Reality has plenty of exit-hatches: strong drugs, streamed television, certain corners of social media. But the most immersive reality-dissolver might be lucid dreaming, wherein the dreamer recognises they’re dreaming and proceeds to reshape their dreamscape per their own specifications. A slight disreputableness clings to the phenomenon – it sounds like a schoolyard fiction, the kind of thing a kid would make up to impress his friends. But there are thousands who claim to experience them regularly, and countless guides online purporting to teach you how to achieve them. So is lucid dreaming real? And – if it is – what’s the science behind it? To find out, for this week’s Giz Asks we reached out to a number of experts in the interrelated fields of sleeping and dreaming.
Associate Professor, Psychology, University of Arizona, whose research focuses on how sleep and stress influence human memory and psychological function
It definitely is real, even though it sounds crazy – like some kind of mysterious finding that could never be scientifically replicated. But actually, there’s real empirical work in support of lucid dreaming.
There’s a misconception that it’s rare, or really difficult to achieve. We actually know that quite a few people can learn to do it. There’s a lot of evidence coming from my lab and others that the sleeping brain will selectively process instructions or memories that you give it before you go to bed. So for instance if you’re studying for an exam, one of the best things you can do is read your notes one last time before you go to sleep, because you’re telling the sleeping brain what to focus on. This also works if you’re trying to solve a problem, or come up with an insight or a creative solution. In my studies, at least 80% of people who go to bed with the intention of remembering their dreams for three weeks will start reporting very vivid dreaming. Often these are people who never remembered their dreams before, who were convinced they don’t dream.
Lucid dreaming is harder than that, but you can teach people to start trying to become aware of things that don’t quite make sense. One common instruction is look down at your hands: do you have the proper number of fingers? Are they in the right spot? If there’s a clock in your dream, is it telling a reasonable time? Are the hands in the right place? Usually, when people are learning to become lucid they’ll have a quick moment of lucidity and then wake up. Over time, if you keep practicing, a lot of people will just kept better at it.
There’s a man named Stephen LaBarge, a Stanford psychologist, who was so far ahead of his time on this phenomenon. He came up with some of the most convincing evidence years ago, and nobody really believed it. Maybe some people just didn’t think it was important. He’d teach people ahead of time to signal with their eyes – left-right-left, or other sequences – to mark when they’d begun lucid dreaming.
When you’re lucid dreaming, you’re definitely still asleep – but “sleep,” as a term, is kind of a misnomer. Sleep is a collection of vastly different brain-states. And late night or early morning REM sleep – which is when lucid dreaming occurs – looks a lot more like wakefulness in a lot of ways than it does like deep sleep.
But there’s really new, fascinating and – I have to say – preliminary evidence that what’s happening in lucid dreaming is that people are activating a part of their brain. There’s a part of your brain called the prefrontal cortex, and during REM sleep it’s totally shut down – it’s deactivated. It’s the part of your brain that tells you that you can’t fly across your room – which is why, in REM dreams, you can fly without questioning how crazy that is. You don’t realize that that’s bizarre until you wake up. And there’s preliminary evidence that what may be going on during REM sleep lucid dreaming is that you’ve somehow reactivated that prefrontal cortex, which allows you to have insight into your dreams, and (in the most extreme version of lucidity) control.
“When you’re lucid dreaming, you’re definitely still asleep – but “sleep,” as a term, is kind of a misnomer. Sleep is a collection of vastly different brain-states. And late night or early morning REM sleep – which is when lucid dreaming occurs – looks a lot more like wakefulness in a lot of ways than it does like deep sleep.”
Professor of Psychology and Director of the Dream & Nightmare Laboratory at Universite de Montreal
This question is somewhat ambiguous and could be understood in two senses: 1) does the phenomenon of lucid dreaming really exist, i.e. are some people really able to become aware that they are dreaming while they continue dreaming? And 2) are the very vivid sensory impressions one has while lucid dreaming some form of an alternate ‘reality’?
The second sense of the question touches on issues of the ultimate nature of reality and of human belief systems in such reality (e.g., animism). These issues have not been answered definitively by science and will not be addressed further by me.
The first sense of the question, however, is easy for me to answer, not only because I am a dream researcher familiar with the relevant research on lucid dreaming, but because I have had many lucid dreams myself. In short, I’ve been there and done that – not once but many times, so I am convinced beyond a doubt that the phenomenon really exists. However, because vociferous claims are not the same as empirical proof, it is important to ask: what is the research evidence that supports this claim?
There has been a lot of evidence available since the 1960s – too much to summarise all of it here. But the most compelling studies – and these have been replicated by several research groups – rest on a strange feature of many lucid dreams: that individuals when dreaming lucidly are able to voluntarily control some of their muscles. While it is increasingly common knowledge that REM sleep, which is when vivid dreaming – including lucid dreaming – typically occurs, is characterised by the paralysis of voluntary muscles (so-called muscle atonia), it is less well-known that some muscle groups are only partially or minimally affected by this paralysis mechanism. Eye muscles are the prime example; for as-yet unknown reasons, eye muscles continue to function despite muscle atonia and are responsible for the infamous ‘rapid eye movements’ from which REM sleep gets its name.
