Although lucid dreaming may seem like fantasy or fiction, it is a very real experience for many people, backed by science and psychology. Lucid dreaming is primarily a mechanism that takes place in the prefrontal cortex of the brain and occurs when the dreamer is aware that he or she is dreaming while in a dream state.
Lucid dreaming is associated with awareness and reflection of this awareness, and is therefore often associated with what is known as metacognition. Metacognition refers to the ability of people to reflect on their thought processes and the way they learn.
Research to date suggests that lucid dreaming and metacognitive functions share similar neural systems. This would indicate that people who are better at controlling their thoughts are more likely to experience lucid dreams.
Like normal dreams, lucid dreams occur during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, which is characterised by rapid eye movement, lack of muscle tone in the body and the tendency to dream.
Why do we dream?
Experiments by Dr Mark Blumberg, a neuroscientist at the University of Iowa, USA, who has been studying the REM sleep phase since the late 1990s, can give us some important clues, as mentioned in an article in The New Yorker magazine.
Blumberg and his lab team surgically removed the baby rats' cortex - the region of the brain involved in visual imagery and conscious experience, where dreams were believed to originate - leaving only the brainstem, which controls subconscious bodily functions, intact. The sleeping pups were still twitching exactly as they had before the surgery. "It was impossible for the twitching to be a by-product of dreams.
"A different sound was assigned to each neuron in the brain from which we recorded," he explained. In a video recording of the experiment, the paw began to shake and, with each shake, musical notes resonated from different neurons in the brain. The effect was like that of a church organ playing underwater; the chords sounded and then faded away. The electrode readings made the order of events clear: first the puppy moved, then the brain responded. The shaking was followed by bursts of activity in the sensorimotor cortex, which coordinates movement and sensation. The body and brain were not disconnected. The brain listened to the body.
In a series of papers, Blumberg set out his theory that the brain uses sleep to "learn" from the body. You wouldn't think that the body is something a brain needs to learn, but we are not born with maps of our bodies; we can't be, because our bodies change every day, and because the body a foetus eventually becomes may differ from the one encoded in its genome. "Babies must learn about the body they have," not the body they are supposed to have.
In my reflections, it occurs to me that if we have an illness, or have an injury, during sleep, that part of the body that is affected can show the brain how to treat it, and lucid dreaming could be a valuable tool for that.
Why lucid dreaming?
When you sleep and during the dream you realise that you are dreaming, staying in this state can provide you with certain benefits that may motivate you to cultivate this skill.
- Lucid dreaming helps you develop greater awareness.
To refer to a person as lucid means that the person is clear and/or aware.
Being aware that you are dreaming indicates that you are bringing the clarity, the awareness that you have in your waking state into the dream space. For me in particular, it gives me the possibility to approach situations that I am experiencing during wakefulness from another perspective.
Sometimes, during waking hours and with all the things we have to deal with at the same time, it is difficult to dedicate enough time and attention to an issue, thought or emotion that may be disturbing us. Lucid dreaming allows you to relate to the contents of your mind, so you can relate to your thoughts and emotions from another perspective.
- Lucid dreaming allows you to better understand how your mind works and improve your problem solving.
By having a better reference of what is going on inside us, it is easier to understand how we are affected by the situations we are confronted with without being overpowered by emotions. It gives us a head start on how we will react and perhaps respond more intelligently.
- Lucid dreaming allows you to explore wider and deeper aspects of your mind.
As Andrew Holecek of the online magazine Kripalu explains, by waking up in your dream, you can explore the power of your mind to change your world. Once inside your dream you develop the ability to transform whatever you are experiencing within it: situations, objects, characters, etc., i.e. you can change your mind and your world.
This ability allows you to modify your life: to transform bad emotional states into better ones, to form mental states that allow you to function in a balanced and harmonious way. This can give you the confidence to make real changes in your life experience.
- Lucid dreaming can induce you to improve your memory.
This is a benefit I have personally discovered. One of the ways to encourage lucid dreaming is through journaling and this practice forces you to take a moment when you wake up to write down, if you remember, dreams you have had during the night. Surprisingly, by doing this exercise, you begin to remember not one, but more dreams you may have had that night and somehow, that memory is consolidated during the day, that is, you can recall and analyse it.
- Discovering your power of choice
According to Holecek, when you are in a lucid dream, you can watch the dream unfold and decide not to change anything, for example. This is what would be called a presential dream: you see it as a movie without being involved in it (this would make it non-lucid). On the other hand, you can choose to change certain aspects of that dream to give it a better ending. In either case, you are making a choice. Then you can apply the same to your daily life, but even better, because you exercise the power to change your mind, your way of relating to things, to people; to wake up and take charge of your life.
- Lucid dreaming can help reduce anxiety.
It has been suggested that lucid dreaming may reduce symptoms of anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because during lucid dreaming a person can review situations with some degree of control. Thus, the person can learn to calm themselves in the face of situations that would normally cause them stress in the real world.
