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Lucid dreaming: Could hacking your dreams give you benefits?

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For some, a night’s sleep is not just rest – it is the moment where they enter the domain of ultimate control. These custom, hyper-realistic worlds that our minds build in seconds, where every whim of ours can instantly rise to life in our lived experience.

Worried about your performance, whether at work, hobby, or social occasions? You could practise or solve problems in your dream like it’s the real thing, waking up to improved performance. You could breathe in the Mariana Trench, fly over the Mount Everest, and float amidst the glowing Auroras to your heart’s content.

This is lucid dreaming. Accessing our dream worlds consciously may have the power to change our lives.

Awake in a dream

Snowy mountain trek hike
Fresh soft snow everywhere… but deep down you know that your reality is different.
Image Credit: Josh Hild/Pexels.com

It’s a snowy mountain on the edge of the world, and you are trudging through the woods. Except with each clumsy step through fresh snow, you know that you are safe in bed at home, sound asleep.

“As a trainable skill and scientifically verifiable event during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a lucid dream occurs when a person achieves the explicit insight that he or she is dreaming while dreaming. After and recognising this, or becoming lucid in a dream, one can reflect on and shift the mental model of the world accordingly,” explains Ivone de Guadalupe Reis, clinical director and child, adolescent and adult clinical psychologist at Reverse Psychology clinic, Dubai.

Lucid dreaming offers a special world in which everything can be possible and controllable. This combination of mixed sensory and emotional experiences makes lucid dreaming so desirable

– Dr Chadi Al Alam, specialist paediatric neurologist at the Dubai-based American Center for Psychiatry and Neurology

As a form of mental training, researchers are now studying its effectiveness in improving our waking performance.

In a 2012 study by Germany-based researchers published in the Journal Imagination, Cognition and Personality that studied the prevalence of lucid dreaming in athletes, they found that nine per cent of the athletes used their lucid dreams to practise their sport regularly and 77 per cent had the impression that their performance improved following their sport practice in lucid dreams.

It is also used in certain forms of therapy. A Los Angeles-based patient with a 22-year history of chronic pain was cured in one night after a lucid dream – one where he described seeing ‘pure tones’ of sounds that were ‘euphorically beautiful’ and was studied in a 2014 study by US-based researchers published in the Journal Medical Hypotheses.

“Lucid dreaming offers a special world in which everything can be possible and controllable. This combination of mixed sensory and emotional experiences makes lucid dreaming so desirable,” says Dr Chadi Al Alam, specialist paediatric neurologist at the Dubai-based American Center for Psychiatry and Neurology.

Remember Christopher Nolan’s film Inception? A group of professional lucid dreamers (and thieves) led by Dom Cobb (Leonardo Di Caprio) use technology to help them infiltrate the dreams of others – with crime in mind. Even the Matrix’s concept of an illusory world that humans wake up to, is lucid dreaming.

TAB The Matrix Reloaded-1639989570984
The Matrix’s illusory world that you can connect your brain to, is lucid dreaming.
Image Credit: Supplied

The brains of frequent lucid dreamers are different

While dreaming, most of us are lost to the world. However, according to Dr Chadi Al Alam, specialist paediatric neurologist at the American Center for Psychiatry and Neurology, although lucid dreamers maintain the same brain activity and muscle paralysis that are the hallmarks of REM sleep, they can communicate their experience through predetermined eye movements that can be detected and monitored.

In the first experiment into lucid dreaming by researcher Stephen La Berge at Harvard University, this ‘sign’ was a pair of repeated eye movements from left to right, that would alert the researcher that the subject had become lucid in the dream.

According to Dr Alam, not only have researchers noted brain activity that seemed a hybrid of REM sleep and wakefulness, but other studies have also found that certain areas of the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain which is associated with higher-level cognitive tasks such as decision making, and memory recall) appears to show increased activity during lucid dreaming compared to standard REM sleep. He adds, “The research shows that the anterior prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with higher levels of self-reflection, is larger in people who report having frequent lucid dreams.”

A novel therapy?

“They say we only use a fraction of our brain’s true potential. Now, that’s when we’re awake. When we’re asleep, our mind can do almost anything.” – Dom Cobb, Inception

Lucid dreams dreaming
Some athletes even train in their sleep, and lucid dreaming is also used for treating a recurring nightmare in therapy.
Image Credit: Shutterstock

“Lucid dreaming is often used in imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT). In IRT, a therapist helps you reimagine a recurring nightmare with a different, more pleasant storyline. When used with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), IRT with lucid dreaming induction can help increase dream control,” explains Dr Rebecca Steingiesser, senior clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist at King’s College Hospital, Dubai.

Bad dreams? You can redirect them. Dr Alam says, “It might be useful for reducing symptoms of anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Lucid dreaming is often used in imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT). In IRT, a therapist helps you reimagine a recurring nightmare with a different, more pleasant storyline. When used with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), IRT with lucid dreaming induction can help increase dream control.

– Dr Rebecca Steingiesser, senior clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist at King’s College Hospital, Dubai

“According to the results of one study published in the International Journal of Dream Research, the most frequently cited applications for lucid dreams were:

• Having fun (81.4 per cent)

• Changing a bad dream or nightmare into a pleasant one (63.8 per cent)

• Solving problems (29.9 per cent)

• Getting creative ideas or insights (27.6 per cent)

• Practising skills (21.3 per cent)

According to Dr Alam, people who tend to lucid dream more also tend to achieve higher on measures of creativity, but people also report feeling more creative and inspired by the experience itself. Understandable – because you can test out your wildest ideas with no fears at all.

