aware that we are dreaming, and so even the most unlikely scenarios seem real to us.

However, some people occasionally realise that they are in a dream. This phenomenon is known as “lucid dreaming”, and has caught the attention of researchers and public alike.

Learning to take control of different aspects of your dreams can be used to explore activities, overcome fears, and learn more about your subconscious.

Learning to control aspects of your dreams can be a great way of exploring activities you could never do in real life, facing and overcoming fears, and learning more about your subconscious.


How common are lucid dreams?

Although it is unclear how many people experience lucid dreams, a 2017 study published in the journal Imagination, Cognition and Personality: Consciousness in Theory, Research, and Clinical Practice suggested that around 51% of people experience a lucid dream at least once in their life, and around 20% experienced lucid dreams at least monthly.

The study also notes that people are more likely to experience lucid dreams as a child, with the likelihood beginning to decrease in early adolescence.

“After the age of 25, spontaneous onset of lucid dreaming appears to be very infrequent,” the study authors write.

The researchers examined whether personality traits could affect a person’s likelihood of experiencing lucid dreams, and found that being open to new experiences correlates positively with lucid dreaming frequency. However, agreeableness does not. They also found that neuroticism has associations with a higher frequency.


Lucid dreams and sleep disturbances

Denholm Aspy, Ph.D., who researches lucid dreaming, spoke to Medical News Today about lucid dreaming and suggested that some neurophysiological and neurochemical factors will also affect lucid dreaming likelihood.

Lucid dreaming tends to occur during the REM (rapid eye movement) phase of sleep, when most regular dreams occur. There is a possibility that neurochemical peculiarities could cause some parts of consciousness to be “switched on” when they would normally be “switched off.”

“I’m speculating a little bit here, but some people might just tend to produce more of the neurotransmitters that pause REM sleep, typically acetylcholine,” Aspy told MNT.

“You might have some random variation in neurology or neurochemistry […] I know that people with narcolepsy tend to have a lot more lucid dreams than the average person, and they’re having a lot of sleep disturbances,” he went on to say.

Some studies and anecdotal experiences suggest that lucid dreaming could have more in common with sleep paralysis than regular dreaming.

Sleep paralysis occurs when the mind wakes up to a certain degree, while the body remains asleep and unable to move. People then tend to experience very realistic hallucinations.

A 2017 study featured in the Journal of Sleep Research discovered a significant positive correlation between lucid dreaming and sleep paralysis.

“It is […] likely that these sleep experiences are underlined by similar neurophysiology,” the study authors write.

They also note that “[d]issociative experience was the only common predictor of both sleep paralysis and lucid dreaming frequency, indicating that individuals who experience both unusual sleep experiences also experience greater dissociative experiences in daily life.”


The role of diet and meditation

As well as neurochemical and neurophysiological factors, there may also be other reasons affecting whether a person is likely to experience lucid dreams – one of which, Aspy explains, could be nutrition.

“People that are low in certain vitamins […] they tend to have poor dream recall and not have lucid dreams at all,” Aspy said, “whereas, for example, in my study that I published [in 2017], I found that giving people vitamin B-6 supplements caused them to remember more of their dreams, and that could be useful for having lucid dreams as well.”

In the study mentioned above, individuals who took 240mg of vitamin B-6 for four nights before bed found it easier to remember their dreams on waking.

“[G]eneral dream recall is the most important predictor of lucid dreams,” Aspy told MNT. This shows that small changes to a person’s diet may make it more likely that people are able to recall their regular dreams when they wake up, as well as being able to turn regular dreams into lucid dreams with greater ease.

A 2015 study also found that meditation plays a role – the study showed that people who had practiced meditation for a long time generally had more lucid dreams.

This, the researchers explain, makes sense because “[a]ttention to the present state of consciousness in wakefulness and contemplating whether the current experience might be a dream is one of the core techniques […] in modern lucid dream practice.”


What happens in the brain?

“Lucid dreaming is a hybrid state of consciousness with features of both waking and dreaming,” write Julian Mutz and Amir-Homayoun Javadi in a review they published in Neuroscience of Consciousness in 2017.

In their review, Mutz and Javadi examined previous studies examining brain activity during sleep, specifically during periods of regular dreaming versus lucid dreaming.

The researchers discovered that during lucid dreaming, there is increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the bilateral frontopolar prefrontal cortex, the precuneus, the inferior parietal lobules, and the supramarginal gyrus.

All of these brain areas are related to higher cognitive functions, such as working memory, planning, attention, and self-consciousness.

The researchers also found that during a lucid dream, “levels of self-determination (i.e., the subjective experience of acting freely according to one’s will)” were similar to what people experience while awake. During regular dreams, self-determination was significantly reduced.

Tadas Stumbrys, Ph.D. notes that lucid dreaming is tempting for many people who often use it for “wish fulfilment”.

Although it is possible to become better at lucid dreaming, it is only possible to control limited aspects of the dream at once. “I’ve never heard of anyone who can control everything about a lucid dream at the same time,” said Aspy.

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