The Science Behind Lucid Dreaming: Evidence-Based Research
Lucid Dreams​
December 28, 2023

The Science Behind Lucid Dreaming: Evidence-Based Research

For centuries dreams were seen as a mystery. Scientists are finally starting to conduct experiments to learn more about what happens when we are dreaming. What cool scientific discoveries have been made regarding sleep and dreams?

The History of Lucid Dreaming

Descriptions and stories of lucid dreamers exploring the dream world date back to ancient Egypt. Lucid dreaming got one of its first mentions in the writings of Greek philosopher Aristotle in the fourth century B.C.E. The term lucid dreaming itself was coined by Dutch author and psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden in 1913. For a long time, there was not much interest in research on sleep and dreams. Many times it was considered occult or pseudoscience.

Lucid dreaming was not something commonly talked about like it is today, much less in academic and scientific conversations. Not much is known about the purpose of dreams, much less lucid dreams. It wasn't until 1975 when British parapsychologist Keith Hearne noticed REM patterns in a lucid dreaming volunteer and realized that lucid dreams are conscious dreams preceded by rapid eye movement, which set the stage for the findings of the famous lucid dreaming pioneer, Stephen Laberge. In the last 5-10 years, scientists have started to gain more interest in studying consciousness and the state of lucid dreaming. We now have proven that lucid dreaming can happen in any stage of sleep, not just REM.

Recent studies show that 51% of people have experienced lucid dreaming at least once, and 20% of people experience it one or more times in a month. What else have scientists discovered so far? Although the science is always advancing, let's take a look at some of the research projects on lucid dreaming. 

Lucid dreaming techniques

In 2020 The International Lucid Dream Induction Study (ILDIS) compared the effectiveness of five different combinations of lucid dream induction techniques including reality testing (RT), Wake Back to Bed (WBTB), the Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (MILD) technique, the Senses Initiated Lucid Dream (SSILD) technique and a hybrid technique. Results from their 355 participants indicated that the MILD technique and the SSILD technique were the most effective for inducing lucid dreams, regardless of baseline lucid dreaming frequency or prior experience with lucid dreaming techniques. They also found that successful lucid dream induction had no adverse effect on sleep quality. General dream recall is also positively correlated with lucid dreaming frequency. (1)

Communication with the waking world

Another group of scientists tried to go further and establish complex two-way communication during dreams, using flashing lights, sound, and asking questions. They recruited 36 volunteers, including some experienced lucid dreamers and others who had never experienced a lucid dream before but remembered at least one dream a week. The researchers first trained participants to recognize when they were dreaming, by explaining how lucid dreaming works and demonstrating the cues they would present while dreamers slept. The idea was those cues would signal to participants that they were dreaming. Sleepers were told to signal they had entered a lucid dream and answer questions by moving their eyes and faces in particular ways.

As the participants fell asleep, the scientists monitored their brain activity, eye movement, and facial muscle contractions, with electroencephalogram helmets. Researchers asked the dreamers simple yes or no questions or math problems, like eight minus six. To answer, dreamers used the signals they had been taught before falling asleep, or even moved their eyes in patterns that matched Morse code.

What is interesting is that some remembered the experiment’s questions being integrated as part of a dream. One dreamer reported the math problems coming out of a car radio. Another was at a party when he heard the researcher interrupting his dream, like a narrator in a movie. The researchers say their numbers show that communication, even if difficult, is possible across the consciousness border. (2)

Benefits of lucid dreaming for PTSD

This question of the effectiveness of lucid dreaming therapy (LDT) in patients suffering from PTSD has been looked at by quite a few studies. In many of them, levels of anxiety and depression decreased significantly after LDT. People afflicted with PTSD usually experience recurrent nightmares, which are usually centered around a single traumatic event. With lucidity, nightmare sufferers can realize that what they are experiencing is not real and subsequently turn the nightmare into a positive or neutral dream. (3) (4)

Can lucid dreaming help us learn skills?

Lucid dreaming also offers opportunities to improve motor skills through visualization. Using mental imagery to rehearse motor skills has been shown to improve the performance of athletes, speakers, musicians, surgeons, and those working on rehabilitation of hand control and other nervous system damage. The technique works because imagining performing a motor action activates almost the same neural structures as actually performing it and the same goes for consciously dreamed actions.

Lucid dream practice (LDP) is the rehearsal of movements during lucid dreams and constitutes a specific form of mental practice. There are two main theories here. The first is that sensory-motor skills can be refined by using lucid dreaming. The second is that new sensory-motor skills can be learned using lucid dreaming. Although studies on this topic are generally small and need to be replicated, the implications of its findings are potentially huge. (5) (6)

The studies mentioned here are just a few of all the research studies conducted on lucid dreams, sleep, and dreaming. Many of them need to be replicated in order to really answer our biggest questions about sleep and dreams. Also, every dreamer is different so dreams can be difficult to measure with small sample sizes. However, the research is certainly fascinating and growing rapidly! 

Amina Mara
Amina is a lucid dreaming expert and the host of The Dream World Podcast.

More To Explore