Woman painting dream
According to Dr Alam, people who tend to lucid dream more also tend to achieve higher on measures of creativity, but people also report feeling more creative and inspired by the experience itself.
Image Credit: Redwolf/Pexels.com

Dr Steingiesser, says, “It has also been suggested that the sense of control one may feel during a lucid dream may persist into waking life, resulting in a greater sense of empowerment, which can assist in reducing anxiety.”

Now, lucid dreams are seen as an arena of endless possibilities – with potential in the field of therapy and training.

As per a 2020 article by the New Arab, a British poet, Potent Whisper (real name, Georgie Stephanou) held lucid dreaming workshops for the homeless and asylum workers in the UK with the aim of ‘a sense of spatial freedom in a society that restricts our movements’.

Ways to induce lucid dreaming

Enter the dream-generation industry of today’s world – with workshops, online courses, books and even a range of questionable ‘elixirs’, ‘tinctures’ and supplements that promise instant, vivid lucid dreams. The red pill from the ‘Matrix’ is upon us. (However, these are mostly unregulated by any organisation whatsoever, so be wary).

As per Dr Reis, only around 23 per cent of adults experience these dreams once a month. For the rest of us, it’s down to these techniques that have more scientific backing, according to Dr Reis, Dr Steingesser and Dr Alam. You can even try more than one together –

Sleep hygiene – Just sleeping better will increase your time of REM sleep as well as your likelihood of getting a lucid dream. “ Practices such as a consistent sleep schedule, skipping heavy meals and caffeine before sleep, maintaining a comfortable sleep environment, avoiding electronics, and limiting screen time before sleeping,” says Dr Alam.

Woman writing in diary before sleep
Focusing more on your dreams make you more aware of the experience when it happens – so keep a detailed dream diary, jotting down everything you can remember.
Image Credit: Cottonbro/Pexels.com

A dream diary – Wake up, and jot down everything you remember about your dreams. According to Dr Alam, focusing more on the dreams makes you more aware of the experienced when it happens. Dr Steingesser says that while some research found that people had more lucid dreams when they kept a log, other research found that these journals did not help on their own but might be useful when combined with other methods.

Reality testing – Dr Steingesser says, “This is when you pause at different times of the day to see whether you’re dreaming. You can try to do something impossible, like push your finger through your palm or inhale through a closed mouth. Or you can do something that’s usually hard to do in a dream, like read a page in a book.”

A famous example of such a test to distinguish between dreams and reality is the spinning top from ‘Inception’. Does it spin endlessly?

Spinning top Inception
A famous example of reality testing from the film Inception – when it spins without stopping, that’s when the characters know they’re dreaming.
Image Credit: IMDb

Mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (MILD) – “You wake up after sleeping for 5 hours and tell yourself several times that the next time you dream, you will remember you are dreaming. This uses prospective memory – the act of remembering to do something in the future – to trigger a lucid dream,” explains Dr Steingesser.

Auto-suggestion – Similarly – “Using this technique means that the dreamer will suggest to himself that he will have a lucid dream right before falling asleep,” says Reis.

Wake-up-back-to-bed (WBTB): Dr Steingesser says, “You wake up after 5 hours of sleep, stay awake briefly, and then go back to bed to try to enter an REM sleep period.” Reis explains the time to stay awake for before sleeping again is between 30 to 120 minutes.

Devices – Dr Steingesser says, “Some masks and headbands that have sounds or lights might bring on a lucid state. Other devices can record and play messages used in the MILD technique while you are asleep.” The idea is that they shine lights into your eyes at a designated time as a cue for lucidity.

Supplements – Can you pop a supplement, have a lucid dream? “Certain supplements and medicinal plants have been reported to increase lucid dreams, such as cholinesterase inhibitors,” says Reis. However , Dr Steingesser warns, “It is unclear as to how safe they are or how well they work.” Do be wary and check with your doctor.

Researchers also show that they may be disruptive to sleep because they are associated with higher levels of brain activity, and in this way these dreams can decrease sleep quality and have a negative impact on sleep hygiene, also may affect emotional regulation, memory consolidation, and other aspects of day-to-day life linked to sleep health.

– Ivone de Guadalupe Reis, clinical director and child, adolescent and adult clinical psychologist at Reverse Psychology clinic

Woman looking at fish in aquarium lucid dream
Some researchers argue that creating lucid dreams can blur the line between your everyday reality and your dreams – which can negatively impact your long-term mental health.
Image Credit: Khoa Vo/Pexels.com

However, according to Dr Reis, some researchers argue that creating lucid dreams can blur the line between your everyday reality and your dreams – which can negatively impact your long-term mental health.

She adds, “Researchers also show that they may be disruptive to sleep because they are associated with higher levels of brain activity, and in this way these dreams can decrease sleep quality and have a negative impact on sleep hygiene, also may affect emotional regulation, memory consolidation, and other aspects of day-to-day life linked to sleep health.”

Dr Steingesser says, “All in all, I encourage all those interested in lucid dreaming to exercise caution and ensure they have a support system in place such as a therapist and loved ones who can monitor the potential emotional outcomes on a regular basis.”

Now, with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s Media Lab having released a device, Dormio that can guide your dreams with auditory cues given as you’re falling asleep, maybe the world of Inception-style dream hacking isn’t that far away. If you do hack your dreams to practise a skill or go somewhere you’ve always wanted to – do tell us more at …

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