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Sleep research: How lucid dreaming is possible for everyone

When I was 19 years old – long before I thought of pursuing a career as a space writer – I dreamed that I was standing on the surface of Mars looking out over a rusty, rock-strewn desert stuck in an eternal dawn and its desolation I was intrigued. After apparently soaking up everything for hours, I looked up and saw a space station hanging in the sky. I decided to just fly there in Iron Man-style jet boots. Then unfortunately I woke up.

It was not by accident that I stumbled upon Mars in my dream. And I knew that I had slept the whole time. As part of a lucid dream, also called lucid dreaming, I decided to drop by on the red planet. I voluntarily decided to bask in the alien solitude. I voluntarily decided to fly around. And since I had lucid dreams almost every night at the time, I experienced several variations of that dream – each stranger and better than the previous one.

Lucid dreaming is not easy to describe, and the way it works varies from person to person. But in essence it means that one is aware of the dream state and can take on a more active role in the dream. Some of my own lucid dreams have been like canvases on which I constructed a wild new environment or gradually made it up.

Other lucid dreams allowed me to deal with stressful situations, such as making public speeches. In another dream that I fondly recall, I was playing cards with my grandmother, who had died years earlier. This experience helped me understand how I felt about her in a way that I never could have done when I was 13 years old.

Even if it feels like they’re completely random, dreams have power over people. Aside from giving us a break from the sometimes annoying physical and social boundaries of the real world, they can help us process grief and be more creative. And when I dreamed lucidly – a state that I unfortunately rarely achieve these days – I found that I was even getting more from sleep. People who share their experiences with lucid dreams in online forums often write that they were inspired to new musical or fictional works, that they found solutions to problems in the real world, or that they simply had incredibly entertaining moments.

“You can argue that REM sleep is a kind of neglected human resource,” says Benjamin Baird, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies human cognition. “What if we could take advantage of this state where people can actually be in control of their thoughts and actions and decide what to do? This state could not only be used for entertainment, but also for creative problem solving.” Lucid dreaming can also be important to learn how memory works – “and for all sorts of others [neurowissenschaftlichen] Questions “.

Baird believes that another fascinating application for lucid dreaming could be in art. “One of the techniques that the visual artists I’ve met is that in their lucid dream they invent an ‘art gallery’ and look at paintings that are hanging in that gallery,” he says. “They then wake up and paint what they saw. The same goes for listening to new scores by musicians. It’s like someone else is creating them, but it’s your mind.”

A small but growing number of scientists led by Baird and other sleep laboratories around the world are hoping to learn more about lucid dreaming: How Does It Work? How is it triggered? And, can the average person be trained to practice it regularly? By studying people who are able to remember what happened to them in their dreams, these researchers aim to determine what cognitive processes are going on in the head while measuring and observing brain activity and physiological processes. For example, how does the brain perceive certain objects or physical processes that only take place in the head? How does it react to visual impressions that are not actually there? How does it mimic parts of the state of consciousness without the person being awake?

More from MIT Technology Review

More from MIT Technology Review

More from MIT Technology Review

Some researchers like Martin Dresler, a cognitive neuroscientist at Radboud University in the Netherlands, suggest that lucid dreaming could even be used to combat clinical disorders such as recurring nightmares or post-traumatic stress disorder. “I think it’s pretty intuitive and plausible that if you realize during a nightmare that it’s not real, it takes a lot of the danger out of the nightmare,” he says. You may be able to just train yourself to wake up and end the dream – or overcome the very vivid feelings of fear and terror by telling yourself that it is a dream.

Why do we dream Scientists still don’t know for sure. Freud believed that dreams are our subconscious that shows us our suppressed desires. Some evolutionary biologists believe that dreaming evolved so that we could play out threatening real-life scenarios and figure out how to respond appropriately. Many neuroscientists who have studied how neurons fire during sleep believe that dreams play a role in how we encode and consolidate memories in the brain. Harvard psychiatrist Allan Hobson believed that while dreaming, the brain reconciles the various layers of consciousness it has acquired during the day.

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