Lucid Dreaming

Imagine a world where you can do anything. You can fly, go on a date with the person of your dreams (despite the fact that she lives in California, is currently seeing somebody, and has never seen your face because she's a famous musician-turned-actress who doesn't have the time for that thing), or you can even eat a vanilla ice cream cone if that's all you want.[1] You can do anything, quite literally, in your wildest dreams.

That's because all of those experiences I listed are dreams that people have had, or could have. They're not quite like a normal dream, however. Lucid dreams are a little bit more elusive, something that people regarded as a religious experience in the past, a scientific curiosity during the age of discovery, and a state that people today continue to actively pursue. What makes lucid dreaming distinct from a regular dream is that a person is conscious while experiencing their dream. Someone, in a lucid dream, can explore the dream environment and people they might meet in a dream – known as "dream characters" – just like they would explore any new environment (LaBerge). So, while in your regular dream world, you can actively choose to defy the laws of physics, the laws that govern what is rational, or the laws of the United States of America.

Various religions have utilized the power of lucid dreaming under different guises or purposes. For example, the religion of indigenous Australians, appropriately named the Dreaming, places an emphasis on dreams, and people who have "special dreams" are valued for their ability (Williams, p. 380). One such man stated, "While I dream, sometimes I wake up [i.e., in the dream] and think about the dream." Thinking about dreaming while in the dream and having the conscious ability to think reflects some degree of lucidity. Some sects of Tibetan Buddhism also place an emphasis on lucid dreaming, having practitioners meditate deeply into sleep (visualizing an eight-petaled rose in their throat) so that they remain conscious as they sleep and eventually dream (LaBerge). Various other cultures utilize lucid dreaming as a religious tool - including Mexican cultures, which will be mentioned later in passing.

There's a science to sleep that makes dreaming possible. Sleep comes in cycles, with a person who sleeps having multiple cycles in a night. Those cycles consist of multiple stages, although the most important to dreaming is REM. There are four stages of NREM (non-REM) sleep – stages 1 to 4. After one goes through a cycle – from wakefulness, to stages 1 to 4, and then back to stage 1, and then to REM sleep. The last stage of the sleep cycle, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is when most dreams, and nearly all lucid dreams, tend to take place (LaBerge). REM is not fully understood – for example, there are varying theories behind the namesake rapid eye movements that mark this period of sleep. However, what is known is that the brain is most active during REM compared to the NREM stages of sleep, and that neurotransmitters are released throughout REM sleep and nervous activity takes place. Although the purpose of REM is unclear, it seems that it is linked to the development and storage of memory - people who have been given time to sleep before performing a task can recall the activities more easily (Myers p. 98).

Dreaming can occur through all stages of sleep, but as described in the chart demonstrating the stages of sleep, dreaming tends to occur in full during REM sleep. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, it is theorized that REM sleep contributes to memory storage, so subsequently, dreams are viewed by some researchers as an "information processing" method that are a byproduct of memories being "filed away" while in REM sleep (Myers p. 105). Another theory is that the increased neural activity during REM sleep, and the dreams produced by it, are an attempt by the body to stimulate the brain and therefore preserve its neural pathways.[2]

Lucid dreaming specifically requires the cooperation of the prefrontal cortex of the brain (Voss). This part of the brain, associated with higher cognitive abilities and the storage of memory, helps create the sense of awareness that dreamers have in a dream with lucid qualities. In a study carried out by Ursula Voss et. al., the quality of dreams were determined to lie somewhere between waking and regular REM sleep. In this study, subjects were asked to make horizontal eye movements to signal that they had entered sleep. These eye movements were similar in pattern to those made by the subjects while they were awake. However, the EMG (electromyographic) activity – a measure of the amount of potential energy in the muscle – seemed to be in between waking and regular, uninterrupted REM sleep for lucid dreaming. Lucid dreams exist on a spectrum of lucidity, with some dream experiences having a higher degree of consciousness than others (LaBerge). Voss theorizes that this degree of lucidity is determined by the activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or DLPFC, (essentially inactive while sleeping normally, compared to waking activity levels). If activated, the DLPFC would return a degree of awareness to the dreamer that is not present in normal sleep and dreams. With training, or with the aid of mental and verbal cues (like meditation), devices, and supplemental medicines, people can overcome their inactive DLPFC.

Lucid dreaming has become a common theme in those trying to improve their lives or curious about the workings of their brain. There are entire online communities devoted to discussing lucid dreams; books upon books written in the style of self help guides to help people attain their goal of lucidity, and of particular interest, devices and supplements based both in scientific research and historical evidence.

For example, one patented blend of herbs and vitamins contains extracts of Calea ternifolia, a plant known as "dream herb," because of the role it played with Mexican shamanism (particularly of the native Chantal tribe) and the inducing of dreams with religious significance (Luciano). This blend contains ingredients known for their ability to induce sleep – for example, the common sleep supplement melatonin, and the herb mugwort (which is, in the words of Jeff Luciano, creator of the blend, "known to cause a dreamy state of consciousness"). Another component of the supplement, besides inducing sleep, is improving memory – using compounds such as vinpocetine, derived from Vinca minor, which acts as a vasodilator, improving the flow of blood towards the brain. Memory, associated in part with the function of the frontal cortex according to Myers,[3] is important in inducing a lucid dream, particularly if one is using a MILD to induce it.