In a recent pilot study with people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, all received a week-long lucid dreaming workshop and 85% showed a significant enough decrease in symptoms to no longer classify themselves as affected.
Participants had a wide range of traumas, from childhood sexual abuse to military service and traffic accidents. There was also a significant decrease in negative emotions, frequency of nightmares and distress.
Steps and Strategies to Become a Oneironaut
There is only one requirement for lucid dreaming: realising that you are dreaming. Of course this is easier said than done, however, learning how to lucid dream is like any other skill you choose to learn, it takes time, discipline, making adjustments to your lifestyle and sleep, and perseverance.
According to the online magazine World of Lucid Dreaming, some people can have their first lucid dream on their first try, while others will need weeks and sometimes even a few months before they reach consciousness in the dream space.
Here are some of the essential steps for lucid dreaming, or at least the ones that have worked for me:
- Try to get 7-8 hours of sleep during the night. This is part of sleep hygiene and helps your body set up and give itself the space for lucid dreaming to take place.
- A dream diary should be kept (essential). As soon as you wake up in the morning you should write down at least one dream you remember having the night before. This exercise is key because as you begin to write down and recall that dream, more details of the dream or memories of other dreams you have had during the night may begin to come back to you.
- Do reality checks. Several times during the day ask yourself if you are dreaming. This is also key because when you find yourself in the dream space, that question will resurface.
- Meditation and/or breathing exercises. Both of these practices help lay the foundation for lucid dreaming because they involve higher states of consciousness (up to the Gamma band or 40Hz) which facilitates mental focus, self-awareness and habituation to reflection.
- Self-program yourself to consciously access your dream space. This is a hybrid technique between instructing your brain to be aware while dreaming and the self-hypnosis I explain below. The latter provides you with a step-by-step guide to achieve the enabling conditions.
According to Rebecca Casale, founder of World of Lucid Dreaming,
"hypnosis is about putting the brain into a relaxed trance. It makes you more susceptible than normal. It's not unnatural, evil or mind-controlling....
...In the real world, hypnosis has very productive uses in therapy and personal development. It gives you the ability to talk to your inner self and programme your unconscious mind".
Casale suggests 5 easy steps to achieve lucid dreaming with self-hypnosis:
1- Make yourself comfortable. Find a place to sit or lie down, do not cross your arms or legs. Adopt an open posture that you can maintain for 20 minutes.
Let your eyes close naturally and breathe slowly and deeply 3 times.
Observe the thoughts that enter your mind and let them pass without interacting with them.
2- Release tension in the body. Visualise each muscle relaxing and melting into the furniture. Release each muscle group one by one.
Concentrate on the shoulders, upper back and jaw.
3- Visualise your descent. Visualise yourself at the top of a ladder. This represents your awareness. As you descend the rungs one by one, you go deeper into your relaxed trance state.
Count the steps, if you wish. Try to gently roll your eyes towards your head and keep your body still.
4- Use auto-suggestions. Once you reach the bottom of the stairs, you are ready to begin your autosuggestion script.
Gently repeat one or more of the following phrases in your mind (choose the one that seems most appropriate). For example,
"I can remember my dreams".
"I can have lucid dreams"
"I can be conscious in my dreams".
Repeat your chosen affirmation as many times as you like.
5- Wake up gently. When you are ready, get ready to come out of the trance. Tell yourself that you are going to count to 10, and that with each step you will slowly return to full consciousness. Then count upwards as you climb the steps in your mind.
Take a deep breath when you reach the top and open your eyes. Sit down for a moment if you like, and remember to stand up slowly.
Useful tips to promote lucid dreaming
- Make sure you have good sleep hygiene. This involves, among other things, keeping your bedroom as dark as possible, maintaining a temperature of about 15-17°C and spending at least 7-8 hours of restful sleep.
- Avoid the consumption of marijuana or alcohol as they do not allow you to sleep deeply as they inhibit REM sleep.
- Take short naps in the afternoon if you feel tired, especially after meals.
- Take advantage of aromatherapy to influence smell-induced dreams (SLIDs). Smells are processed in the limbic system of the brain where memories and emotions are stored. Sometimes just smelling a scent can evoke and invoke powerful emotions. Some essential oils that can help promote lucid dreaming include rose, sandalwood, clove, anise, mugwort, lavender and clary sage.
- Take 100 mg of a vitamin B6 supplement at least two hours before bedtime for more intense dreaming.
- Experiment with mugwort, a plant known to make your dreams vivid.
- Include cheese or a dairy product in your last meal. Cheese contains tryptophan, an amino acid that helps promote sleep, normalise sleep patterns and reduce stress levels.
Finally, don't be afraid to find yourself consciously within the sleep space. Lucidity during sleep is a positive and powerful tool for your personal development.
In Hocelek's words,
"by learning to work with your mind in your dreams, you have the potential to transform your life. Same mind, different state. Take the insights gleaned from your dreams, and your new, lucid relationship to them, then apply them to the 'outer vision'. Wake up in your dreams to learn how to wake up to your life".