Dream Catcher

The neuroscience of our night life

The Promise and Perils of Lucid Dreams

Lucid dreaming is powerful and should be approached with caution

Lucid dreaming is all the craze these days. There is a flood of books, websites, news stories, movies, start-up companies and smartphone apps on lucid dreams. This plethora of information promises to teach you how to attain lucidity in 3 easy steps and then once attained how lucidity will transform your life, health, wealth and consciousness-all in 6 weeks or less.

The popular craze for lucid dreams has far outstripped the science on lucid dreams but the science is catching up. After Hearne, Laberge and others back in the 1970s and 80s demonstrated that lucid dreamers could deliver pre-arranged messages (eye movement patterns) from the dream state to research confederates in the Lab, research on lucid dreams has taken off. Recent reports confirm that while lucid dreams most often occur in the REM state, lucidity itself is associated with features not characteristic of REM such as reactivation of the prefrontal cortex as well as other awareness- associated brain regions such as the precuneaus. Delivery of small electrical pulses to prefrontal region can move a dreamer toward the lucid state. Lucid dreaming as Hobson, Voss and associates have argued should be classified as a hybrid state that occurs between REM and waking.

One question I have always had about lucid dreaming is whether its practice incurs a sleep debt. My readers are intelligent and well versed in the relevant literatures I write about and if any of you know the answer to this question please comment. I could not find any recent data on the issue. If lucidity is associated with sleep rebound effects then this fact will help us to better classify it as either closer to the sleep state spectrum or the wake spectrum. In addition, if sleep rebound occurs after experiencing lucid dreams then cultivation of frequent lucid dreaming may come with costs. People who are already in sleep debt (the vast majority of us) will therefore need to proceed with caution when incurring greater sleep loss whether that is due to lucidity or anything else.

People with sleep disorders or mood disorders of any kind should also proceed with caution when cultivating lucidity. Rem sleep is known to facilitate consolidation of emotional memories. If we disrupt REM sleep (by inducing prefrontal activation during REM), it is possible that we could disrupt REM’s normal functions. Doing this once or twice may not cause disruption but regular practice of lucidity may chronically interfere with REM’s normal functions. I stress that my concerns are as of yet currently not tested. I raise this as a possibility that we need to assess before giving a blanket endorsement of lucid dreaming (as many websites and apps appear to do) to any and all comers. Clearly more research is needed on potential downside of lucidity before it is prescribed as a harmless and beneficent practice for anyone at all.

The promise of lucid dreams is extraordinary as well—partially justifying all the hype around lucid dreaming seen in recent years. Although controlled clinical trials have not yet been done lucid dreams may be an effective treatment for recurrent nightmares. The basic ingredient seems to be that the lucid dreamer can learn to control frightening images in their dreams and so can people with recurrent nightmares. It is important to stress that if you suffer recurrent nightmares first speak to your doctor or therapist before attempting lucidity. It is foolish to attempt to control frightening images in a lucid dream without some practice beforehand in the waking state.

One of the most interesting experiments ever done in the area of lucid dreams it seems to me was done by Tholey in 1989 (Percept Mot Skills. 1989 Apr;68(2):567-78). Experienced lucid dreamers were asked to give tasks to characters in their dreams. Dream characters were asked to draw or write, to name unknown words, to find rhyme words, to make verses, and to solve arithmetic problems. Apparently some dream characters actually complied with these requests. Tholey argued that these data supported the idea that some dream characters actually have consciousness. This conclusion is not as absurd as it sounds. We know from breakdown patterns of the mind/brain that there are different centers of consciousness in every individual. It is not plausible to suggest that one of these centers (the conscious I) constructs all the others. The theoretical and therapeutic implications of Tholey’s suggestive findings are indeed promising it seems to me. At a minimum they should be followed up on.

Patrick McNamara, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and the author of numerous books and articles on the science of dreams.

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