If you could control your dreams, what would you do? Leap tall buildings in a single bound? Become invisible? Fly? Stop a bullet with your hand? Not just the stuff of Hollywood, many of us do have some control over our dreams. It’s called lucid dreaming and if you can’t already do it, you may be able to learn how.
Knowing you’re dreaming
Imagine you’re asleep, dreaming, and suddenly completely aware that you’re dreaming, but you don’t wake up. Sound bizarre? Probably not if you’ve experienced it. In a lucid dream, you’re fully aware you are dreaming and that your brain has made up everything around you. The fun part is that you get to direct the show and decide what happens next. That’s a very different scenario to ‘normal’ dreams in which you coast along in the passenger seat, passively observing what’s going on around you.
Given that lucid dreaming (or something like it) appears in a number of Blockbuster movies: The Matrix, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and, of course, Inception, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s science fiction. But experts argue we are all capable of lucid dreaming. Research suggests most people experience at least one lucid dream in their lifetime and 20% experience lucid dreaming relatively often. Lucid dreaming appears to be very common in young children but begins to drop off at about age 16. Which is a shame because it turns out there are quite a few benefits to being a lucid dreamer.
The benefits of lucid dreaming
Have you ever done that test where, for example, the word ‘blue’ is written in red ink and you have to name the colour, not the word? It’s called the Stroop Test and, among other things, is designed to assess our reaction times and ability to pay attention to different types of information. Lucid dreamers do better at the Stroop test. People who frequently lucid dream have also been shown to be better at making decisions, and solving word puzzles that test your ability to think outside the square and make associations between unrelated ideas.
Lucid dreamers feel they have more control over events in their lives than non-lucid dreamers. Research has also found people who practice a physical task in a lucid dream (in this case, tossing a coin and catching it in a cup) improve at the task in real life a lot more than those who don’t practice in their dreams. And for some people, lucid dreaming has proved an effective way of banishing recurrent nightmares.
Inside the brains of lucid dreamers
Interestingly, if you monitor the brainwaves of people who claim to have lucid dreamed, they fall somewhere between the waves we see in people who are dreaming and those who are awake. And scientists have managed to induce lucid dreaming in people who have never experienced it before by zapping a particular area of the scalp with a weak electrical current.
So what’s going on in the brains of lucid dreamers? Last year, researchers scanned the brains of people who frequently lucid dream and those who don’t. The study looked at both the structure and function of the brain and they certainly found differences. Lucid dreamers have more grey matter, which processes information, in an area of the brain responsible for complex behaviours. They also have a larger anterior prefrontal cortex, which is the region of the brain involved in our ability to self-reflect. Lucid dreamers are better at reflecting on, and describing, their own mental states. Put simply, they are more self-aware when awake than non–lucid dreamers.
How can you learn?
A quick web search, and you’ll be bombarded with the latest apps and other technologies that claim to increase your chances of having a lucid dream. There are also a variety of online training courses offered by ‘lucid dreaming experts’. Of course, none of these guarantee you’ll start lucid dreaming but they do promise to help you reach the ‘optimum mindset’ necessary for lucid dreaming.
If I sound a little cynical it’s because when reviewed, none of these techniques were found to induce lucid dreams reliably or consistently.
Having said that, there are a number of things you can do to increase your chances of lucid dreaming. First, start a dream journal so you keep track of what you dream about and get used to paying more attention to your dreams. Second, start using small ‘reality checks’ when you’re awake. For example, check and then recheck the time on a clock, or count how many fingers you have. If you’re awake, these checks won’t reveal anything unusual. But if you’re dreaming, all bets are off. Fifteen fingers? Sure, why not. The idea is that if you train yourself to check reality often when you’re awake, it will become second nature and you’ll start doing it when you’re asleep too. And that’s when having 15 fingers will be a sure sign you’re dreaming.
Third, decide you want to dream lucidly before you go to bed and plan your dream. Tell yourself over and over ‘I will have a lucid dream tonight’. And finally, set your alarm for an hour earlier than you usually get up. Keep busy for an hour and then focus on trying to have a lucid dream when you go back to bed.
That all sounds easy enough, right? Now all I have to do is work out whether I have actually just finished writing this blog post and can go to bed, or whether I only dreamed it.
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