Imagine lucid dreaming (LD) a bit like this: You walk up to the edge of a cliff. Wind blows through your hair and ruffles your clothes as you peer over into the abyss. But instead of fear, you feel excitement. You bend your knees, raise your arms, and all of a sudden, you shoot up into the sky and begin flying.
Somewhere between your first midair loop-de-loop and the moment when you hover directly across from a plane carrying all of your exes and elementary school teachers you have a realization…you’re not awake, in fact, you’re still in bed.
Such is the purported course of the much-discussed lucid dream—a situation where a person becomes aware that they are dreaming. Most of the time we experience dreams in the same way we experience everyday life, assuming what we see and feel is reality. But in this case, it breaks down, allowing us to navigate the strange world of our subconscious minds with some degree of awareness.
So what exactly is this experience? Are there benefits to it? Could it be dangerous?
What is Lucid Dreaming?
Lucid dreaming refers to the phenomenon in which people having dreams become subjectively aware that they are not experiencing everyday normal reality, but are in fact in a dream state. In its most simple form, a dream can be considered lucid if this awareness check is present. However, these sleepers also frequently report an ability to have control over certain aspects of their dreams, including the setting and people that appear or the actions that take place.
As fantastical as it sounds, lucid dreaming is also surprisingly common. The National Sleep Foundation reports that over half of all people say they have had at least one in their life. Like most, lucid dreams usually begin during the rapid eye movement (REM) portion of the sleep cycle, a time when our brains are extremely active.
However, scientists are still very much unsure about the exact physiological mechanisms that cause this type of dreaming.
One 2008 study examined the hypothesis that lucid dreaming might be a kind of hybrid state between wakefulness and dreaming. The experiment aimed to measure the brain activity of dreamers as they moved from normal REM state into states of lucid dreaming. Their results indicated that lucid dreaming may be a sort of hybrid state in which the brain demonstrates activity usually seen in REM sleep as well.
More recent studies have also confirmed that brain activity during lucid dreaming episodes is measurably different from what is typically seen during REM dreaming.
What are benefits to lucid dreaming?
A quick web search online will net hundreds of thousands of results focused on trumpeting wonders of this strange phenomenon. Videos on the subject rack up millions of views. Why is there so much interest in the subject?
The answer could lie in the purported benefits of the activity.
For one, there is the intangible yet most obvious benefit—a technique to potentially control everything that happens in a fantasy world. This could mean gaining the ability to fly, having romantic encounters with whomever you choose, or any other thing one could imagine. For many people, this is reason enough to attempt lucid dreaming.
Another potential benefit is that lucid dreaming may allow people who suffer from frequent nightmares to confront their fears. In combination with therapy designed to teach people how to respond to nightmare situations, becoming lucid during such an episode can allow people to break their typical response habits, and realize there is nothing to fear by confronting the imagined stressor in your imagination.
Others have pointed out that lucid dreaming could be helpful in reducing anxiety, as well as increasing motor skills. Keeping a journal or log during the night and often performing reality testing can yield better results.
Can LD be dangerous?
First and foremost, there is no evidence that dying during one of these events will result in death, despite mountains of anecdotal examples in pop culture. Falling from the sky mid-flight while sleeping may be terrifying, but you are much more likely to wake with a start when you hit the ground than you are to never wake again. Sorry, Christopher Nolan.
That being said, these types of events have been linked to some negative outcomes due to the way it seems to disrupt the normal sleep cycle. One opinion article by sleep researchers analyzed many of the most prevalent experiments on lucid dreaming and determined that there was significant evidence to, “fear an adverse effect on sleep and health of a regular use of LD induction methods or of an increased LD frequency…”
Since lucid dreaming occurs in a state outside of the normal stages of sleep, they argue, significant time spent lucid dreaming might mean people do not spend the appropriate amount of time in those regular stages while asleep. This in turn could result in sleep deprivation and lead to drop-offs in health and wellness.
Some sleepers who engage in the practice often have also reported difficulty distinguishing reality from dreaming over time, a phenomenon known as derealization. This is relatively uncommon for lucid dreamers, but can be a very dangerous condition that requires medical intervention.
Lucid dreaming has also been linked to narcolepsy, a sleep disorder that has demonstrable negative effects on health. Growing evidence suggests that narcoleptics, who are prone to suffering from disturbing nightmares, could benefit from lucid dreaming as a way to combat the trauma of such disturbing experiences. A 2015 study out of the Max-Plank-Institute of Psychiatry in Germany found that 70 percent of narcolepsy patients reported relief from nightmares when they gained this level of control during their dreams.
With these things being said, there seems to be much more enthusiasm for the potential benefits of lucid dreaming than there is caution against its negative outcomes. Like most things in life, moderation appears to be the key to success when it comes to training your mind on this technique.