The Potential Consequences of Lucid Dreaming

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A lucid dream is a dream in which the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming. As a tantalizing side effect, the sleeper may be able to take control of the experience. You can see why this would be seductive. Awake, a person is restricted by the confines of reality. Asleep, a person is limited only by their imagination. Some lucid dreamers are capable of of shaping their dreams like a character on Star Trek programing a holodeck simulation – they can do what they want, wherever they want.

So it's no wonder that devices, strategies, and substances that supposedly facilitate lucid dreaming are exceedingly popular. Surveys suggest that only half the population has ever lucid dreamed in their lifetime, so it is quite rare.

With so many people clamoring to take control of their dreams, researchers Raphael Vallat and Perrine M. Ruby, both experts on sleep and dreaming, recently wrote an op-ed in the Journal Frontiers in Psychology questioning whether cultivating lucid dreaming is actually a good idea.

For starters, many of the popular methods for inducing lucid dreams have not been verified to reliably or consistently work. Moreover, the methods encourage heavily fragmenting sleep via frequent wake-ups, consuming certain substances, or utilizing stimulating devices. All of these strategies decrease the overally quality of sleep, they say.

"Considering the gigantic amount of scientific evidence linking poor-quality or insufficient sleep to adverse health outcomes (including shorter life expectancy), and especially of sleep fragmentation in altered physical and cognitive health, one may seriously question the health consequences of regularly practicing lucid dream induction methods," they write.

Vallat and Ruby also wonder whether lucid dreaming itself may have health consequences. Brain scans of people while they are lucid dreaming suggest that they enter a "hybrid state of consciousness in-between sleep and wake." During this state, the brain's processes meant to clean out toxins may be impaired. A recent study suggested that brain waves during deep, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep likely help trigger this process.

"One cannot exclude that an increase of lucid REM to the detriment of non-lucid REM may alter or diminish the outcome of regulation processes known to be at play during non-lucid sleep," Vallat and Ruby say.

A previous study also showed that "those who tried to initiate a lucid dream reported more sleep and stress problems, as well as feelings that they experienced themselves or the world in a detached or “dreamlike” way (dissociative experiences)."

Overall, Vallat and Ruby don't think that lucid dreaming should be discouraged, just that it should be properly researched and studied to minimize side effects and discover more salubrious methods of inducing it.

Source: Raphael Vallat and Perrine M. Ruby.  "Is it a good idea to cultivate lucid dreaming?" Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02585

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