According to Sigmund Freud, dreams provide deep insights into the unconscious. While dreaming, our deepest wishes and desires are manifested as different symbols and interpretations. Through neuroscience, we can understand how this works and why this is true.
What is Lucid Dreaming?
First coined by Dutch psychiatrist and writer Frederik Willem van Eeden in ‘A Study of Dreams’, the term ‘lucid dream’ came to be defined as “dreams during which dreamers, while dreaming, are aware they are dreaming.”
However, lucid dreaming even dates back to ancient times as a central practice in Tibetan Buddhist Dream Yoga and the ancient Hindu practice of Yoga Nidra.
When and How Do Lucid Dreams Occur?
When we dream, we experience a state of rapid eye movement, also known as REM sleep. During this stage of sleep, there is more activity in the visual, motor, emotional, and autobiographical memory regions of the brain. When awakened from this phase, people often report narrative and bizarre experiences or ‘dreams’.
According to scientists Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley, this is because the neurotransmitters in our brains excite or inhibit nerve cells that can manipulate dream sleep. These neurobiological messengers then generate dreams and animate the brain to process nerve impulses and assign meaning.
Similarly, lucid dreaming occurs during REM sleep. For some, it occurs spontaneously, but others can train themselves to start dreaming lucidly.
A study in Brazil surveyed 3,427 participants with a median age of 25. A staggering 77% reported that they had experienced lucid dreaming at least once before.
However, the degree to which a person can influence their dreams can vary. Some can influence their own actions, the actions of others, their surroundings, and other aspects of their environment. For others, upon realizing they are dreaming, wake up immediately due to the adrenaline rush produced by the brain. But with some practice, everyone is capable of lucid dreaming.
How to Lucid Dream?
There are different techniques that can be used to induce lucid dreaming.
One technique to induce lucid dreams is through “reality testing”. Because many people are unaware of whether they are dreaming or not, they can test an action that can only occur during dreams. Through sensory observations such as passing their hand through a solid wall, they can deduce whether they are in a dream or in real life.
Waking Back to Bed
Another technique is by setting an alarm that wakes them up 5 to 6 hours after going to sleep. Once awake, the sleeper must remain awake for a while before going back to sleep. Through this, the sleeper can more easily immerse back into REM sleep, thus increasing the chances of entering a lucid dream state.
Avid lucid dreamers commonly keep a dream journal to record their dreams. This is because keeping a written document of one’s dreams has been shown to increase one’s ability to remember their dreams and thus control them during a dream state.
Another effective method is meditation. This trains people to become more aware of themselves and their surroundings, encouraging them to become more observant both in reality and during dreams. The use of binaural beats or isochronic tones during meditation can also stimulate the pineal gland to produce melatonin. This helps regulate biological rhythms like sleep and wake cycles.
Benefits of Lucid Dreaming
There is different research on the benefits of dreaming, including the processing of memories and experiences. Likewise, inducing frequent lucid dream states can help one get better REM sleep and reap these benefits.
Treating Nightmares and Traumatic Experiences
One benefit is in treating nightmares by processing fearful experiences during REM sleep. It has been suggested through research that REM sleep dreaming can take out the painful sting of difficult experiences that have occurred during the day. This is because the concentrations of the stress hormone and neurotransmitter called norepinephrine, a key component in the fight-or-flight response, sharply decline during REM sleep. Similarly, findings suggest that sufficient REM sleep can make a person less prone to developing post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.
Furthermore, during REM sleep, the brain processes and synthesises memories and emotions, thus lessening the stress levels of individuals who get sufficient sleep. The emotional processing that happens during the neurobiological state of REM dream sleep occurs due to the integration of emotions and events into existing memory networks. The increased activity in the limbic and paralimbic structures of the brain, specifically the hippocampus and amygdala, allows for the reactivation of previously acquired affective experiences. This has been shown to free the brain from stress and anxiety.
Because REM sleep dreams allow memories to be linked together in abstract ways, this has been shown to increase creativity among individuals. While we are awake, our prefrontal cortex filters information according to its relevance so we are not overrun by the incoming stimuli of our everyday lives. At night, however, this prefrontal censor shuts down while the visual areas of our occipital lobe increase in their activity. As a result, we come up with new and unusual ideas at night and think in a more visual way. This promotes a cerebral state that is conducive to solving previously challenging problems and generating creative ideas.
Lucid Dreaming and Sleep Paralysis
However, one concern people express about lucid dreaming is the occurrence of sleep paralysis. Because our skeletal muscles are completely paralyzed during REM sleep, the process can be frightening for sleepers when their brains are fully conscious. However, when we wake up and return to complete consciousness, the brain releases the body from paralysis immediately. Thus, this doesn’t pose any worrying risks for sleepers.
With over 100 trillion neural connections, the brain is the most complex system in the universe and neuroscientists are only beginning to discover the wonderous benefits of dreaming. From the emotional processing of past experiences and their integration into existing memory networks to the promotion of creativity and problem-solving skills, sufficient REM sleep is essential to a healthy and active brain. By getting more REM sleep and pursuing a lucid dream state, we can take control of these powerful neural networks and better understand our everyday experiences.
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