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The Truth Behind Lucid Dreaming

By: Sai Srihaas Potu

Lucid dreaming is one of the most intriguing topics in neuroscience research. Recent studies have investigated the extent to which lucid dreaming can influence the evaluation of ideas and change behavioral methods. Being able to determine why lucid dreams occur and how we can control them, will greatly develop research and treatment for different sleep disorders. Lucid dreaming is a complex, multi-faceted concept encompassing a variety of related aspects, abilities, properties, and behaviors. This makes studying lucid dreams nearly impossible, however, recent studies have allowed scientists to determine the true capacity and effect that lucid dreaming can have on a human’s mental and psychical state.


Dreams are thoughts that are out of the control of the dreamer. However, a person who is in a lucid dream can control their thoughts and actions in their dream. Subsequently, lucid dreaming is defined as a phenomenon where one is aware of their surroundings even though they are in an unconscious state of mind. For years the topic of lucid dreaming faced skepticism from scientists and philosophers, however, with the growth of technology and the use of electroencephalographic charts, lucid dreaming has become a relevant and important topic in neuroscience and even psychology research. Lucid dreaming allows people to be aware of their surroundings while also activating the subconscious mind which gives them the ability to perform diverse actions.


The REM (rapid eye movement) phase of sleep is when lucid dreams start to occur, which is also when regular dreams occur. Some researchers believe that neurochemical peculiarities may play an important role in turning on parts of our consciousness when they would generally be turned off.


Previous studies and personal accounts even show that lucid dreaming may have more in common with sleep paralysis than that of regular dreaming. In sleep paralysis, the mind awakens to a certain degree, while the body remains asleep and unable to move. When that happens, individuals usually experience very realistic hallucinations, as though the content of a dream had leaked into the real world.


In a study in 2017, scientists were able to determine that at least 51% of the human population has experienced a lucid dream at least once in their life and 21% experience lucid dreams once a month. Subsequently, the research was able to conclude that people are more likely to experience spontaneous lucid dreams in their childhood. However, as they age the likelihood of lucid dreaming starts to decline. Certain neurophysiological and neurochemical factors can increase the frequency of lucid dreams. During a lucid dream, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the bilateral front polar prefrontal cortex are more active which gives them the ability to control a person’s state of consciousness. These areas are related to higher cognitive functions such as attention and divergent memory.


Despite having been physiologically validated for approximately four decades, the neurobiology of lucid dreaming is still incompletely characterized. Most studies conducted to date have relied on small sample sizes, which limits the generalizability of the findings. Not surprisingly, the results of such underpowered studies are not consistent: almost every EEG study reports changes in spectral power in a different frequency band or brain area. Neuroimaging data on lucid dreaming is even sparser. Currently, there is only one fMRI study contrasting lucid and non-lucid REM sleep and it is a case study.


To this day, many features of lucid dreaming remain a mystery, such as details about the brain mechanisms behind it. Another unknown feature is why lucid dreams can sometimes turn ominous — about 7% of them are, surprisingly, lucid nightmares. These are avenues for future research, which is yet to understand what lucid dreams can achieve for the dreamer, and where they fit on the map of sleep experiences.


Taken together, the latest research on lucid dreaming shows the impact that it can have on a human’s mental and physical state. Increased research on lucid dreams can change the scope of psychology and foster the creation of more advanced sleep medicine. Subsequently, researchers need to analyze the role that the environment can play when trying to stimulate lucid dreams. These findings provide the first evidence that lucid dreams can stimulate exogenous alternative ideas that are normally generated through divergent thinking which occurs when a person is in a conscious state of mind.


References:

1. Aviram L, Soffer-Dudek N. Lucid dreaming: Intensity, but not frequency, is inversely related to psychopathology. Frontier in Psychology. 2018.

2. Baird B, Castelnovo A, Gosseries O, Tononi G. Frequent lucid dreaming associated with increased functional connectivity between frontopolar cortex and temporoparietal association areas. Scientific Reports. 2018.

3. Dresler M, Eibl L, Fischer CF, Wehrle R, Spoormaker VI, Steiger A, Czisch M, Pawlowski M. Volitional components of consciousness vary across wakefulness, dreaming, and lucid dreaming. Frontiers in Psychology. 2014.

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