As my good friend Cobb once told me, “Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.”
OK, fine, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character from Inception isn’t real, but he does make a valid point. Oneirologists, those who study dreams, have traditionally viewed dreams as uncontrollable streams of sounds and images with the ability to induce a tremendous spectrum of emotion. However, the idea of lucid dreaming has caused the conventional understanding of dreams to collapse. A “lucid dream,” terminology coined by the Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden, is one in which the sleeper is aware that he or she is dreaming. This example of dissociation is wonderfully paradoxical in that it exhibits components of both waking and dreaming consciousness.
An American psychiatrist and dream researcher named Allan Hobson specializes in the quantification of mental events and their corresponding brain activities. Although he vehemently dismisses the idea of hidden meanings in dreams, he has embarked on a search along with other neurobiologists and cognitive scientists to decipher the neurological basis of consciousness. Hobson hypothesizes that subjects may learn to become lucid, self-awaken, and regulate plot control by intercalating voluntary decisions into the involuntary nature of the dream.
The validation of this idea would imply that the mind is capable of experiencing a waking and a dreaming state at the same time. Consequently, Hobson states, “…it may be possible to measure the physiological correlates of three conscious states, waking, non-lucid dreaming, and lucid dreaming in the laboratory.” If there is a psychological distinction between the three, there should also be a physiological difference.
The advent of lucid dreaming experimentation has not only benefitted Hollywood, but it has also provided possible treatment options for those hindered by frequent nightmares or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Methodologically speaking, the study of lucid dreaming presents a formidable challenge, but it is becoming an important component of the cognitive neurosciences.
Josefin Gavie and Antti Revonsuo have built on Hobson’s theories by proposing a technique termed lucid dreaming treatment (LDT). The key to this treatment is that the subject learns how to identify cues that facilitate lucidity during a dream, and the subject learns to manipulate the environment once lucidity is attained. The phenomenon of lucidity may prove to be a useful device in that it offers the sleeper a method to control components of the dream – altering and diminishing any threatening situation. Although the investigation of LDT is extremely new and incontestably controversial, it has shown promising preliminary results in its ability to lower the frequency of nightmares in the selected subjects.
The premise of the film Inception may be wildly hypothetical, but it has expertly amplified the current research on lucid dreams. However, researchers in the field should take a word of advice from the character of Eames: “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”
The Neurobiology of Consciousness: Lucid Dreaming Wakes Up – J. Allan Hobson
The Future of Lucid Dreaming Treatment (PDF) – Josefin Gavie and Antti Revonsuo