Because of this exception, when a dreamer slips into a lucid dream, very often they are able to make voluntary eye movements while the dream continues. This fact has opened the door to what is referred to as ‘eye-movement signalling’ from within a lucid dream. When entering a lucid dream while sleeping in a laboratory, individuals can execute pre-arranged eye movement sequences, such as a series of left-right-left-right movements, and this movement sequence will appear on the lab polysomnograph as a clearly identifiable set of line tracings that are different from the rapid eye movements of REM sleep. Importantly, these eye-movement signals occur even though the polysomnograph indicates that REM sleep, and its accompanying dream, continue.
Participants can also repeat eye-movement signals at strategic times during their lucid dream, for example, just before and just after performing a planned experiment, like counting to 10 or walking 10 steps. These dream behaviours can then be compared objectively against similar behaviours executed during the waking state. Comparisons show that the durations of many dream behaviours take about the same time to execute as waking state behaviours, although they may be a bit slower at times (this does not really support the claim in the movie Inception that time is dramatically slowed in lucid dreams).
So, in sum, the eye-movement signalling method has allowed dream researchers to demonstrate not only that lucid dreaming is real, as so many lucid dreamers have claimed, but that the behaviours intentionally executed in these dreams unfold in near-real time like they would in wakefulness.
“When entering a lucid dream while sleeping in a laboratory, individuals can execute pre-arranged eye movement sequences, such as a series of left-right-left-right movements, and this movement sequence will appear on the lab polysomnograph as a clearly identifiable set of line tracings that are different from the rapid eye movements of REM sleep. Importantly, these eye-movement signals occur even though the polysomnograph indicates that REM sleep, and its accompanying dream, continue.”
Assistant Professor, Neurology, Harvard Medical School, whose research focuses on better understanding the plastic brain processes during sleep, among other things
The short answer is, yes, it’s real. Going by lucid dreaming’s broader definition – i.e., becoming aware that you’re dreaming within the dream itself – I think many people have had that experience. And there are some practices that people use to train themselves to lucid dream - not only to increase their awareness of dreaming within a dream, but also to gain some control over the dream content.
I think where lucid dreaming can become helpful is when it comes to nightmares. As a clinician, I’ve seen a couple of patients who have successfully trained themselves to lucid dream to help cope with and eliminate their nightmares and there are reports in the literature that confirm this phenomenon.
That said, it’s not clear that practicing it continuously would be beneficial. Because lucid dreamers have features of waking and sleeping combined, it remains unclear how this affects the overall quality of sleep and subsequent day-to-day functioning. Nobody has formally studied this - in general, studies on dreaming are very difficult to conduct in a scientific and regulated manner – this is because the dream experience is not transparent to the researcher and therefore they rely on the study participant recounting their dream which mostly consists of fragments and is very subjective.
“...it’s not clear that practicing it continuously would be beneficial. Because lucid dreamers have features of waking and sleeping combined, it remains unclear how this affects the overall quality of sleep and subsequent day-to-day functioning.”
Dream researcher at Harvard and the author of The Committee of Sleep
Lucid dreams are real in the sense of being real dreams; they occur mostly in REM sleep – the stage in which most dreaming occurs, albeit in a version of REM with a few brain areas’ activation midway between REM and waking. A research study of mine titled “Just How Lucid Are Lucid Dreams?” suggested that while they’re by definition lucid as to the dream state, they’re not always everything we might mean by “lucid.” I examined the lucid dreams of 50 subjects as to whether they are also fully lucid for the following corollaries, which should flow logically from knowing one is dreaming: 1) people in the dreams are dream characters, 2) dream objects are not real, i.e., actions will not carry over concretely upon awakening, 3) the dreamer does not need to obey waking-life physics to achieve a goal, and 4) memory of the waking world is intact rather than amnestic or fictitious. Many lucid dreams were too brief to evaluate on all corollaries. Only about half of the lengthier accounts were lucid for any particular corollary and less than a quarter were lucid on all four. Dreamers made pacts with their characters to phone each other to prove they’d shared the same dream; one who became lucid when she realised she was wearing a barrette she only wore to bed nevertheless took it for the real object, being very careful not to damage it. More experienced lucid dreamers tended to be lucid about more corollaries. In the dream journals of these frequent lucid dreamers, a related and reciprocal category of dreams that were lucid in terms of some of these four corollaries, but missing the realisation that “I’m dreaming” were also examined. These comprised 4% of the total dreams. Dreamer occasionally realised that events were not real but misattributed the cause to “I’m the director of a play” or “I’m in a deep trance.” Other times they simply realised the corollary without ever wondering about it’s cause such as in the following two examples:
“This was a special situation and I could just walk through the wall although this would usually be impossible...”
“... I knew the man wasn’t real, that I was making him up, and should be able to make him take it back if I didn’t like this...”