New Research Explores the Science of Dreaming
by David Morel, age 17
When a person falls asleep, they experience a series of sensations, which they generally have no control over. This is known as dreaming. When people dream, they generally are not aware that they are in this state. However, in the phenomenon of lucid dreaming, people are aware.
In a lucid dream, “one can reason clearly, remember the conditions of waking life, and act… in accordance with plans decided upon before sleep,” says Stephen LaBerge, a psychopsychologist and founder of the lucidity institute. He goes on to say the dreamer will experience “… a dream world that is often nearly indistinguishable from the real world.”
Experiments have been conducted in order to verify the phenomenon of lucid dreaming. REM, or rapid eye movement is strongly associated with lucid dreaming. In REM sleep, the majority of bodily functions are paralyzed.
However, one exception is the group of ocular muscles, which are associated with eye movement. Therefore, as a verification of consciousness in the dream, researchers request that test subjects carry out a distinct pattern of eye movements. For instance, before being put to sleep, a subject is told a simple set of eye movements: left, right, left, right, left, right, and they are then asked to carry out this pattern during the dream so that the researcher can track it. The pattern is distinct enough so that the researchers know it didn’t occur by pure chance, but simple enough that it could be easily remembered by the subject.
After the dream, the subjects say how many patterns they carried out in order to verify that it was the same number that the researchers were able to track. If the experiment revealed that the subject's count agreed with that of the researcher, then this proves that the subject was aware of the dream. So while not everyone is able to have a lucid dream, it is considered a valid phenomenon. (Lucid dreaming: Evidence that REM sleep can support unimpaired cognitive function and a methodology for studying the psychophysiology of dreaming, by Stephen LaBerge.)
Dreaming actually comes down to an issue of consciousness. Gerald Edelman of the Scripps Research Institute proposed two states of consciousness: primary and secondary. In primary consciousness, it’s the feeling of “just being, feeling, floating” according to Ursula Voss of the University of Frankfurt. However, in secondary consciousness, humans are able to act upon emotions and make rational, informed, decisions.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh analyzed the level of activity in a subject who was awake, and compared it to that of a subject who was sleeping. A surprising finding was that various frontal areas of the brain associated with reasoning, planning ahead, and advanced cognition remained active while asleep. However, the dorsal prefrontal cortex was relatively inactive. This suggests that this particular area is critical for reflective awareness in primary and secondary consciousness.
There are certain ways that one can help to induce a lucid dream. The first method is performing a “reality check,” which simply consists of questioning throughout the day, whether or not one is actually dreaming. This is done in hopes that this reality check will be performed after falling asleep, allowing the person to realize that they are in a dream.
Another means is to plan a dream before falling asleep, in very vivid detail. A final approach is to keep what is known as a “dream log.” After waking, one immediately records every detail that they can remember about the dream. Because the mind tends to use similar environments for the dreamscape after a while, the individual may eventually realize that the landscape is familiar, and that they are indeed dreaming. (The Secret of Consciousness: Reinterpreting dreams, New Scientist 2010)
[Sources: Stephen LaBerge, New Scientist]