You’ve probably heard of lucid dreaming. In a nutshell, dreaming lucidly means being aware that one is dreaming, and nonetheless keeping on with the dream—instead of waking up saddened to realize that you’re not really riding that hippo.
The mechanism was explored in Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception, which ultimately resulted in gigas of internet discussions on the concepts of dreams and reality (was that spinning top twirling or not?). At some point in the movie, a character starts doubting whether she’s awake or still inside a lucid dream—eventually getting badly hurt. While that scenario would be a stretch, lucid dreaming experts agree that the experience can be extremely realistic: In fact, they think that lucid dreaming is one of the best life simulators available.
“If people dreamt every night that they flew over the Grand Canyon, they wouldn’t look so miserable.”
British psychologist Keith Hearne, a pioneer of lucid dream research, thinks that lucid dreaming could end up being the TV of the 21st century. “It’s staggering that we have this in-built virtual reality system,” he told me in a phone call. “And what’s more, it comes with sensory feelings, which could make it a much better system than any computer-generated VR.”
Hearne was the first academic to investigate lucid dreams in a sleep laboratory in the 1970s, and he even built a “dream machine” to try to trigger lucid dreams through mild electrical pulses (although it didn’t work for everyone). The machine is now on display at the London Science Museum.
Hearne explained the basic functioning of lucid dreaming is that, once you recognize you’re dreaming, you can shape the dream environment however it pleases you. Flying around or growing like a giant are routine, but you can make any scene or character appear in no time by dint of sheer will. You act as scriptwriter, coder and VR-visor. “You just need to cover your eyes with your hands and think that you want to be on an island or somewhere else and you’ll find yourself there,” he said. “And you can potentially conjure up people, by finding a door and thinking clearly that behind that door there is somebody you want to meet.”
The potential applications of lucid dreaming, according to Hearne, are mainly creative and recreational. “If people dreamt every night that they flew over the Grand Canyon, they wouldn’t look so miserable,” he told me. But others are aiming to harness the quasi-real vividness of lucid dreams for learning purposes.
Daniel Erlacher, a psychologist and sports doctor at Bern University, conducted a study in which people who practiced a motor task (tossing coins into a cup) in a lucid dream significantly improved over a single night—while non-lucid dreamers did not. Erlacher believes athletes could enhance their performances by rehearsing in their lucid dreams—also because the oneiric world is a place where they can engage in risky stunts without injuring themselves.
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