Another choice for those who seek lucid dreams but lack a natural knack for it can choose to use a specialized mask to induce it. These masks work similarly to those aforementioned Buddhist chants and imagery – except instead of using self-control and meditation into your sleep to remind yourself that you are conscious into your dreams, it's a device that is pre-programmed to detect when you are going to dream (Brindefalk). Not exactly as amazing a feat of religious devotion, but it gets the job done. Most lucid sleep-inducing devices work on a similar principle. The mask, worn over your eyes when you go to sleep, has two infrared lights that shine into your eyes. A photosensor detects these lights, and how they bounce off your eyelids. When you enter REM sleep, your pupils tend to move significantly. The photosensor detects this shifting pattern, and it begins the signal. Devices can use sound or light as a signal, but the Kvasar uses pulses of light from a LED.

Like meditation, the device helps you become aware that you are dreaming. The significant difference between the two is that Buddhist meditation begins in wakefulness, while device-users have their cue to snap into consciousness take place while they are actually sleeping. Meditation is an example of what is termed a MILD (Mnemonic Induced Lucid Dream), where a dreamer must constantly repeat a mnemonic image or phrase in their head – such as an image of a rose, or the phrase "Next time I dream, I want to remember to recognize that I am dreaming," so that by the time they sleep, they remember something from their conscious life – thinking about the rose, or remembering that they wanted to recognize their dream (LaBerge). Remembering something from conscious life in a dream often helps to draw individuals into a lucid dream. However, because REM sleep takes place last in the sleep cycle, it's difficult to keep a mnemonic in your mind through the other stages of sleep. This is why devices are useful – they do the work for you, detecting when you are in REM and subsequently "reminding" you through the use of aural or visual signals that you are conscious.

Lucid dreaming is enjoyable, as demonstrated in the earlier firsthand accounts. The experience is comparable to that of experiences induced by drug use, using only the capabilities of the human body and circumventing whatever legal restrictions surround drug use. However, lucid dreaming seems to have therapeutic value as well. Some make spurious claims about its immense healing properties. For example, Louis Hagood, who specializes in analysis of dreams, suffered from low-grade prostate cancer (Hagood, 163). After visiting a shamanic healer in Oaxaca, Mexico (already earlier connected to the use of herbal dream induction) and experiencing lucid dreams involving water, the cancer apparently subsided. Although Hagood is an example of some lucid dreaming enthusiasts – a crystal-carrying yoga practitioner focused more on the spirituality of dreams than of the science, he is right in asserting the therapeutic value that lucid dreaming may have.

However, most individuals who have experimented with or experienced therapy in the form of lucid dreams have involved the treatment of psychiatric disorders. Examples include treating persistent nightmare sufferers. In the words of Spoormaker et al., "with lucidity, the nightmare could be changed in a more pleasant dream." In Spoormaker's study, frequent sufferers of nightmares were given sessions of lucid dream training, where they used a MILD –telling themselves that if they experienced a nightmare, they would change it. The average amount of nightmares per week among the subjects went down after 2 months of therapy – from 2.31 to 0.88, and sleep quality improved on a qualitative level. Although success has only been experimental, and not widely implemented, Spoormaker's experiment opened up a future of possibilities regarding experimentation with lucid dreaming therapy. With the development of more effective lucid dream inducing strategies, both lucid dreaming therapy and lucid dreaming for personal enjoyment may become more common.

The first three "sources" are explanatory footnotes, while the ones after those are the actual works cited.
1. These experiences mostly refer to comments left on an internet forum, The specific experience regarding ice cream cone consumption refers to a post made by poster SmirksTina.
2. Babies, who have a rapidly developing neural network, spend most of their "abundant sleep time" in REM sleep (Meyers p. 105).
3. The frontal cortex contains the prefrontal cortex. As mentioned earlier, the prefrontal cortex, particularly the DLPFC, may play a role in lucid dreaming.
4. Brindefalk. (2004, March 15). Kvasar dreammask. Retrieved from
5. Hagood, L. (2006). Awakening to dreams. Journal of Religion and Health, 45, 160-
170. doi: 10.007/s10943-006-9014-0
6. LaBerge, Stephen. (2000). Lucid dreaming. Retrieved from: (Original work published 1998)
7. Luciano, J. U.S. Patent No. 8,092,840. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark
8. Myers, D. G. (2010). Psychology (9th ed.). New York: Worth Publishers.
9. Price-Williams, D., & Gaines R. (1994). The dreamtime and dreams of Northern Australian Aboriginal artists. Ethos, 22, 373-388. .
10. SmirksTina. (2012, November 28). LDream Icecream [Reddit online forum post]. Retrieved from
11. Voss, U., Holzmann, R., Tuin, I., & Hobson, J. A. (2009). Lucid dreaming: a state of consciousness with both features of waking and non-lucid dreaming. Sleep, 32(9), 1191-1200.
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