Oneironauts in Deep Space: The Science of Lucid Dreaming

Stephanie GuoAssistant Editor of Natural Science

Dreams are a phenomenon that has been admired and studied by humans throughout history. The earliest evidence of dream interpretation dates back to ancient Mesopotamian civilizations. Modern scientists from multiple disciplines, including neurology and psychology, have examined the origin and meaning of dreams as part of their research. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, famously believed dreams were manifestations of our unconscious desires and worries.

The research on dreams and their potential meanings and purpose in our lives is extensive and ongoing. Some researchers in recent decades have directed their attention to studying lucid dreaming, a state in which the subject is aware they are dreaming and may even have control over the content of their dreams. Lucid dreaming has its fair share of fans outside of academia, and some who actively practice inducing this form of dreaming call themselves oneironauts, a combination of the words “oneirology,” the study of dreams, and “astronaut.” Although lucid dreaming has gained popularity with the advent of social media, many have found it difficult to practice consistently, as it requires one to achieve a state of consciousness while still remaining in the rapid eye movement, or REM, stage of sleep.

The rarity and anecdotal nature of this phenomenon have caused some people, especially those who have not had a lucid dream before, to doubt its existence, arguing that it is impossible for people to control their own dreams. Some even argue that people who claim to be lucid during their dreams are not actually conscious, but are merely imagining that they are. However, lucidity in dreams has been supported by multiple scientific studies. A 1981 study conducted by notable lucid dream researcher Stephen LaBerge and colleagues gave participants a series of predetermined signals to perform once they fell asleep and became aware that they were dreaming. The subjects’ brain waves were monitored with EEGs to ensure that they were in REM sleep and not awake when they performed their signals. All of the participants succeeded in this task, indicating that lucid dreaming is possible. Another, more recent study conducted in 2012 by Martin Dresler and colleagues discovered a significant difference in brain activity between lucid REM sleep and non-lucid REM sleep, implying that lucid dreaming is an observable state, distinct from normal sleeping patterns.

Even among those who believe lucid dreams are achievable, some are skeptical of their benefits and consider them to be dangerous. There are concerns that lucid dreams reduce one’s quality of sleep or can cause a disconnect from reality. These are certainly valid fears, but lucid dreaming has also been empirically shown to carry significant cognitive and therapeutic benefits. Lucid dream induction has been tested with promising results for alleviating nightmares. Practicing motor tasks in lucid dreams may even improve performance while awake. Research on lucid dreaming is still in its preliminary stages, and it is difficult to recruit subjects who can reliably become lucid. However, current findings are supportive of the possible beneficial applications of lucid dreaming.

Considering the potential benefits of lucid dreaming, not to mention the tantalizing idea of dream control itself, it’s no wonder that many people are searching for ways to have consistent lucid dreams. Lucid dreaming is a learnable skill, so most people should be able to induce them with practice. Enthusiasts have shared many of their own techniques, some of which have gained relative popularity. Multiple companies have even developed devices that they claim can trigger lucid dreams. A number of these methods have been scientifically tested for their effectiveness in causing lucidity with varying results. A literature review conducted in 2012 on lucid dream induction found that none of the techniques that were analyzed caused consistent lucidity, but some were more promising than others. Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams, or MILD, in which people repeat their intention to have a lucid dream to themselves as they are falling asleep, appears to be the most frequently tested technique and was shown to cause a slight increase in the frequency of lucid dreams. The reality testing technique, in which people make it a habit to stop at random intervals throughout their day to check if they are awake, has also been shown to have promising effects.

Although lucid dreaming is challenging, the result is no doubt rewarding in both a psychological and physiological sense. Perhaps not everyone can become astronauts and explore the vast reaches of outer space, but most can certainly become oneironauts and explore the vast reaches of their unique dreamscapes. All it takes is practice, a few nights of dedicated sleep, and inspecting reality.

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