Lucid dreaming: exciting or nightmarish?

Like lots of sci-fi films (Interstellar, for one), ‘Inception’ leaves you feeling dizzy with the attempt at understanding what a ‘dream within a dream’ really is. The phenomenon it is touching upon is called ‘Lucid Dreaming’, though this is taken to extreme lengths in the film where characters can not only control their dreams but hijack other peoples’ dreams and begin to live in those dreams. Then and there, what ‘reality’ really is becomes blurred.

‘Lucid Dreaming’ is when a sleeper is able to control the direction a dream takes, during the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, the phase of sleeping when one is most likely to dream and when the brain is most active (see also our article on Why we sleep). Dreaming has fascinated mankind for centuries: even Aristotle in his essay 'On Dreams' conceived of the idea of being aware of dreaming: “[If] the sleeper perceives that he is asleep, and is conscious of the sleeping state during which the perception comes before his mind…”.

But only in the last century, as technology advanced to exhilarating heights, has the idea of controlling dreams, i.e. induced Lucid Dreaming, become a possibility.

According to research more than half of people have experienced lucid dreaming at some point in their lives, most probably without knowing it. So it does happen, but how tricky could it be to invoke it artificially and how would that work.

More people reported being aware of Lucid Dreaming during the pandemic, according to Wired magazine, and more people searched for information about it on Google. The urge to control one’s dreams may hark back to wanting to liven up a static and potentially dull lockdown existence, or a roundabout way to gain control over a situation in which many people felt powerless.

Have you felt that when you woke up and had a lovely dream, you would want to go back into the dream and succeed in continuing the storyline?

That is how Matthew Jenkin described his experiences of Lucid Dreaming in The Independent in August 2020. During the pandemic, he trained his brain to recognise when he’s dreaming: he learnt to not only ‘prolong the experience’ of dreaming, but to ‘manipulate the dreamscape and to turn the world upside down, by - if you so wish – “changing an apple to an orange, walking through walls, conjure your favourite dessert or fly into space”. He did it and managed it, he says, because during the lockdown, trapped at home, he felt the urge to ‘escape my reality’.

Lucid dreaming

But what if technology were able to induce such dreaming techniques?

The concept is not beyond reason; in fact, it’s happening right now. Loads of tech companies, such as Remee, have already jumped on this trend and are making headsets designed to induce Lucid Dreaming. Older versions of this headset would instill red flashing lights which acted as signals to the dreamers that they are in fact dreaming. More modern headsets zap the brain with electrical currents aimed at waking the person up without their being conscious of it.

On the surface of it, lucid dreaming appears attractive; who wouldn’t want to dream of skiing on the slopes, walking to Machu Picchu or kissing their crush? But sleep experts warn that they may have serious negative side-effects on mental-health and sleeping patterns. We may actually prefer to be asleep more than we are awake And besides, what if others may seek to join our dreams whether we want it or not. Well that is a dream that would be a nightmare.

Recommended reads and tips on how to induce those dreams you need: