Lucid Dreaming and Psychological Health

Knight, Michele. Mystical brain in palm of hand. Digital image. Michele Knight. N.p., n.d. Web. .


"As a model for mental illness, understanding lucid dreaming is absolutely crucial. I would be cautious about interpreting the results as of direct relevance to the treatment of medical illnesses, but [it's] certainly a step in the direction of understanding how the brain manages to hallucinate and be deluded." - Allen Hobson

Lucid dreaming is simple evidence to the fact that mental states are not all-or-nothing. Although humans may have evolved to switch between standard states of consciousness, awake and asleep, the nervous system is clearly capable of straying away from normalcy and achieving intermittent mental states. In his article, "The Neurobiology of Consciousness", Hobson suggested that there has been, more-or-less, an all-or-nothing psychiatric view of mental illness. He used the phenomenon of hallucinations to to demonstrate this point. Hallucinations are experienced whenever one is in the process of falling asleep or waking up (called hypnagogic and hypnopompic imagery). Although hallucination are symptoms of certain severe mental illnesses, everyone experiences them to some degree. Only small differences in the nervous systems processes are required to run the REM sleep dream image generator in waking which can lead one to experience hallucinations in the fully awake state. When this occurs, one is experiencing two states at once (Hobson).

The results derived from research on lucid dreaming have some potential to be directly applicable to the field of mental health. The results from these studies point to some interesting relationships. Of particular importance is the knowledge that increased 40 hz power in the frontal lobe as well as higher activation of specific areas, such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, is correlated with increased self-awareness and insight. It is widely known among the lucid dreaming community that meditation and the use of suggestion techniques before sleep can increase the likelihood of having a lucid dream. This suggests that we may be able to control our levels of personal insight to extents far beyond what we once thought. It is because of finding like this that lucid dreaming has the potential to "move from its marginal and tenuous place at the fringe of psychophysiology to center stage in the emerging science of consciousness. Lucid dreaming [could], in turn, help consciousness science to affect revolutionary changes in psychology." (Hobson).

Lucid dreaming in and of itself can also be an incredible tool for dealing with and overcoming psychological difficulties. When lucidly aware in a dream, one has the ability to control the entire dream environment in every sensory aspect. One of the simplest and most frequently recommended uses of lucid dreaming for psychological benefit is to overcome recurring nightmares. Many people have had the experience of being haunted by a specific object, person or situation repeatedly in their dreams, which can have quite an unsettling effect on someone’s life. If one trains oneself to become lucid during one of the nightmares, one can easily stop whatever is occurring and create a new, pleasant dreamscape, or even confront the nightmare. The second of those two strategies has been found to be extremely effective at getting rid of recurring nightmares. This is because, when lucid, one is aware that they cannot be harmed and therefore one can face the nightmare without worry, either desensitizing themselves to the situation or potentially even speaking to the nightmare figure and try to interpret its meaning (if one believes that it represents a pressing issue from "real life"). One specific success story is of a man who had a recurring nightmare that he was being attacked by a terrifying bear. When he became lucid during the dream he faced the bear, ran up to it, and gave it a big hug. The bear, he claims, transformed into someone important in his life who he’d been unintentionally ignoring. When the dream character told him this he instantly realized the truth of the situation, changing his behavior the following day (Waggoner).

Even though a lucid dreamer has complete control, the individual’s personal fears and worries from "real life" are usually still present. This makes lucid dreams an ideal landscape for overcoming stress and fear. For example, if one is feeling nervous or anxious about performing in front of a crowd, they could create a dreamscape (dream environment) that involves them performing their gig in front of a large audience. In my personal experience, lucid dreaming has helped me to overcome my fear of heights. If one gets scared in a dream, the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) responses of the autonomic nervous system affect the dreamer’s sleeping body in real life and can easily cause one to wake up. Therefore, while developing the ability to fly in my dreams I also had to learn to control my emotional response. Since I began lucid dreaming I have certainly noticed a difference in my ability to handle looking down from tall buildings and climbing tall things such as trees and rock climbing walls. I did not have this intent in mind when I began to lucid dream but it certainly did have an effect on me and I can see it being an extremely helpful tool for overcoming phobias or stress if used appropriately.

There is a lot of literature and online information about how to develop the ability to lucid dream and create dreamscapes and everyone has the capability to do it. One great source of information is a website called "the world of lucid dreaming". It has an abundance of helpful and informative articles, videos and forums for all levels of oneironauts (a name given to those who explore their dreams with lucid dreaming).

This page on lucid dreaming was written by Zachary Busby, an undergraduate student at Macalester College.