I enjoy my dreams, which are typically full of James-Bond/science-fictional elements. Sometimes they’re so exciting I regret waking up and not finding out how they end.
Maybe I don’t have to. Apparently it’s possible to learn to direct your dream while you’re in it. It’s called lucid dreaming, and researchers at Stanford University have developed a kit to help you learn to do it.
But first, a bit of background.
Ancient people sought portents of the future in dreams. Not-so-ancient people, such as Sigmund Freud, sought information about the psyche. Today, the function of dreams continues to be debated. Some experts think they’re vital to our well-being–otherwise, why would we have them?–while others think they’re just unimportant by-products of the way our brains work.
Vital or not, we know a few things about dreams in general. Research indicates that three quarters are in color and two thirds include sound, but only about one percent include touch, taste or smell. Men most often dream about men; women dream about men and women equally. Women’s dreams are typically more emotional and have fewer people in them, though they tend to include more social interaction; men tend to dream about money, weapons and nudity.
Dreaming takes place during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which lasts from 10 minutes to half an hour, four to six times a night. Using PET scanners, which track blood flow to various parts of the brain, researchers have discovered that during REM sleep many parts of the previously quiescent sleeping brain erupt into life, including regions that regulate muscle movement and control breathing and heart rate, regions having to do with memory and sensory processing, especially those connected with vision and hearing, and the limbic system, associated with emotions. Some regions of the brain are more active than when we’re awake.
What’s just as interesting, though, is what isn’t active: the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that provides us with self-discipline, that reins in our impulses. It’s what keeps us from laughing during a funeral or turning our momentary desire to throttle an annoying person into an actual murder.
The inactivity of the prefrontal cortex during REM sleep may explain why in dreams our actions and emotions are completely uninhibited, why we can fly or breathe underwater or star in a movie musical.
Lucid dreamers, it seems, are able to choose which of these outrageous actions they’ll perform, instead of just being along for the ride like the rest of us.
The Lucidity Institute at Stanford University, founded by Dr. Stephen LaBerge, teaches people how to dream lucidly. One tip is to learn to recognize “dreamsigns,” signals that alert you to the fact that you’re dreaming. Examples are elements or people that appear out of context–an elephant in your living room, for example, or your boss standing in your bathroom dictating to you while you’re taking a shower.
The institute sells a mask that tracks eye movement to determine when you’re in REM sleep. The mask flashes red lights into your closed eyes, providing another signal that you’re dreaming and can now do whatever you please.
Some people are better at lucid dreaming than others. Dr. Alfred Kaszniak, a neuropsychologist and director of the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona, has found that people with sensitive inner ears have a better chance of lucid dreaming because they can more vividly conjure up images of flying in their dreams, which for some reason makes it easier to become lucid.
Even those for whom lucid dreaming comes relatively easy can take months to learn how to do it, but once the art is mastered, it may have many benefits aside from entertainment value. It could be a valuable form of visualization for athletes and others; LaBerge’s research shows that doing something in a dream produces the same brain waves as performing the same action in reality. LaBerge also feels lucid dreaming could help people overcome recurring nightmares or work on problems facing them in real life, and might even enhance healing.
The Lucidity Institute is now working on software to help people become more aware they are having a dream, so soon you may be able to enlist your computer in your dream life.
Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll learn how to write my own endings for my dreams.