The Psychology Behind Lucid Dreaming

The Psychology Behind Lucid Dreaming

We all have had lucid dreams in our life

In the world of art, entertainment, politics, and science, sometimes certain topics become myths, delusions, or taboos due to a lack of proper clarification. Clarity is necessary for any object to be deemed as real. Science needs facts, and imagination needs something to dwell on deeply. In the absence of evident findings, a question always remains open-ended, subject to our interpretation and judgment. Lucid dreaming is one such concept that has always remained a subject of discussion.

A lucid dream is a kind of dream in which the person has conscious awareness that they are dreaming. During this dream, a person feels the dream to be so vivid and real, as if they are creating and controlling their actions. Earlier, lucid dreaming was a subject of debate between psychologists and the scientific community, just like Déjà vu.

It was restricted to researchers only, but in recent decades, western cinema has popularized this term among the general population, due to the effects of media in any form every bit of information has a long-lasting impact on people’s minds. The well-known Christopher Nolan directed the 2010 science fiction action film, Inception.

The movie dealt with the idea of lucid dreaming as the main plot, in which a team of people enters into the dream of a person to steal their original ideas. Nolan, known to be a visionary director, has spent a lot of time during the study of the subconscious trying to paint an accurate picture of the mind during a dream sequence.

Read: What is Visual Mental Imagery?

Inception was a box office success with critical acclaim, but the aftermath of this movie left the audience with a pondering question to understand the depth of their minds since any piece of complicated information when mixed with the imaginative hypothetical theme and scientific reality constructs a long-term impression in the mind, which can be often termed as pseudoscience. So the question arises: is lucid dreaming real?

Several research studies have been conducted on this matter before when lucid dreaming was not even common among common people. Lucid dreaming tends to occur mostly during REM sleep, the rapid eye movement stage of the sleep cycle where we are granted vivid visual dreams. At this stage, the mind is blocking all external stimuli to achieve a state of complete deep sleep. The sleeper’s awareness of lucid dreams is elevated, akin to wakefulness, leading to its classification as a state of hybrid sleep.

A large portion of the population claims to have experienced lucid dreaming on several occasions, with some instances tending to occur at least once a month. People agree by saying that during the dream sequence, they can exert control over the surrounding environment and body to a certain extent. Michael Carr, a sleep researcher, has reported having lucid dreams where she transforms into a dolphin, finding the experience fascinating. The underlying cause of lucid dreaming is unknown, with most research and studies relying on individual reports.

Read: How Dreams Promote Creativity?

The psychology behind lucid dreaming

According to a 2017 study titled Imagination, Cognition, and Personality: Consciousness Theory, research, and Clinical Practice, most people have spontaneous lucid dreams between the ages of 3 and 4 years, with a rapid decline in their occurrence during adolescence. The researchers further said that the personality traits of a person could be a determining factor in the likelihood of lucid dreaming.

The research is based on the parameters of the big five personality traits. It was found that the frequency of occurrence of lucid dreaming correlates positively with openness to experience and with neuroticism, which is a personality factor associated with strong negative moods and a higher frequency of experiencing lucid dreams.

Medication is believed to influence the likelihood of having a lucid dream. A person who has practised medicine for a long time might pay more attention and wakefulness to their surroundings to achieve a sense of distinction between reality and a dream.

The Brain chemistry during Lucidity

Researchers believe that certain parts of the brain are responsible for the creation of lucid dreaming. The prefrontal cortex of the brain is said to register a heightened sense of activity during the dream state more than during normal sleep suggesting that heightened reflection is responsible for the idea of self-awareness.

According to the research conducted by Mutz and Javadi, the two distinct regions of the prefrontal cortex are the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex(DFC), and the bilateral frontopolar prefrontal cortex(BFPC), which show increased activity similar to wakefulness when a person is in the condition of lucidity. These two regions modulate higher cognitive functions such as attention, decision-making, memory, speech, language, etc.

Method of testing lucidity and conducted research

Hence, spontaneous lucid dreams are not possible to be studied. Hence, the researchers adopt the method of induced lucid dreams through techniques such as Reality Testing, mnemonic induction of lucid dreams, external stimulation, Wave Back to Bed, and other additional methods that are adopted in combination with certain drugs.

All these techniques are used to determine the difference between the state of dream and wakefulness, during which the research measures brain activity using devices like electroencephalography(EEG) and electrooculography.

Case study

A study was conducted at the sleep laboratory of the Neurological Clinic at Frankfurt University to know about what happens in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain and the subsequent alteration of brain physiology during lucid dreaming. Six students were chosen for an experiment where they underwent a 5-day training to achieve lucid dreams, and their responses were monitored using EEG recordings. The results concluded Lucidity is a hybrid state of consciousness particularly in the frontal regions of the brain which was different from wakefulness.

Researchers conducted another study on 28 school students to determine the relationship between lucid dreaming and the task performance of the prefrontal cortex. The students performed the two psychological tasks named Iowa Gambling tasks and  Wisconsin Card Sort for one week and maintained a record of dream journals in addition to analyzing the sleep quality.

Subjects with higher lucidity performed better in the Iowa Gambling tasks, which involved the use of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, this region is involved in the decision-making process and judgment delivery. On the contrary, lucidity didn’t affect the performance of the task of Wisconsin Card Sort. Through the study, it was suggested that the performance of the Iowa Gambling tasks and lucid dreaming is associated with the function of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.


Numerous research studies have established that lucid dreams are as prominent as any psychological phenomenon. Although its prevalence rate varies from person to person, one thing is certain: it has some positive health benefits for people, as many research subjects use lucid dreams for purposes such as wish fulfilment, nightmare overcoming, introducing positive emotions, emotional growth, physical healing, and so on.

Despite such findings, it was noted that inducing lucidity has risk factors associated with trauma and PTSD with a significant proportion of people having experienced the inability to wake up from nightmares, disrupted sleep patterns, impaired decision-making, etc.

The bottom line is Lucid dreams possess the potential to improve creative performance, promote self-healing, and contribute positively to many other fields of research area. Nevertheless, the researchers are still baffled by lucid dreaming and how the brain fabricates this entire scenario in our head, it just opens the gates of opportunity to explore the secrets of the unconscious mind and the awareness itself.

Read More: What is Nightmare Disorder?

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