New Scientist has an intriguing article on how the study of people who have been trained to have lucid dreams may help us understand the neuroscience of consciousness.
Lucid dreams are where the sleeper becomes aware that they are dreaming inside the dream. My first thought was that the combination of these and consciousness sounded a bit gimmicky but the justification seem like an interesting bit of lateral thinking with potentially valuable results:
Surprisingly, given the irrationality of the dream experience, many of the frontal areas of the brain involved in advanced cognition such as reasoning and forward planning were also active in the dreamers. But there was one notable exception: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) was remarkably subdued in REM sleep, compared with during wakefulness. To Hobson, that strongly suggests that this particular area, above other frontal regions, is crucial for the critical reflective awareness present in waking, and therefore secondary, consciousness (Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol 6, p 475).
Could this one brain region alone explain our secondary consciousness? It’s here that lucid dreams enter the picture. With their increased self-awareness, lucid dreams share certain aspects of secondary consciousness, so researchers are now vying to observe what happens in the brain when someone “wakes up” within their dream, and whether they exhibit any further signatures of consciousness. “It’s a very interesting leap because it can show you exactly what occurs if you jump from limited consciousness to very high consciousness,” says Victor Spoormaker of the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, Munich, Germany. “This should be one of the main themes of lucid dream research.”
The article also has some tips on making lucid dreams more likely while you sleep.
Almost every guide to lucid dreaming has the core advice that you need to get into the habit of constantly checking and asking yourself while awake ‘am I dreaming?’ presumably based on the principle that dreams often contain things we’ve experienced during the day.
It says to wear a digital watch and get used to checking it regularly at two close intervals to see if the numbers have changed as expected. If they haven’t or the numbers don’t make sense, you’re probably dreaming. Apparently checking light switches work is another technique.
No idea how rigorously these specific ideas have been tested but there is good evidence that lucid dreaming can be successfully practised and the typical lab technique to confirm it is happening is to ask participants to make specific horizontal eye movements when they become lucid.
As your eye muscles aren’t paralysed during sleep, it allows the dreamer one of the few ways they can signal to the researchers.