How Lucid Dreaming Works

What's lucid dreaming like?

Begone, foul creatures of the night -- lucid dreaming may help nightmare sufferers battle their bad dreams.
Begone, foul creatures of the night -- lucid dreaming may help nightmare sufferers battle their bad dreams.
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What's a lucid dream like? Think of your normal dreams, the bizarre plots and non-narrative structure that leaves you scrambling for words to try to explain it to a friend. Now put yourself back in the dream but imagine the details. You're flying through the air, but you can look at the clouds and the ground below, feel the wind whooshing against your skin, smell the clean air. And in the dream, you think, "I'm dreaming that I'm flying."

­Lucid dreaming occurs during REM sleep, the fifth sleep stage. The body is basically paralyzed, with the exception of the eyelids. In the experiment we mentioned before, subjects took advantage of this quality of REM sleep, using prearranged eyelid movements to signal that they were dreaming. Tiny movements from a test subject paired with an EEG to confirm the sleep stage are, so far, the only way that scientists have been able to study lucid dreamers.

We aren't sure what's going on in the brain during lucid dreaming. According to Dr. Matthew Walker, director of a sleep lab at Berkeley, the lateral prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that deals with logic, may be responsible [source: The New York Times]. During REM sleep, this part of the brain is supposed to be "asleep," but it's possible that it "wakes up" so that dreaming and logic are both working at the same time, enabling the dreamer to recognize the dream situation for what it is.

The grand idea of lucid dreaming is all about control. In your dream, you could consciously decide to visit a specific place, say, Provence, France -- and your dream self would obey the waking mind. The possibility of controlling the mind even in sleep has led some researchers to consider lucid dreaming as a treatment for nightmares. One study showed that lucid dreaming exercises caused a group of chronic nightmare sufferers to have nightmares less often [source: Spoormaker and van den Bout]. The practical implications for dream control are enormous. People suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or children plagued by bad dreams could be taught to salvage their sleep and get some rest. You could even take it a step further to a scarier conclusion -- think of the CIA's mind-control experiments with LSD and hypnosis. Imagine what kind of control a government may have if it could figure out how to manipulate the enemy's dreams.

The science community is divided on the subject of dream control. The majority of scientists say that it's not possible. But there are some scientists who argue that there's so much we don't know about the human mind that we can't make any conclusive judgments one way or the other.

So if you'd like to have a lucid dream, how could you do it?