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Lucid Dreams or Dream Awareness: To Sleep Perchance to Dream:

Updated on September 12, 2018
Natalie Frank profile image

Natalie Frank, a Ph.D in clinical psychology, has conducted research & published on sleep disorders. She specializes in Pediatric Psychology

Lucid dreaming may involve the ability to change your dreams
Lucid dreaming may involve the ability to change your dreams

Have you ever wanted to be like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix– hover in mid air, leap from one building to another a block away with no effort, soar to avoid an enemy's bullet descending only to land a perfect kick to disable him, in essence able to free yourself from the constraints of gravity to move in any direction and any speed however you choose to? While not able to accomplish this in real life, you may be able to in a dreaming state, even cause these events to occur while you watch them unfold in your dream while completely aware you’re dreaming.

Sound a bit unusual? Until recently, dreams such as these, called lucid dreams, were considered in the realm of the paranormal. Now, respected sleep researchers have begun to research this phenomenon of lucid dreaming – a state occurring during sleep when a dreaming person is fully aware they are dreaming and may be able to alter its course.

What is Lucid Dreaming?

Lucid dreaming is a state occurring during sleep when a dreaming person is fully aware they are dreaming and may be able to alter its course. Research conducted by Gackenbach, a professor of psychology who researches lucid dreams, indicates that when lucid dreaming is defined and dreams are examined for lucidity, approximately 58% of the population have experienced at least one lucid dream in their lifetime, (defined by knowing they were dreaming but, not including the ability to change their dreams,) many reporting it occurred during childhood.

Armstrong-Hickey, who has written extensively on the topic, states that children are more likely to experience lucid dreams than adults. Possibly this is due to the greater use of imagination and imaginary play in childhood. Gackenbach futher states that approximately 21% of individuals have experienced spontaneous lucid dreams, knowing they were dreaming, at least once a month all their lives.

Now that belief in lucid dreams has become more mainstream, researchers are beginning to look into aspects and variants of them. For example, while many accept it is possible to know you are dreaming, not as many believe you can change your dreams purposely to alter your dreams such that you can make them play out in whatever manner you desire. Dr. Rodney Radtke, the medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Duke University, does believe that individuals can alter their dreams while they are dreaming, though professes to be unable to state just how far you can take this process.

For example, he admits he is still uncertain as to whether you can design a dream from scratch, such as creating the perfect day for you to experience in your dream state, starting from the moment you wake up then as the architect, build every aspect from there. However, he also hasn’t ruled it out. (Rosenbloom, 2007).

Have you ever experienced a lucid dream?

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How Do Lucid Dreams Develop and When During Sleep Do Lucid Dreams Occur?

Many investigators have attempted to research how spontaneous lucid dreams develop, especially the rarer type where an individual can alter the dream. It appears a number of individuals have hypothesized that they often develop in children in response to the inability to wake from a nightmare. In order to cope with the ongoing nightmare they can’t escape from, these children develop the coping mechanism of altering the course and outcome of the dream so they are no longer in a frightening situation.

It has long been known that lucid dreams, like other dreams, occur during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. We cycle through this stage of sleep many times throughout the night with each REM occurring for longer periods of time as the night progresses. Evidence beginning to be reported in the late 1970s suggested that lucid dreaming is most likely to occur after the individual has had a brief spontaneous awakening during REM, Non-REM (NREM) sleep or during the transition from NREM to REM sleep. These are normal occurrences during sleep. However, lucid dreaming is most likely to occur after such episodes when the individual follows the awakening by quickly descends into REM sleep, (Ogilvie, Hunt, Sawicki, & McGowan 1978).

Other foundation research in the area demonstrated that REM sleep has two phases. The first is an extremely active phase in terms of brain activity and physiological arousal in addition to the rapid eye movements this type of sleep is named for. The second phase, also called a tonic phase, occurs when the eye movements slack off and arousal levels decrease. It has long been established that it is during the highest arousal phase towards the end of a specific REM cycle that lucid dreaming occurs, (LaBerge, Levitan, & Dement, 1986). This sleep stage has important implications when instructing individuals on natural methods to induce lucid dreams.

Researchers aren’t sure exactly what triggers lucid dreams. Studies have demonstrated that brain wave activity looks similar in people who report lucid dreaming and those who don’t. This means it is difficult to determine what processes or areas of the brain are responsible for lucid dreaming. Such research is also difficult to conduct because it relies exclusively on self reporting after the individual awakens and there is no way of telling how accurate these reports are.

Experts believe that the triggers for lucid dreaming occurs within the brain and are not external stimuli. Some studies indicate that lucid dreaming could be the result of the frontal cortex becoming overactive during sleep, but this has yet to be proven (Breus, 2015).

Lucid dreaming can be learned with simple techniques
Lucid dreaming can be learned with simple techniques

Triggering Lucid Dreams in those Who Already Experience Them

While a number of individuals experience lucid dreaming, including the ability to alter their dreams, most report that this generally only occurs when the dream includes something frightening, anxiety provoking, or incongruous. They state sometimes they can alter a neutral dream to become a highly pleasurable one but, this is far rarer. Many of these individuals seek ways to induce a lucid dream such they have more control over it and can experience highly sought after experiences such as flying or riding all the rides at an amusement park.

