If you’re new to the idea of lucid dreaming, one of the first things you might ask as a visitor to our site might be, “Is lucid dreaming real?” The idea of being able to consciously experience and control your dreams might seem fantastical, almost too good to be true, but lucid dreaming is a real phenomenon. You don’t have to rely on paranormal explanations or pseudoscience to understand lucid dreaming: it is a function of the way our brains work to change our state of consciousness in our sleeping and waking lives. In the last half of the 20th century, numerous scientific experiments have been conducted into the phenomenon of lucid dreaming, and the results support the fact that lucid dreaming is real.
Even before scientific experiments, people all over the world have agreed that it is possible to have self-awareness and conscious control in dreams. For thousands of years, Tibetan monks have practiced dream yoga, incorporating heightened self-awareness and dream control, as part of the path to enlightenment. Aboriginal groups have used lucid dreams as a method of interacting with their ancestors and the spirit realm for answers to questions and prophecies. And in the Western world, many writers and philosophers, such as René Descartes, have claimed that lucid dreams were responsible for altering their perspective on everything from the nature of the subconscious to the nature of reality (see my article on What Is A Lucid Dream for more information). However, it is only in the past few decades that scientific studies have demonstrated that lucid dreams are concrete physiological events.
Lucid dreams are conscious dreams, and for a long time psychologists thought that it was impossible to be conscious while asleep. Therefore, they posited that lucid dreams weren’t ‘real dreams’ – dreams that occur when a person is in REM sleep – but that they were perhaps brief hypnagogic visions that people experienced just before waking up; especially if the individual woke up in the middle of the night and quickly went back to sleep, researchers posited that such waking visions could be mistaken for real dreams.
The field of lucid dreaming research gained popularity in the 1970’s and ‘80s, as new technologies granted psychologists better ways of measuring a subject’s physiological responses and changes in brain activity during sleep. However, the only definitive way to tell if someone was conscious in dreams was to arrange an external movement the dreamer could use to signal the researcher when the dreamer became lucid in a dream. Because sleep paralysis prevents one from moving larger muscle groups during sleep, the prearranged movement would have to be small: most lucidity studies used controlled eye movements back and forth as a signal. Keith Hearne’s study in 1978 with lucid dreamer Alan Worsley required Worsley to move his eyes back and forth eight times to indicate he was lucid. Hearne was able to verify that Worsley became lucid in the middle of REM sleep, when normal dreams also occur. Since Hearne’s experiment, there have been many scientific studies that back up the idea that lucid dreams are real dreams. However, unlike normal dreams, one can be conscious of lucid dreams as they are happening and can even communicate with the waking world to some small extent!
Until recently, prearranged eye movements were the only way for researchers to tell with certainty whether a subject was lucid in the dream state. Exterior signs of the onset of lucidity include pauses in breathing and brief changes in heart rate and in skin electricity. Since these responses can occur in other physiological states as well, scientists couldn’t formulate a “diagnosis” that someone was lucid dreaming; the person had to tell them by controlling his or her eye movements. However, in 2009 a German study looked at brain imaging data and the brainwave measurements of experimental subjects when they were in the middle of a lucid dream. The study found that the brainwaves of the subjects were in a state of high activity, known as the gamma range, during conscious dreaming. This range is far above the low-activity theta range that accompanies unconscious dreaming, and is even above the beta range that characterizes our normal waking activity! The study also showed that in lucid dreams there was more activity in the areas of the prefrontal cortex responsible for linguistic thought and self-awareness than in normal dreams. This suggests that when we lucid dream, we enter a physiological state of heightened self-awareness that is quite distinct from normal awareness. This might explain why practicing meditation is one strategy that helps bring on lucid dreams: meditation encourages you to be mindful of your inner emotions and thoughts while maintaining a high degree of mental focus. Meditation might thus approximate the heightened awareness one experiences in a lucid dream, making it easier for your brain to achieve this state while asleep.
As for the concept of controlling a lucid dream, this might be something you have to experience for yourself to believe. People who have dreamed lucidly say that it can take a lot of practice before you can change and control things in your lucid dream. What helps the most is having the confidence that you can control and shape your dream. At its heart, a lucid dream is a kind of intensely vivid imaginary world created by your subconscious mind and your conscious imagination working together. Modern studies have discovered at least some of the physiological underpinnings that make your brain able to lucid dream, and have provided a definitive answer to the question, “Is lucid dreaming real?” In a word, yes!