What is Lucid Dreaming? (History, Benefits, and Techniques)

There's been a lot of recent discussion about the ability to practice something called lucid dreaming.

Perhaps the release of the film, Inception, launched what is now an ongoing fascination with consciousness, dreaming, and memory.

Today's tools of neuroscience are making it easier than ever to examine this behavior, which happens during what is now considered a "hybrid-REM state."

But what is it, and how does one go about doing it?

What is lucid dreaming?

This is a form of dreaming in which the dreamer is conscious, to some extent, of dreaming while actually participating in the dreaming process. 

Dr. Berit Brogaard, D.M.Sci. wrote last February in her Psychology Today column, The Superhuman Mind, that she theorizes there are 4 different levels of lucid dreaming: 

The difference between a lucid dreamer and an ordinary dreamer boils down to one behavior, according to Brogaard:

A lucid dreamer actively uses conscious controls in the prefrontal cortex while the rest of his brain is in a dream-like state. An ordinary dreamer, meanwhile is not actively using any part of their brain during dreams.

The science behind lucid dreaming

Prior to the explosion in neuroscientific research, lucid dreaming was a focus among both sleep and dream researchers. In the decades of the 1960s-1980s, dream research, centered on lucid dreaming, enjoyed a renaissance.

This included interesting evidence collected from Drs. LaBerge, Nagel, Dement, and Zarcone (1981) that showed a measurable relationship between gaze shifts reported in lucid dreams and recorded polysomnographic evidence of corresponding eye movements.

The growth in neuroscience has made it possible for researchers to shine a light on this aspect of sleeping.

A neurobiological model of lucid dreaming used at Macalester College suggests that lucid dreaming activates multiple areas of the brain—the frontal, temporal, parietal, and occipital—regions of the brain.

This activation is markedly different from brain activity recorded in those who are dreaming, but not lucidly.

One interesting finding from researcher JL Vincent suggests there exists a "substrate of consciousness" in the frontal-parietal area of the brain that is activated only during lucid dreaming. This was discovered during brain research intended to identify how human brains operate differently from those of macaque monkeys.  

With the large numbers of American soldiers returning from service with diagnosed PTSD, examining lucid dreaming opens up new scientific research into potential, if novel, approaches to treating psychiatric illness and trauma. According to statistics published in Inverse last December, 96 percent of those with diagnosed PTSD encounter vivid nightmares which force them to revisit original trauma. 

Lucid dream expert Brigitte Holzinger, director of the Institute of Consciousness and Dream Research in Vienna, is hoping to unlock lucid dreaming as a means for treatming nightmares by developing "dream empowerment" skills for people working through PTSD.

One psychologist, J. Timothy Green, as turned lucid dreaming into a PTSD therapy not unlike hypnotherapy. 

The history of lucid dreaming

Lucid dreaming has been part of the broader discussion and analysis of consciousness since ancient times. Buddhists and yogis both practiced the art of "waking up in sleep."

Aristotle observed that "when one is asleep, there is something in consciousness which declares that what then presents itself is but a dream." 

Later, St. Augustine became the first to record a patient encounter which closely resembles what we now think of as lucid dreaming.

In 1913, Frederik van Eeden, founder of the The Lucidity Institute, coined the term "lucid dream" in an address to the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research. 

As recently as 2012, new research from the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry Studies, led by Dr. Michael Czisch, employed magnetic resonance tomography (MRT) to identify how the specific cortical network (the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the frontopolar regions and the precuneus) which activates during lucid dreaming. Interestingly, these areas of the brain during wakefulness are charged with self-reflexive functions. 

What are the benefits of lucid dreaming?

Ordinary people have turned to lucid dreaming as a tool for self-improvement, fulfillment, and actualization. 

Mariana Sarceda, for Sleep Junkies, reports that lucid dreaming can: 

There could be a dark side to lucid dreaming, however; researcher Jared Zeizel, who authored the book, The Field Guide to Lucid Dreaming, says:

“Lucid dreaming can help you get to the point where you’re standing directly in front of a past trauma... That can be terrifying.”

Psychologist Green suggests that, for those who have trauma, using lucid dreaming as a therapy may (and probably should) require a "dream Sherpa" in order to process what they encounter in a way that is therapeutic. 

Other potential drawbacks of lucid dreaming include:

If you're interested in taking up the practice of lucid dreaming, you should keep these unsettling side effects in mind. 

Lucid dreaming techniques

According to the Lucid Dreaming Experience, a magazine for lucid dreamers, the success of any lucid dream encounter depends upon what happens within the first 30 seconds after the dreamer becomes conscious that they are dreaming.

If you are able to recognize that midway between dream state and consciousness, then the editors suggest you must 4 key steps to maximize the experience. They call these steps the MEME:

  1. Modulate your emotions (intensity of emotion can activate consciousness and collapse the dream); 
  2. Elevate your awareness ("test" the content and milieu of the dream consciously in order to be actively engaged in it, such as by choosing to levitate in the dream); 
  3. Maintain your focus (as it becomes easy to become distracted and lose one's novel engagement with the dream), and
  4. Establish your intent (by "sitting in the director's chair" and consciously choosing how to proceed inside the dream state).

This approach merely scratches the surface of techniques and theories for reining in one's ability to lucid dream. If you wish to study the topic further, current masters include Lucy Gillis, Stephen LaBerge, Paul Tholey, Robert Waggoner, and the aforementioned Dr. Berit Brogaard and Brigitte Holzinger. 


Sources: 

The Field Guide to Lucid Dreaming. Zeizel, J. ©2009
The Institute of Consciousness and Dream Research
Inverse.com 
Lucid Dreaming Experience
Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self. Waggoner, R. ©2009
Lucidity.com
The Lucidity Institute 
Macalester College
Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry Studies (via Science Daily)
Psychology Today
Sleep Junkies (blog)

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