Some dreams are ordinary and realistic, but even the most unlikely of events fail to perturb the sleeping brain. Being zombified is overlooked as easily as failures in basic physics. Friends, family, and even your own identity can be completely falsified without consequence. This inability to recognize the unreality of dreams is attributed to a decrease in activity in the prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive control and abstract thinking.¹’⁶’⁷ In dreams, we tend not to ask that age-old question: why am I here? Instead, we take that lottery money and fly like an eagle, superman, or one of those fish from Mario.
The exception is lucid dreams, on which the 2010 science fiction film Inception is based. Lucid dreaming is the state of being aware that you are dreaming while dreaming.⁹ This is often imperfectly accompanied by access to waking memories and higher-level reasoning abilities.
Initially considered fanciful imagination, lucid dreams became scientifically recognized in the lab experiments of psychologist Keith Hearne. He found that a sleeping subject could become aware and signal that awareness through a pre-determined pattern of eye movements without waking.³ Since then, lucid dreaming has been successfully replicated by many researchers.¹’⁴’⁸’¹¹’¹²’¹³
On the physiological level, a lucid dream is distinguishable from regular sleep by a higher level of interconnectivity and activity within the brain, especially in the normally quiet prefrontal cortex and the temporoparietal junction, which links emotions to events and is associated with awareness, morality, and decision making.²’⁷’¹² Other studies have demonstrated that the state can be induced by stimulating high frequency activity in the frontal lobe though electrodes¹³ and through external sensory stimuli, such as sounds and lights.⁴’⁵’¹⁰
Lucid dreamers tell exciting stories of surreally vivid sights and sounds, fantastical events, and feelings of ecstasy. The onset of awareness can be likened to the switching on of a light: one moment everything is dark and hazy and confusing, the people are strangers dressed as friends, and the location a mystery. The next everything is bright and colorful and alive and gravity ceases to apply. However, lucid dreams can be as tragically mundane as any other dream.
The possibilities of lucid dreams border on science fiction. Have you ever noticed that your skills improve after sleep? When you move in a dream, that motion is created by the same neural activation as in real life, strengthening the same neural pathways.⁴ Because of their higher level of awareness, lucid dreamers are frequently able to choose what they do and what they dream about, practicing life skills, facing fears, exercising creativity, and solving problems. This requires some measure of dream control.
For more information on specific techniques and studies, consult the references below. Do not attempt lucid dreaming if you suffer somnambulism or other sleep disorders without consulting a certified sleep medical professional.
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