There are ways to trigger lucid dreaming in individuals who already experience them, and which give them a greater variety of experiences and more control over shaping their dreams into what they desire. They rely on REM sleep to accomplish.

One such technique known about for some time is morning naps. This technique is based on the fact that REM sleep is most intense and occurs for the longest periods of time during the late morning. Research found that when lucid dreamers get up an hour early, stay awake for an hour then return to sleep, this frequently triggers lucid dreams that are not caused by negative occurrences already happening in a natural dream state. Afternoon naps appear to also increase the frequency of lucid dreaming but, not to the same degree as morning naps.

In addition, taking advantage of the correlation with spontaneous awakenings during the night, causing themselves to awaken briefly through the use of an alarm clock prior to the most likely times for long REM Cycles during the last part of the night can trigger more controllable lucid dreams. An interesting finding it that while the alarm clock is necessary for a week or two, individuals begin to wake on their own during the most propitious times in addition to natural spontaneous awakenings. However, many researchers, (e.g.Wozniak), state that while perhaps effective in inducing lucid dreaming, purposely disrupting a natural sleep schedule can be detrimental to the individual, disrupt healthy sleep and negatively affect learning and memory.

Another long utilized technique for inducing lucid dreaming in those who have them involves activity levels during the day. High levels of physical and emotional arousal brought on by increasing the level of daytime activity appears to stimulate greater levels of the high arousal phase of REM sleep and can increase the likelihood of having a lucid dream that can be altered. (Blackmore, 1991).

While these techniques were recommended especially for individuals who already have lucid dreams, they have also been found to be useful for individuals who don’t have such dreams but would like to.

Resources

  • Armstrong-Hickey D. (1998). A Validation of Lucid Dreaming in School Age Children, Lucidity Letter, 7(2), 35-39

  • Blackmore, S., (1991). Lucid Dreaming: Awake in Your Sleep? Skeptical Inquirer, 15, 362-370.

  • Breus, M. J. (2015, February 13).Why do we dream: New insights into what really goes on when we drift into sleep. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sleepnewzzz/201502/why-do-we-dream

  • Gackenbach, J., An Estimate of Lucid Dreaming Incidence, Retrieved September 14, 2011.

  • LaBerge, S., Levitan, L., & Dement, W. C. (1986). Lucid dreaming: Physiological correlates of consciousness during REM sleep. Journal of Mind and Behavior, 7, 251-258.

  • LaBerge, S. & Rheingold, H. (1990). Overcoming Nightmares, in Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming, New York: Ballantine.

  • The Lucidity Institute (2004, July). Lucid Dreaming FAQ. Retrieved September 15, 2011. http://www.lucidity.com/LucidDreamingFAQ2.html

  • Ogilvie, R., Hunt, H., Sawicki, C., & McGowan, K. (1978). Searching for lucid dreams. Sleep Research, 7, 165.

  • Rosenbloom, S., (2007). Living the dream (while you're sleeping). Chicago Tribune. Retrieved September 13, 2011. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2007-10-04/features/0710020077_1_dreaming-lucid-consciousness

  • Wozniak, P. A. Frequently asked questions about sleep in learning. Supermemo. Retrieved September 15, 2011.http://www.supermemo.com/help/index.htm

Comments

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    • Natalie Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Natalie Frank 

      4 weeks ago from Chicago, IL

      I do the same thing, Flourish. I am not sure if those who experience spontaneous lucid dreams tend to do this type of thing but it does seem to be related to partial arousals which is becoming closer to wakefulness when transitioning between sleep stages. Thus, waking fully early in the morning then going back to sleep may not be an unusual occurrence for lucid dreamers. Thanks for giving me something new to consider about these types of dreams, Flourish and for taking the time to comment.

    • Natalie Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Natalie Frank 

      4 weeks ago from Chicago, IL

      Hi Linda - It used to be thought that few people experience the ability of being aware they were dreaming. We have come to realize quite a number in fact, do so. Lucid dreaming encompasses a spectrum of abilities from being aware you are dreaming but not being able to change it, being aware you are dreaming, not being able to alter it but being able to awaken yourself if you choose all the way to being able to alter your dreams in any way you desire whenever you desire. It was also believed that few people dreamt in color and that this was the first step on the lucid dreaming continuum but now it has become recognized that most people actually dream in color at least some of the time. While spontaneous lucid dreaming often begins in childhood, those who develop this ability and have it occur regularly often continue to experience these types of dreams the rest of their lives. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Linda.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      4 weeks ago from USA

      I have morning naps nailed. I wake up at 4 am every day, stay up several hours then go back to sleep for a few hours. I don’t try to trigger lucid dreaming but definitely have them. The experience is odd and sometimes feel almost out of body. I never even considered trying to prompt them.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      4 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is an interesting article, Natalie. I have experienced lucid dreams, though not for a long time. Your note that lucid dreaming is more likely to occur in children than adults applies to me. I used to enjoy being aware that I was dreaming when I was a child (or perhaps a young teenager), though I don't remember ever being able to control the dream.

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