The current science of lucid dreaming and how you can learn to do it.
When I was a child, I was constantly plagued by nightmares. Nightmares of being chased by monsters or hunted by “the bad men”. The nightmares were relentless and I was scared of falling asleep. But, one night I realized that if I was killed in the dream, I would merely lay in darkness for a few moments before re-animating in a new dream (I wouldn't actually die).
This conscious awareness was the beginning of my lucid dreaming journey.
Slowly, I learned that I could make magical doors appear and escape the monsters. I could jump off buildings and breathe underwater since this was a dream world and not the real world. If the dream was too horrific to endure, I could even wake myself up by shutting my eyes really tight, then opening them simultaneously in the dream world and the real world. (Although sometimes this would not be successful, resulting in a dream within a dream, like in the Inception movie).
Lucid dreaming is more common than you think and it probably started when you were a kid
The term, lucid dreaming, is broadly applied to those dreams where the person realizes they are dreaming and/or controls the narrative of their dream.
About half the population has had a lucid dream, but not consistently
A meta-analysis of 34 different studies from 1966–2016, found that about 55% of people have experienced lucid dreaming at some point in their lives.
However, it is often sporadic. Studies showing only 11–20% of people having a lucid dream more than once a month (depending on the study). It also seems to be more common in women than in men, and as we get older, the ability to lucid dream seems to decrease.
The onset of lucid dreaming starts in early childhood
An online survey of 2,492 people showed that lucid dreaming often begins spontaneously in children as young as 3–4 years old and decreases with adolescence. According to the study, if you haven’t experienced lucid dreaming by age 25, it is unlikely that you ever will (although new research suggests that this may not be true and the ability can be taught! — I will discuss this later).
Neuroticism and other psychological traits correlated with lucid dreaming
The study mentioned above talks about the relationship between personality traits and lucid dreaming. In psychology, the “Big Five” personality traits are openness, neuroticism, agreeableness, extraversion, and conscientiousness. This grouping of traits is also called the OCEAN model.
It appears that a person’s “openness to experiences” is positively correlated to lucid dreaming. This means that if you tend to be more inventive/curious than consistent/cautious, then you may be more likely to lucid dream.
Neuroticism, which often results in a person experiencing emotions very strongly (hyper-emotional), also appears to be positively correlated to lucid dreaming. These people are more likely to experience anxiety and depression. One has to wonder if lucid dreaming is the body’s way of dealing with these highly emotional states during sleep. More research in this area is necessary.
In my personal case, this trait assessment seems somewhat accurate.
Science caveat — correlation is not causation. Just because it seems that people with the ability to lucid dream also have these traits, does not mean these traits cause lucid dreaming or vice versa.
Does the lucid-dreaming brain look different from the typical dreaming brain?
Interestingly, there appears to be more activity in several parts of the brain during lucid dreaming, according to researchers Mutz and Javadi. One such area is the frontoparietal region, which is responsible for turning on reflective capabilities. This means that you can process and evaluate situations during a lucid dream. Typically, this area of the brain is active during a waking state and not a dreaming state.
Lucid dreaming is a hybrid state of consciousness having aspects of both the waking brain and the sleeping brain.
This seems plausible since there are instances in the animal kingdom where some consciousness is maintained during sleep. For example, dolphins shut off half of their brain at a time to maintain some alertness of their surroundings.
Curiously, the part of the brain responsible for planning does not appear to be active in lucid dreaming (same as regular dreaming). But, perhaps this is not necessary to take action inside a dream. The researchers think that it is more of a spontaneous decision to take action during the dream, instead of a planned task.
The key to lucid dreaming and overcoming obstacles in the dream seems to be knowing that the dream is not reality.
Can you learn to lucid dream as an adult?
In the personality trait study discussed above, the authors mention that lucid dreaming is not likely to appear organically after the age of 25. However, Dr.Denholm Aspy from the University of Adelaide, believes it can be taught.
1. Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (MILD) Technique
The participant sets an alarm for 5 hrs after going to bed. When the alarm goes off, the participant must say “the next time I’m am dreaming, I will remember that I am dreaming”, then they can return to sleep.
2. Wake Back to Bed (WBTB) Technique
Similarly to the MILD technique, the participants sleep for 5-6 hrs, then wake up and stay awake for about 20–30 min (a good time to think about lucid dreaming or read an article about it), then return to sleep.
In both the WBTB and the MILD technique, the goal is to wake up the dreamer during deep REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep, then have them return to it. (Snoozing my alarm a million times to “go back to the dream” is my version of this).
3. Reality Testing Technique
Several times during both a waking and a dream state — the person tries to ask themselves “Am I dreaming?”
In a dream, things appear normal until you take a closer look. There are many reality tests you can do. For example, try to look in a mirror or at your hands. Try to push against a wall (compare it to the feeling you typically get when you are awake). In my dreams, I can breathe underwater. Clearly, I cannot do this in real life, so I know that I am in a dream.
The three techniques on their own were not very successful in achieving lucid dreaming.
However, combining the three techniques, 53 percent had a lucid dream during the one-week sleep trial period.
If the ability to lucid dream can be taught, it could be used as a therapeutic tool. The initial application scientists are considering is to address nightmares, by getting the person to control the outcome or stop that dream. It could also be used to help overcome phobias. The dream would provide a safe space for phobia exposure therapy, similar to hypnotic therapy.
Overall, our understanding of the dreaming mind is still very limited, and quality research is difficult to obtain. One thing is for certain, lucid dreaming is not a myth. However, why certain people lucid dream, while others do not, is still a mystery.