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Can we learn more about consciousness through lucid dreaming?

More of us are aspiring to master the capacity to manage our dreams for pure pleasure. But if taken seriously, researchers think it might reveal fresh insights into the mind.


In her dreams, Michelle Carr frequently experiences tidal waves. Thanks to her capacity to alter her dreams, what should be a horrible nightmare can instead rapidly become a fun experience.


People wanting to learn how to lucid dream have a strong internet community. (The phenomenon has a single subreddit with more than 400,000 subscribers.) Many merely want to be entertained. 


For Carr, a sleep researcher at the University of Rochester in New York state, being in a lucid dream and seeing your mind create such a lifelike simulation is "just so amazing and astonishing." Others believe that practising skills in their dreams will improve their abilities in the real world. "A lot of professional athletes train in their dreams"


Additionally, there are deeper motivations to take advantage of this sleep state beyond self-improvement. Neuroscientists and psychologists seek to find answers to fundamental issues about the nature of human consciousness, including our supposedly unique potential for self-awareness, by pinpointing the brain activity that results in the enhanced awareness and experience of agency in lucid dreams. According to Carr, "researchers from a variety of professions have started to use lucid dreams in their work."


For more than a century, he has gradually developed an interest in lucid dreaming. Sigmund Freud seldom ever wrote about lucid dreams in his publications, despite his preoccupation with the relationship between the conscious and subconscious minds. 


Instead, one of the earliest and most thorough accounts in the English language was presented in the book Studies in Dreams by English aristocrat and writer Mary Arnold-Forster.


The book, which was published in 1921, offers a wealth of vivid adventures in the dream world, including endearing accounts of her attempts to fly. When she wrote, "A slight paddling motion by my hands increases the pace of the flight and is used either to enable me to reach a greater height, or else for the purpose of steering, especially through any narrow place, such as through a doorway or window," she explained how she uses her hands to increase speed.


Arnold-Forster claimed that people have a "dual awareness" in light of her experiences. The "main self," one of them, enables us to analyse our situations and apply reasoning to what we are going through, but it is normally dormant when we sleep, leaving us with a dream awareness that is unable to evaluate its own state. The primary self "wakes up" in lucid dreams, however, bringing with it "memories, knowledge of facts, and trains of reasoning," as well as the awareness that one is sleeping.

She could have been right after all. The term "dual consciousness" may be frowned upon by neuroscientists and psychologists today, but most would concur that lucid dreams contain heightened self-awareness and reflection, a stronger sense of agency and volition, and the capacity to consider the more distant past and future. 


Together, these indicate a mental experience that is significantly different from the usual passive condition of non-lucid dreams.


According to Dr. Benjamin Baird, a research scientist at the Center for Sleep and Consciousness at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, there is a grouping of higher-level features that return in that shift from a non-lucid to a lucid dream. 


These features appear to be very closely associated with what we think of as human consciousness. And by examining that disparity, we can learn something.


You might be wondering why we can't just scan the brains of subjects who are fully awake to figure out the neurological mechanisms underpinning this complex mental state. However, awake consciousness also includes a variety of additional events, such as sensory inputs from the outside environment, which can make it challenging to distinguish between the various components of the experience. 


Nothing has changed other than the dreamer's aware state when they begin a lucid dream. As a result, research on lucid dreams may offer a useful point of reference that could aid in identifying the precise brain areas responsible for increased self-awareness and agency.


Unfortunately, it has proven very difficult to induce lucid dreaming in an fMRI scanner due to the distracting and restricted setting. Nevertheless, a case study that was released in 2012 demonstrated that it is possible. 


When the participant, a regular lucid dreamer, "woke up" in his dream, he was instructed to move his gaze from left to right, which is a motion that is also known to transition from dreaming to real-life eye movements. This made it possible for the researchers to pinpoint the precise second he became conscious.


The frontoparietal network, a collection of areas including the anterior prefrontal cortex, showed increased activity in the brain scans. These regions are noticeably less active during typical REM sleep, but they became significantly more active anytime the individual entered his lucid dream, indicating that they may be somehow connected to the state's enhanced self-reflection and awareness.


Other lines of investigation have also pointed in the same direction. Recently, Baird and renowned consciousness expert Giulio Tononi looked at the general brain connectivity of those who have more than three lucid dreams every week. 


According to the case study results, he discovered indications of improved connectivity across the frontoparietal network's areas, which may have made it simpler to experience the heightened self-awareness while sleeping.


The alkaloid galantamine, which can be used to generate lucid dreams, provides further support. Baird and colleagues recently invited participants in a research to sleep for a few hours before waking up. 


After taking a small amount of the medication or a placebo, the volunteers practised a few visualisation techniques that are also believed to somewhat boost the likelihood of having lucid dreams. They eventually went back to sleep after around 30 minutes.


The outcomes were startling. Only 14% of those taking a placebo, compared to 27% of those taking a 4mg dose of galantamine, and 42% of those taking an 8mg dose, were able to become conscious of their dream state. The impact is enormous, according to Baird.


Nice has authorised the use of galantamine to treat mild Alzheimer's disease. It is believed to function by increasing acetylcholine concentrations at the synapses of our brain cells. It's interesting to note that earlier studies had indicated that this could increase frontoparietal signalling from a low baseline. 


This might have aided the dreaming individuals in crossing the neurological threshold required for enhanced self-awareness. It's "yet another source of evidence for the involvement of these regions in lucid dreaming," claims Baird, who plans to carry out more thorough fMRI investigations to verify the theory.


Baird's study will, at the very least, garner interest from the sizable online community of would-be lucid dreamers who are looking for more dependable ways to experience the phenomena. 


There are now no legal restrictions for Americans who want to self-experiment with galantamine, which can be derived from snowdrops and is already offered as an over-the-counter nutritional supplement in the US. Additionally, its short-term adverse effects are modest. But Baird cautions that if it is used regularly to produce lucid dreams, there might be long-term effects that are still unclear. He continues, "My recommendation would be to use your own judgement and to seek the advice of a physician."


Many methods for inducing lucid dreams also include "reality testing," in which you repeatedly wonder if you are awake in the expectation that such thoughts will surface when you are actually dreaming. According to Soffer-Dudek, if it happens too frequently, it could be "a little disconcerting," making you feel "unreal" rather than totally present.


In keeping with this, she has discovered that lucid dreamers are more prone to experience dissociation, which is the sensation of being cut off from one's thoughts, feelings, and sense of self. Additionally, they were more likely to have schizotypy—a propensity for paranoia and magical thinking—signs. 


But Soffer-Dudek questions whether rare studies will have a long-lasting negative impact. If someone who is neurologically and mentally sound experiments with it for a brief time, she claims it's not a major concern.


Perhaps taking these issues into account is a necessary byproduct of the field's development. As for my personal experiments, I'm content to stand by and observe the development of the field of study. The study of lucid dreaming may be reaching its pinnacle one hundred years after Mary Arnold-pioneering Forster's research.


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