Your white knuckles clutch onto a cold concrete ledge as you peer down at the ant-sized people scurrying about below you. You’re about to fall, but what if you knew it was all just a dream? Would you take a leap of faith, spread your arms wide, and soar over the city lights? What if it was possible to consciously experience wild adventures like that in the safety and comfort of your bed? Welcome to the world of lucid dreaming.
A person with a typical lifespan will spend six years dreaming, and those six years will probably be the strangest in their life.
Decreased activity in your brain’s prefrontal cortex—the region used for planning and logic—explains why you never question that your arms are made of spaghetti or that your teeth are falling out in a dream. A lucid dream is different, though.
Within a lucid dream, you’re consciously aware that you’re dreaming, and in some cases, you can even control the course of the dream.
It’s sort of like the movie Inception, where Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Dom Cobb has conscious awareness of his actions within dreams, except with less Hollywood exaggeration and a budget significantly less than $160 million. With lucid dreaming, you can have a Hollywood action adventure totally for free!
Unfortunately, though, lucid dreams are quite rare. Only about 20% of people experience them monthly or more. What’s more, this heightened level of conscious awareness is most common in children, young adults, and those with good sleeping habits, which unfortunately excludes the vast majority of us.
Given how few people seem to experience them, it’s easy to view the whole concept as a fantasy. After all, skeptics can argue that it’s possible people are simply dreaming that they have control of their dream—it’s the ultimate illusion.
Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
The lucid dreaming phenomenon lacked serious scientific credibility up until 1975, when Keith Hearne of Hull University, England, performed a pioneering study.
During REM sleep, an area at the base of the brain called the pons sends a signal that shuts off the spinal cord neurons and causes full-body muscle paralysis. If that sounds like the stuff of nightmares, it’s because it sort of is; it’s during the REM stage of sleep that nightmares, dreams, and lucid dreaming occur.
Yet while muscle paralysis sounds a bit frightening, it’s what stops us from acting out our dreams, allowing us to fight the bad guys without strangling our partners (If you actually are fighting bad guys and strangling your partner in your sleep you might have a condition called REM behavior disorder. Those with REM behavior disorder act out, talking, hitting, and punching in their sleep.).
Hearne realized that it was the one and only part of you that can still move while you’re dreaming, the eyes, that would be the key to communicating with the outside world from within a dream.
Meanwhile, Stanford University psychophysiologist Stephen LaBerge, who is often recognized as the pioneer in lucid dreaming research, was making similar revelations.
In his 1981 study that was, unlike Hearne’s, published in a peer-reviewed journal, sleeping participants used a pre-determined set of eye movements to communicate to the outside world that they were aware they were dreaming, with a 90% success rate. Lucid dreams were finally recognized as real.
Current research suggests that lucid dreaming is a hybrid state of consciousness. Electroencephalogram (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain studies reveal that lucid dreams are accompanied by particular brain activity, with differences in electrical brain wave patterns from both wakefulness and REM sleep.
During lucid dreaming, the frontal and temporal regions of the brain show increased activity in the lower gamma frequency band at around 40Hz.
In the 2014 study Induction of self awareness in dreams through frontal low current stimulation of gamma activity published in Nature, 27 volunteers, all inexperienced in lucid dreaming, attended a slumber party held in the sleep laboratory of the Department of Clinical Neurophysiology, University Medical Center, Gottingen.
Ursula Voss and her research team used a relatively new (and somewhat scary-sounding) brain stimulation technique called fronto-temporal transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) on the volunteers in order to investigate the link between brain wave frequency and lucid dreaming.
The study found that brain stimulation at 40 Hz, and to a lesser degree 25 Hz, successfully induced lucid dreaming and resulted in increased electroencephalographic (EEG) activity in the low gamma frequency band.
Fake stimulation and stimulation using other frequencies didn’t have the same effect. If you’re struggling to achieve a lucid dream by yourself, though, it’s probably best not to try brain zapping at home.
There’s a higher purpose than sex dreams
Believe it or not, there are more important applications of lucid dreaming than being able to sack your boss or sleep with A-list celebrities within your dreams. People who experience reoccurring nightmares could benefit from the ability to consciously confront their demons, and this could have important ramifications for sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
There’s even stories of a man who cured his chronic pain using a lucid dream! It’s really little wonder that so many people are obsessed with achieving dream lucidity.
There also appears to be an overlap in the brain areas active during lucid dreaming and those regions impaired in psychotic patients.
Since the times of Greek mythology, where Hypnos, the god of sleep, had a son Morpheus (the god of dreams) and sister Lyssa (the goddess of madness), humankind has recognized a link between dreams and psychosis.
Advancing our understanding of REM sleep and lucid dreaming may help us better understand psychosis and could even help in the testing of antipsychotic medication.
Lucid dreams are an intriguing phenomenon. While their neurobiological basis is still controversial, we know for sure that achieving one is a highly sought-after experience. A simple web search reveals a bewildering range of websites boasting all the answers. Yet despite this, the experience of lucid dreaming is still one that many of us can only dream of (pun intended).