Usually I blog to explore new ideas and concepts on how to improve lucid dream skills. Lucidipedia is aiming to become the world’s most reliable and trustworthy lucid dream academy on the web. Clearly we are all about promoting and supporting the practice of lucid dreaming.
However, as a lucid dream fanatic and teacher, I am also quite aware of the pioneering research that is continuing in the field of lucid dreaming. The story on lucid dreams is still being written and has yet to be told.
Though we have acquired a fair amount of insight through experimental studies over the last decade to better understand the (lucid) dream state, it is important to keep in touch with the related scientific communities. We are still learning.
Busted: lucid dreams are micro-awakenings
Stephen LaBerge’s studies from the 80′s have put lucid dreaming onto the scientific stage. Lucid dreaming was valued as both an intriguing and invaluable phenomenon to investigate on to further understand, not only lucid dreams, but also the regular dream state.
Up to that time, lucid dreams were interpreted as mere “micro-awakenings” during REM sleep. Meaning that lucidity was simply a very brief interruption of wakefulness during dream sleep in which the dreamer realized that he or she was dreaming. In this sense, a lucid dream was not a “lucid dream” at all but just a brief awakening in which the “lucid” dreamer lingered in hypnopompic hallucinations while waking up from REM (providing for brain activation that enabled reflective dream awareness).
Many lucid dreamers were reporting quite different experiences, though. To their personal experiences, lucid dreams continued on the basis of a non-lucid dream setting without any awakenings: an uninterrupted period of dreaming; truly acquiring dream awareness while maintaining dream sleep.
LaBerge stepped up to the challenge to proof that lucid dreaming occurred during uninterrupted REM sleep, dismissing that onsets of lucidity were simply “micro-awakenings”. He needed to measure, among other things, the EEG brainwave activity of someone turning lucid during REM sleep. He eventually succeeded in generating convincing evidence that supported the notion of the true definition of the lucid dream. Or at least, evidence that was convincing around that time.
Lucid dreaming is a hybrid state
Recent research done by Voss et al. and others (including Allan Hobson, a highly respected and knowledgeable dream researcher that coined the latest widely accepted theory on dreaming) seems to indicate that a lucid dream — though initiated from a non-lucid dream — might be a qualitatively different kind of physiological dream than ordinary REM sleep dreams. The lucid dream state would be a so-called hybrid state where one part of the brain is in REM while other parts are suddenly more activated.
Meaning that it is not simply like adding “lucid” to a dream to get a “lucid dream”.
This upgrades LaBerge’s findings. Todays technology is much more advanced compared to the equipment that LaBerge worked with around that time. Lucid dream researchers of today can use PET scans to investigate brain activity much more precisely.
Effects on excessive lucid dreaming
Widely accepted studies on dreaming indicate that REM sleep is a physiological process that effects dream experiences as by-products of REM. In its original (extreme) version, dreams have no meaning at all and no value to our mental health. It is REM sleep that we need, not dreams.
This complements other studies and notions on the topic. When people are experimentally deprived from experiencing dream images throughout sleep but still generate REM, no harmful effects on mental functioning are observed the following days. Do this the other way around; no REM but yet still dream images (like in non-REM sleep); and subjects have much trouble functioning properly in the days ahead (e.g. trouble concentrating, regulating emotions, hallucinating, etc.).
REM sleep (the physiological process) seems directly linked to our mental health, not the dream experiences (the phenomenological experience of REM sleep). This may be one explanation why we have a natural tendency to not recall dreams; they simply do not matter and would only clutter up our waking life concerns.
So in the time of LaBerge, during the micro-awakening argument, the harmlessness of practicing lucid dreaming could be validated on the basis of the dream theory previously mentioned: since the dream itself is simply a by-product and not vital to our functioning, and lucid dreaming exclusively occurs during REM sleep without interrupting the state, lucid dreaming is harmless. It actually makes great use of hallucinatory experiences that would otherwise be just mere (forgotten) by-products, through deliberate dream control.
But would that argument also hold against the new hybrid state theory of lucid dreaming? When we turn lucid during REM it seems that a specialized brain area (i.e. dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) activates, which in ordinary non-lucid REM sleep would be inactive. Also in terms of brainwaves, the lucid dream state yields locally increased levels of activity (i.e. gamma waves) of certain brain areas that would otherwise not be altered.
Would excessive lucid dreaming then (i.e. having multiple prolonged lucid dreams in a single night for an extended period of time) have any physiological side effects? I mean, it seems like lucidity does locally alter the REM state of the brain (read ALTER, not necessarily harm).
Lucid dreaming: enhanced state of REM?
The big question is then whether lucidity alters dream sleep in favor of REM or whether it hinders important physiological processes through local brain activation.
Clearly more research is needed to conclude anything on this part. To the average lucid dreamer, enjoying a handful of lucid dreams at most each month – out of the hundreds of regular dreams – does not have any significant impact on dream sleep. This issue would most probably only concern extremely frequent lucid dreamers (very likely not you) that have more than 1 lucid dream per night for several nights in a row. Would aspiring to become a frequent lucid dreamer actually be harmful?
Interestingly, the latest findings show that in the lucid dream state increased levels of brainwave “coherence” occurs that might hint to more enhanced mental processes that relate to the interconnectivity of otherwise isolated brain functions, in comparison to ordinary non-lucid REM. Bluntly: affording for increased levels of learning.
Is lucid dreaming dangerous?
No. It would be very unlikely. Both in physiological as in psychological terms. Know that lucid dreams also occur naturally, without any intent to have them. But a lot more studies need to be done by the bright young minds of the future to fully understand and explore the states of dreaming and lucid dreaming.
Thousands of lucid dreamers all over the world are enjoying and practicing lucid dreaming. Personally, as for many others, I am (or at least was) part of the frequent lucid dreams clan and can only report on rewarding and tremendously insightful experiences that I have gained through years and years of enjoying lucid dreams.
The side effects so far: happiness, self-realization and wonderment of the human brain.