Lucid dreams are dreams that are extremely intense while the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming. Approximately eight out of 10 people have had a lucid dream at least once in their life and a small fraction of these have them as often as once or twice a week.1 Lucid dreams are of interest as their study can inform us about both dreaming and the functioning of the brain. There is evidence that lucid dreaming is useful for treating chronic nightmares and perhaps even anxiety.2
One of the first problems is studying lucid dreaming is to have a method for determining whether a lucid dream is occurring. Sleep researcher Stephen LaBerge of Stanford University came up with the technique of instructing research participants to move their eyes a certain way when they realized they were dreaming. These eye movement signals enabled the researchers to distinguish them from REMs that occur during regular dreaming. Later Ursula Dross and her research team discovered another electrical signal from the brain that distinguished lucid dreaming. This was increased activity in the 40-hertz range(the “gamma band”), that occurred primarily in the frontal lobe. These are the same high frequency waves we generate when we concentrate on a particular object. The coherence of electrical activity in the brain is increased, whereas it is generally decreased during REM sleep. You can thinkof the brain’s activation during REM sleep as being similar to a party where all the guests are speaking simultaneously. In lucid dreams, the party guests tend to converse with one another with lower overall background noise.3
Lucid dreaming has been found useful in treating people who suffer from nightmares. People who learned how to increase their frequency of lucid dreams reported fewer nightmares. It is also hoped that lucid dreaming might alleviate anxiety or phobias, but more research is needed. Lucid dreaming has been helpful for creative endeavors such as creating metaphors, but not for rational exercises such as solving brain teasers.4 Much more research into clinical and practical applications is clearly needed.
It is said that people who follow the following regimen regularly are able to have one or two lucid dreams per week:
Throughout the day, ask yourself repeatedly if you are awake. When this habit becomes ingrained, you might find yourself asking the same question in a dream—at which point your chances of realizing you are dreaming skyrocket.
Look in a mirror or read a bit of text every so often as a “reality check.” In dreams our appearance is often altered and the written word can be hard to pin down. You may carry the habit of checking for these dream signs into sleep, where they could alert you to the fact that you are dreaming.
Keep a dream journal by your bed and jot down the dreams you remember immediately upon waking. Studies who that this practice makes you more aware of your dreams in general, and people who are more aware of their dreams are more likely to have a lucid dream.
Before falling asleep, focus intently on the fantasy you hope to experience in a much detail as possible. Research show that “incubating” an idea just before bed dramatically increased the likelihood that you will dream about it . And if you suddenly notice that you are dancing with a moving star you hoped to meet, you might just realize you are having a dream and be able to take control of what happens next.5
Leonardo da Vinci is said to have practiced this “incubation” before he went to sleep.
1Voss, U. (2011)/. Unlocking the Lucid Dream. Scientific American Mind, November/December 2011, pp. 33-35.
5Adapted from the Lucidity’s Institute Web Site, www.lucidity.com.