“You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger darling.”
British actor Tom Hardy utters these words as he lobs a grenade in the Hollywood film Inception, a Christopher Nolan movie that capitalises on the phenomenon of lucid dreaming. In a rather mind-bending manner, the film focused on people who possess the craft of controlling the content of their dreams. Some like Marion Cotillard’s Mal preferred the world of dreams to reality, which led to her own undoing. By the end of the film, the viewers were left debating on what was actually real and what wasn’t.
Films and books have created a new space with the idea of vivid dreaming, including films like The Matrix, The Harry Potter book series just to name a few, spurring on the curiosity of people about the confusing phenomenon of dreams. Can we really control what happens in our dreams? Is it possible for some to do so, perhaps more than others?
Well we might not be able to magically manipulate our dreams as Nolan almost made us believe, but it’s not completely impossible. The idea itself sounds fascinating; the ability to have power to explore different realms of our own subconscious with awareness.
What exactly is lucid dreaming?
In simple words, lucid dreaming refers to those dreams where a person is usually aware that they’re dreaming, explains psychologists Celia Green and Charles McReery in their book Lucid Dreaming: The Paradox of Consciousness During Sleep. As the person slowly becomes aware of this, the dream can change. This is a ‘lucid’ dream. It’s different from an ordinary dream, explain Green and McReery, as it seems extremely realistic and provides a ‘striking’ imitation of waking life.
Abu Dhabi-based psychologist Teresa Arora, who specialises in sleep behaviour, breaks it down further for Gulf News, “Some may not have even heard of the term ‘lucid dreaming’ although about 55 per cent of the population would have experienced it at some point in their lives. More than 20 per cent experience it on a monthly basis,” she says. Lucid dreaming can be one of two things. “First, it can simply be awareness that you are in a dream and not awake. Second, for some, they are able to control their dream content and direct it to achieve more favourable outcomes,” she says. These dreams are usually more tinged with positivity than the ordinary ones; there’s almost a sense of elation present in them.
Lucid dreaming can be one of two things. First, it can simply be awareness that you are in a dream and not awake. Second, for some, they are able to control their dream content and direct it to achieve more favourable outcomes
Lucid dreaming in the context of dreams
Like Leonardo DiCaprio says in Inception, “Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realise something was actually strange."
Dreams have always been a source of curious fascination for psychologists, and the studies continue to this day. Are they manifestations of a person’s desires and fears? What do they really mean? Or is it an example of something they’ve deeply repressed?
Well, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychology, had said in his 1899 formative work Interpretations of Dreams, that dreams were rooted in primal nature. There’s a taboo, a kind of immoral quality around them, he argued. When we sleep, our guard is lowered and these instincts take the form of an expression of satisfaction. These instincts threaten our ability to get an undisturbed rest, and so a part of our mind acts as a censor, so they can be transmitted into a different symbolic and disguised form altogether. He had only mentioned lucid dreaming briefly; an example of the extent to which the censor could go to disguise the wishes of a dream. When the person realises ‘I am dreaming’, this knowledge affects the quality of the dream. This can also fulfill the censor’s intention of protecting the mind against intrusions, Freud had said.
Why does lucid dreaming happen?
There’s still a lot of study and research about the phenomenon of lucid dreams. Chances are, if you are one of those who are more self-reflective, you might be a lucid dreamer.
A 2016 neurological study conducted in the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany, found physical differences in the brain of lucid dreams and non-lucid dreams. The front part of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex, which is the site of high-level tasks like making decisions and recalling memories, is bigger in people who have lucid dreams. The idea here is that people who are most likely to have lucid dreams tend to be self-reflective, and keep mulling over thoughts in their heads.
The findings pointed to the fact that people with frequent lucid dreams are better at self-reflection. The researchers theorised that the likelihood of experiencing lucid dreams is linked with better cognitive functions among those with larger anterior prefrontal cortex. Another study conducted in the University of Bern suggested that lucid dreaming indicates higher level of brain activity, especially for areas responsible for higher-level thinking and self-awareness. Thus, it could be valuable improving sleep quality and cognitive functioning. However, more research is required to conclusively prove these findings.
Can lucid dreaming be harmful for our well-being?
Dreaming can occur in every stage of sleep, but is most common in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, elaborates Arora. “During REM sleep the brain is highly active, similar to wakefulness, yet the body is paralysed – an internal mechanism that disconnects the brain from the body to prevent people from acting out their dreams,” she says.
A lot of our dreams have negative impact, which she says is normal. “It is believed that dreaming during REM sleep is the brain’s way of replaying and reconstructing past events and then locking the important bits away to different regions of the brain,” she says.
During REM sleep, our brain is processing and regulating emotional aspects. So, dreaming is not only important for our memory but also for emotional regulation. “Think about it, if we divert our dreams from negative to positive content during lucid dreaming, then this may not allow the brain to adequately process and make sense of the experiences we have been exposed to on a daily basis,” she says.
The brain is then left to process emotional state during wakefulness, and as a result scientists have concluded that lucid dreaming may not be entirely beneficial for mental health and well-being. “While this argument makes sense from a neuroscientific viewpoint, there is no real solid evidence to support the claim,” she says.
However, if negative dream content becomes problematic and results in terrifying nightmares, which can also be a harrowing symptom of those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), then there is some preliminary evidence that lucid dreaming may help these patients. Nevertheless, more studies need to be conducted in this field.
Is it wise to play with Nature?
It all sounds thrilling, but how safe is it really?
“There is currently insufficient evidence to support the use of lucid dreaming among healthy people,” says Arora. “This practice could result in a worsening of mental health and wellbeing,” she adds.
Playing with Nature and our brains natural function is not likely to produce positive outcomes, so she advises people to be cautious. “Of course, there will be people who want to experiment – if you are one of them then I recommend keeping a journal and logging mood, emotional states and wellbeing. For those with nightmares or PTSD, more evidence is needed to confirm the potential positive benefits of lucid dreaming,” she adds.