Many athletes or musicians claim to improve their performance by rehearsing mentally, and it's often cited that waking visualization can have a positive impact on performances. The authors of the current study suggest that practicing in a lucid dream should have the same effect. In fact, a lucid dream might be even more beneficial for motor practice, since the dreamer can physically feel their body, and the dream is much more vivid and realistic than simply trying to imagine something while awake.

In this study, participants were invited to the sleep laboratory in order to test their performance on a darts task before and after sleep. There were three groups, one group was to practice in a lucid dream, one group practiced in waking life, and one group did not practice. For the darts task, participants first had a 9 throw warm-up, and then had to perform 21 throws in sets of three with their non-dominant hand. Their performance was compared at 9:30 a.m. in the evening versus 9:30 a.m. in the morning.

In order to induce a lucid dream, participants were awakened early in the morning and kept awake for 30 minutes, during which time they reported the last dream they remembered and reflected on any signals that could have clued them into the fact they were dreaming. After 30 minutes they went back to sleep with the hope of achieving lucidity. Once lucid, they were to give an eye signal, looking left and right with their eyes (this is recorded by electrodes on the eyes), and then were to practice throwing darts. 

Out of 15 initial lucid dream subjects, nine successfully had a lucid dream that was verified by eye signals, and all nine managed to perform the dart task. There were variations in how they achieved this task, e.g., one participant threw at a dartboard that looked like a tree stump, but all nine had a board and something dart-like to throw. On awakening, they reported how many dart throws they were able to practice in the dream (three did at least 30), and the experimenters used this number in order to instruct the physical practice group. For example, if a lucid dream subject had a lucid dream at 7:30 a.m. during which he successfully threw a dart 25 times, then a physical practice participant would also wake up at 7:30 a.m. and physically practice 25 dart throws. Finally, a no-practice group simply slept in the lab. 

Initially, when comparing the performance of these three groups, none of them significantly improved in dart throwing after sleep. However, the lucid dream practice group showed a lot of variation in improvement.

When the experimenters examined the dream reports more closely, they realized that some participants had much more success practicing the task in their lucid dreams, whereas others had difficulty and faced many distractions. For example, one participant was using a mirror as a dartboard, but was unsatisfied and attempted to change the dartboard into a more suitable object; another participant initially had a pen as a dart but similarly got distracted with changing it to a proper dart. In other dreams, the environment itself was out of control and participants had to adapt; in one dream the dartboard was projected onto the head of a woman, which you can imagine might be pretty distracting, although the woman was apparently not bothered. For another participant, after a couple throws there were some mean characters in the dream that wanted her to pay money to get more throws. A nasty doll in another dream kept wanting to play and took the darts from the dreamer. 

After counting the number of distractions in each lucid dream, the experimenters found that on average there were 4.1 ± 2.9 distractions in the lucid dreams. When comparing the performance of those subjects with few (4 subjects with 1.3 ± 0.5 distractions) vs. many distractions (5 subjects with 6.4 ± 1.1), the authors found that the lucid dream practice group with few distractions significantly improved on the darts task, by 18 percent. Furthermore, a correlation showed that the more distractions there were, the poorer the improvement on the darts task (r = −.742, P = .022). Thus, in the end, only those lucid dream subjects without distractions improved on the task, while the lucid dream group with many distractions did not, nor did the physical practice group or the controls.

While preliminary, this study suggests that performing motor tasks in lucid dreams can help to improve performance, that is, if the lucid dreamer has few distractions and can focus on the task. The findings are quite similar to a previous study of non-lucid dreams, which found that those who dreamt of a maze task improved more than others after sleep. Nonetheless, the study is limited by the fact that the sample size is quite small, and in the end only four participants really had successful lucid dream practice. 

References

Schädlich, M., Erlacher, D., & Schredl, M. (2016). Improvement of darts performance following lucid dream practice depends on the number of distractions while rehearsing within the dream–a sleep laboratory pilot study. Journal of Sports Sciences, 1-8.

Wamsley, E. J., Tucker, M., Payne, J. D., Benavides, J. A., & Stickgold, R. (2010). Dreaming of a learning task is associated with enhanced sleep-dependent memory consolidation. Current Biology, 20(9), 850-855.

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