Lucid Dreaming: Manipulating the Subconscious
A Dream Within a Dream
Recently, I watched the movie Inception and was fascinated by the concept of dream control. I would be so much more productive, on the whole, if I could use my dreams to learn and think. What if I could, for instance, write snippets of stories and articles in my sleep, remember them the next day, and get them onto paper for publishing?
This concept sounds futuristic, but it appears that lucid dreaming has already been explored and is becoming increasingly more popular. Lucid dreaming is a phenomenon in which you're fully aware that you’re dreaming, even while you’re still asleep. Some people can even use their dreams to experience everything from the sublime to the sensual.
Techniques to influence and control our dreams have been shown to work in sleep experiments. For instance, we can strategize to dream about a particular subject, solve a problem, or end a recurring nightmare. With practice, we can also increase our chances of having a lucid dream, the sort of “dream within a dream” that the characters in Inception regularly and effortlessly slipped into.
Different methods exist to control dreams. One of these that doesn't require lucidity at all is predetermination: the process of selecting the setting or topic of the dream prior to sleep. This is akin to the concept of “dream incubation” in which a person works to induce a dream about an important topic in order to answer a question or resolve a conflict. Success with creating a particular dream setting, however, doesn't imply the ability to control the sequence of events in the dream.
Concurrent control is the ability to determine or alter the course of a dream in “real time” - as it happens. This type of control isn't limited to lucid dreams anymore than our effect on the waking world is limited to times when we are thinking about what we are doing. Anytime we make a choice or act in a dream, we are controlling it. We may be unconscious of the reason for our choice, but the decision nonetheless originates within the self. However, people possessing lucid consciousness in their dreams are able to make deliberate choices and actions with full knowledge that they are experiencing a dream, and observe their effects on the course of the dream.
Pros and Cons
One of the benefits of lucid dreaming is its alleged role in solving problems. Deirdre Barrett, author of the novel The Committee of Sleep, says: “Breakthrough dreams – where a writer dreams the plot of a novel or a scientist dreams a formula or someone just has a major insight about their personal life - these can happen spontaneously, but you greatly increase their probability by specific requests of your dreaming mind.”
But lucid dreaming might have a negative side as well. In 2010, the European Science Foundation reported that lucid dreaming “creates distinct patterns of electrical activity in the brain that have similarities to patterns made by psychotic conditions.” In this same vein, the European group said paranoid delusions can occur when lucid dreams are replayed repeatedly after the subject wakes up.
That said, psychiatrists have also established a link between lucid dreaming and sleep disorders, such as insomnia, narcolepsy, and sleep apnea. Lucid dreams further tend to come when fighting serious illness like influenza and malaria. Anxiety disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder, which come with hyper-arousal and increased nightmares, may also indirectly bring on some disturbing lucid dreams.
Asleep or Awake?
Taking all of this into account, it’s safe to ask if lucid dreaming is in fact a state of sleep or awakening. While the lucid dream does, in fact, emerge very often from the REM state, it functions in a partial REM awakening state. Still, it cannot be strictly described as either one of these states. The only confirmed element of lucid dreaming is that it’s associated with reactivation of prefrontal networks of the brain. Lucid dreaming is therefore not an REM phenomenon, although it may begin in that state.
In short, the lucid dream’s most fascinating mysteries remain unexplained, and the context in which they can be used is still open for debate.