A lucid dream is any dream in which we know we’re dreaming while it’s happening. On one level it is that simple. However, interesting questions are raised by the capacity of people to experience lucid dreams and reports of the experiences they have during their lucid dreams.
Why should we believe that lucid dreaming exists at all?
Successful experiments demonstrating volition during a dream date back to at least the mid-70s. A scholarly article detailing a replicable experiment by Dr. Stephen LaBerge was published in the peer-reviewed journal Perceptual and Motor Skills in 1981. An in-depth explanation of physiological evidence for the existence of lucid dreaming as a real phenomenon can be found on Dr. LaBerge’s website.
What are they like?
The content and experience of each lucid dream is as unique as the content and experience of any dream. However, as a distinct physiological state, lucid dreams share a set of common characteristics:
- They are finite and can be a bit unstable. Lucid dreams occur during REM sleep in the vast majority of cases. When the REM period ends, so does the lucid dream. Furthermore, a delicate balance must be maintained: too much excitement can involuntarily wake us up, while not enough awareness and critical distance from what we experience can cause us to lose lucidity and forget we are experiencing a dream. This balancing act is a skill that typically develops with experience over time.
- Possibilities in a lucid dream are governed by mental expectation, not physical laws. If you can imagine it, it can happen. This doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll always have 100% control over our dreams. We won’t be able to fly in every lucid dream, for example. Just keep in mind that on the occasions where we aren’t able to fly in a lucid dream, it’ll be our own expectations and mental models that keep us on the dream ground, not gravity.
Can we learn to have them?
Yes, whether or not you have had spontaneous lucid dreams before, there are things you can do while you are awake that will increase your chances of having lucid dreams. A vast amount of writing on the topic of lucid dreaming is specifically about learning to have more lucid dreams. The materials I find most helpful can be found here [coming soon].
What does having lucid dreams do to our waking lives?
The effects seem to be almost entirely positive. Research undertaken at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry suggests that frequent lucid dreamers have a larger anterior prefrontal cortex than people who have infrequent (or no) lucid dreams. According to the Institute, this part of the brain “controls conscious cognitive processes and play[s] an important role in the capability of self-reflection.”
Beyond that, it starts to depend on what we do in our lucid dreams. With the right approach, they can be used to facilitate rapid personal and psychological development (this is my principal interest and what I hope to do the majority of my blogging about).
Some spiritual traditions also make use of the lucid dream state to facilitate spiritual growth. Quality information on Tibetan Buddhist dream yoga practices seems to be the most readily available to the general public. I have also come across Sufi, Gnostic Christian, and Toltec lucid dream practices, and this is likely just a small sampling of what’s out there.