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The U.S. is wracked with a deadly pandemic, economic turmoil and civil strife. At times like these, sharing some nice cocktails on a flying pirate ship with Baseball Hall-of-Famer Derek Jeter and a talking groundhog would be a welcome break.
And an Australian sleep researcher studying lucid dreaming wants to help make that happen for you.
Forget virtual reality – lucid dreaming hacks your sleep cycle to allow you to control your own dreams. You can control your own responses to a dream’s story and settings, as well as the story and settings themselves.
“Lucid dreaming has many potential benefits and applications, such as treatment for nightmares, improvement of physical skills and abilities through dream rehearsal, creative problem solving, and research opportunities for exploring mind-body relationships and consciousness,” said Dr. Denholm Aspy of the University of Adelaide School of Psychology in his study. “However, to-date, the effects reported in most studies have been weak and inconsistent, and more research is needed into the applications of lucid dreaming.”
Aspy’s study, titled the International Lucid Dream Induction Study and published this month in Frontiers in Psychology, is one of the few attempts to rigorously and scientifically examine the methods by which practitioners seek the lucid dreaming experience.
“Numerous lucid dream induction techniques have been developed by lucid dream enthusiasts but have not been investigated scientifically,” Aspy writes.
How to Lucid Dream
The cognitive and external stimulation techniques seemed the most promising, according to the study. One is called “reality testing,” (RT) the study states. Multiple variations exist, but for example, you may develop a habit of looking at your watch twice in a row during the day. If you continue this habit into your dreams, the watch face will likely read a different time the second time you look, triggering your awareness that you are dreaming.
Other cognitive techniques include “wake back to bed,” (WBTB) in which you set an alarm during the night to wake yourself up. At that point, you may use the mnemonic induction of lucid dreaming (MILD) technique, in which you rehearse your intention to lucid dream in your mind.
Another technique mentioned in the study is called senses-initiated technique (SSILD). This technique involves meditatively focusing on each of your five senses for 20 or 30 seconds in a cycle you repeat several times before falling asleep, according to the Lucid Dream Society.
Aspy’s dream study asked the 355 volunteer participants to record their techniques and dream recall in a log book. The lucid dreamers improved their dream recall and were able to experience lucid dreams in about a third of the nights tested. The most successful technique, Aspy states, was a combination of MILD, RT, and WBTB. In other words, participants trained themselves to do reality checks throughout the day, and then set alarms to wake themselves up five hours after going to bed. During that brief wake-up period, they practiced MILD techniques before falling back asleep.
The most successful lucid dreamers were the ones who fell asleep fastest after the nighttime alarm and MILD practice, the study states.
How Do Lucid Dreams Work?
As with many aspects of sleep, consciousness and the human brain in general, researchers aren’t sure exactly how lucid dreaming works. They’re not sure how typical dreaming works, either.
But we do know that dreams we remember happen during REM (rapid-eye-movement) sleep, writes MedicineNet Author/Editor Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD.
“REM sleep makes up less than 25% of total sleep time, and the reason for its importance is not fully understood” Dr. Stöppler said. “Some studies have suggested that REM sleep is necessary for the brain to preserve memories and maintain appropriate neurological connections.”
REM sleep is unlike any of the other stages of sleep. It was first described in 1953 when sleep researchers noticed a unique pattern of brain waves (signals recorded on an electroencephalogram (EEG), a type of test that measures the electrical impulses within the brain), Dr. Stöppler writes. These brain waves had a fast frequency and low voltage, similar to the brain waves seen in the normal awake state.
Other characteristics of REM sleep include complete inactivity of the voluntary muscles in the body, with the exception of the muscles that control eye movements. Rapid eye movements are also observed during REM sleep. People who are awakened during REM sleep often report that they were dreaming at the time, Dr. Stöppler said.
About 20% to 25% of sleep time is REM sleep; in infants it can comprise about 40%.