One of the most perplexing, unanswered questions in neuroscience.
Most of the time, people are unable to discern the bizarre occurrences in their dreams from reality. We could be 15 feet tall in a land made of candy and chocolate rivers, but until we wake up and the reality of our non-candy world hits us, our brains can’t grasp that our visions aren’t real.
A smaller portion of the population, however, does have the ability to realize that they’re in a dream. Then, after “awakening” in their dreams, they’re able to manipulate them and take control of their dream world — a phenomenon called lucid dreaming.
Dreaming is somewhat difficult to research since a lot of the findings rely on self-reported data, and lucid dreaming in particular is an understudied subject. Now, recent advances in the field suggest that lucid dreaming is a hybrid state of waking consciousness and sleep.
The Peculiarities of Lucid Dream Research
Research has shown that about half of us will experience at least one lucid dream during our lives, and some people even report experiencing lucid dreams multiple times a month. As you can imagine, lucid dreams are so desirable since your mind gives you the ability to do whatever your heart desires — particularly things that would be impossible or unlikely to do in real life.
It’s obvious that non-lucid dreams feel subjectively different to lucid dreams, and scientists believe this could be associated with different patterns of brain activity. However, it’s hard to measure. Even if participants sleep in a brain scanner overnight, it’s difficult for researchers to determine when a dreamer becomes lucid in order to compare the brain activity to that during non-lucid dreaming.
Some innovative researchers have found a way around this, by asking the study participant to help cue them in that a dream has turned lucid. How? By devising a communication code during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. Basically, once a dreamer realizes his or her dream has turned lucid, they do a specific eye movement that has been agreed upon by the researcher — for example, two movement to the left then two to the right.
This research approach has led to the findings that the shift from non-lucid to lucid REM sleep is associated with increased activity in the frontal areas of the brain. Interestingly, these are the areas that are associated with “high order” cognitive functioning like logical reasoning during waking states.
This type of brain activity is called gamma wave activity and is also known to “bind” together different aspects of our human experience — perceptions, emotions, memories, and thoughts — into an “integrated consciousness,” the researchers say. In a follow-up study, researchers electrically stimulated these brain areas, thus causing an increase in the level of lucidity experienced during a dream. Quite astonishing.
The Mystery of Consciousness
Neuroscientists have long been perplexed about how consciousness arises in the brain.
Now, scientists think that studying lucid dreams may lead to new insights about the neuroscience of consciousness. How? Because Lucid and non-lucid REM sleep are two brain states where our conscious experience is different, yet the overall brain state remains the same.
Researchers hope to analyze the features that could be facilitating the enhanced awareness of a lucid dream by comparing specific differences in the brain activity in a lucid versus non-lucid dream.
Now that scientists have begun to use the research technique in which a dreamer cues them into the exact moment when a dream becomes lucid, future research may unveil how this heightened consciousness emerges in the first place.
Everyone loves a good mystery, but instead of a “whodunnit,” the answer to this one may lead to a better understanding of the intricacy of our minds.