What Makes Lucid Dreams Different From Others

By Debra Kelly on Wednesday, November 18, 2015
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“If you have never had a dream, perhaps you have only dreamt to be alive.” —Fausto Cercignani

In A Nutshell

In lucid dreams, we know we’re dreaming and we have some kind of control over our actions rather than just being along for the ride. Lucid dreaming is physically a very different state than regular dreaming, with brain activity often reaching levels that are very similar to what’s going on when we’re awake. Researchers at Harvard have found that with the application of electrical current to the scalp, the brain can be encouraged to operate at an increased level and to induce lucid dreaming.

The Whole Bushel

Everyone dreams, but whether or not we remember it is another story. Lucid dreaming, though, is an entirely different thing. For as long as we’ve been trying to figure out just what our dreams mean, we’ve been trying to figure out how to control them.

Lucid dreaming happens when you become aware that you’re in the middle of a dream. You can control what you’re doing and saying, and you can make decisions. That’s unlike most dreams where you’re just along for the ride.

Clearly, there seems to be something different going on in the brain during a lucid dream, and it’s only recently that we’ve started learning just what makes lucid dreaming different—and what makes some people more capable of it than others.

As we fall asleep, and as we fall deeper and deeper into sleep, the activity in the brain slows down. When electrical activity in the brain slows down enough, we enter REM sleep, where most dreams start to happen.

Lucid dreaming, though, is entirely different. Monitoring brain activity during periods of lucid dreaming has shown electrical activity that’s surprisingly similar to what’s going on when we’re awake. These kinds of dreams have also been found to be responsible for causing the highest frequencies ever recorded in sleeping brains, around 40 Hz.

That discovery made scientists wonder if they could induce lucid dreaming by applying that amount of current to a sleeping brain. When Harvard Medical School tried to do just that, they found that’s exactly what happened. Following in the footsteps of research from the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, they found that stimulating the scalp with a mild electrical current resulted in increased activity in the temporal and frontal brain parts. Activity peaked around 40 Hz, and the volunteers involved in the study then reported varying—but increased—degrees of lucidity in their dreams. None of the volunteers had ever had a lucid dream before, linking the electrical charge and frequencies with awareness in dreams.

The potential impact of learning how to give a person control over their dreams is staggering. More than just allowing us to learn how to fly, there’s the potential for using lucid dreaming as therapy. People can confront and deal with fears, speak and work through relationship issues, or practice interpersonal interactions. Lucid dreams also have the potential to help us improve real-world performance when it comes to certain things, as we’re aware of practicing in these dreams.

Those capable of regular lucid dreaming on their own have also been found to be a little bit different than their regular-dreaming counterparts. Researchers from the University of Lincoln have found that those who report having regular lucid dreams tend to be much more insightful and aware than others. Those who had lucid dreams on their own performed better when it came to certain tasks, like word puzzles. This suggests it’s possible that, in order to experience lucid dreaming, the brain needs to have some sort of pre-programmed level of awareness to recognize things that don’t seem to quite fit in with reality and to recognize that it’s a dream.

Lucid dreaming is difficult to study, partly because researchers must rely on a subject to report what they saw and experienced while they were asleep. But studies done as early as the 1980s indicate that lucid dreamers can carry out instructions given to them while they’re awake—like moving their eyes in a certain pattern—to indicate that they’re aware and within a lucid dream. And things like EEGs, heart rate, and respiration all change when someone is in the middle of a lucid dream, suggesting that there’s much more we still need to learn about lucid dreaming.

Show Me The Proof

The Guardian: Lucid dreaming can be induced by electric scalp stimulation, study finds
Mic: The Fascinating Science of What Dreaming Does to Your Brain
LiveScience: Here’s One Thing That Makes Lucid Dreamers Different from Others
The Atlantic: The Ways to Control Dreaming