Donders Wonders Blog

Lucid Dreaming: when dreams and reality collide

This post is also available in Dutch.

While sleeping, it is hard to realize whether you are dreaming or not. But once you become aware, you might gain full control. And the possibilities are endless!

Image courtesy of Pexels (CC0 1.0).

We experience many different types of dreams throughout our lives; some we don’t even notice, others we barely remember. And then there are those vivid dreams, so real that you may doubt whether you’re awake or not. Some people will remain in doubt, while others will realize that it’s a dream – but without waking up. In the latter case, something amazing happens: you can participate in the scene as if you were awake, and experience things that would be impossible in real life! That’s what we call “lucid dreaming.”

What makes a dream lucid?

To understand lucid dreaming, we should first go over a few basic things about human sleep. We know there is a sleep cycle that is marked by many stages: three non-rapid eye movement (NREM) phases and the rapid eye movement (REM) phase (we call it REM because during this phase, among other things, your eyes actually make many small fast movements!).

REM is the stage in which people have dreams, including lucid ones. You can find out which sleep cycle phase someone is in by looking at physiological recordings such as brain signals from electroencephalography (EEG). It’s relatively easy to identify when people are going through the REM phase, and even when they are having lucid dreams. EEG recordings of frontal areas in the brain show that lucid dreaming triggers different brain activity than typical REM. This suggests that lucid dreaming exists in a state of mind in between the REM phase and being awake.

How common are lucid dreamers? And who is likely to be one?

An analysis of results published by 34 different studies about lucid dreaming indicates that 55% of people had a lucid dream at least once in their lives, and almost half of these lucid dreamers (23% of the total number of subjects) claimed to have lucid dreams at least once a month.

Factors like age can influence your chances of having lucid dreams. Adults are more likely to have lucid dreams, but children and adolescents who do have them tend to have them more frequently.

Researchers have also tried to see if there is something special about lucid dreamers (in their cognition or personality). Lucid dreamers tend to be more open to new experiences and more attracted to cognitive challenges such as debating or puzzle solving. Being drawn to cognitive challenges might explain why lucid dreamers perform better in tasks that require attention, as well as the prevalence of lucid dreamers among avid video-gamers.

Lucid dreaming for all!

Not everyone has lucid dreams, but that is about to change! Some people share their recipes to stimulate lucid dreaming online. Others see it as a business opportunity, and have developed certified products and techniques that will provide us the amazing experience of lucid dreaming. These initiatives see applications of lucid dreaming not only as entertainment, but also as tools that can give us interesting clinical insights into sleep-related disorders. We will dig further into this topic in the second part of this DW blog. Don’t forget to follow our Facebook and Twitter pages so you don’t miss it!

This blog was written by João, and edited by Annelies and Monica

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