Reasonable Doubt

Scientists Want You to Lucid Dream

Experts think lucid dreaming could be therapeutic. How to achieve the dream state is complicated.

Sally McGrane
Elemental
Published in
6 min readFeb 21, 2019
Credit: fromdrawing/Moment/Getty

InIn late January 2019, roughly half the world’s dream researchers — about 50 people — gathered on the sixth floor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) media lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was the first-ever “Dream Engineering” workshop hosted by the MIT Dream Lab, which was formed a year and a half ago.

One theme of the two-day workshop was lucid dreaming — a phenomena where people realize they’re having a dream while they’re dreaming. “It’s such an exhilarating feeling to lucid dream. It’s like a drug—it’s that powerful,” says Tore Nielsen, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal and director of the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory. “You can try flying, singing, having sex — it’s better than VR.”

Long dismissed as belonging firmly to the realm of the esoteric, lucid dreaming was scientifically shown to exist in the late 1970s. Back then, Stanford researcher Stephen LaBerge trained people to use eye movements during sleep to signal when they entered a lucid dream state. The ability to perform prearranged, volitional eye movements while in REM sleep soon became the gold standard for determining that someone is lucid dreaming.

While dreamers may enjoy the ability to control their dreams, neuroscientists are interested in lucid dreaming for its potential insights into how the brain works and as another avenue for therapy. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recently recommended lucid dreams as a therapy for nightmare disorders in adults. Other clinical applications for lucid dreaming are under investigation by sleep scientists for depression and to boost athletic prowess.

“It’s such an exhilarating feeling to lucid dream. It’s like a drug — it’s that powerful.”

“Lucidity as a whole has been struggling to gain acceptance,” says Benjamin Baird, a sleep researcher at the Center for Sleep and Consciousness in Madison, Wisconsin. “That is finally changing. People are seeing it as valuable.”

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Sally McGrane
Elemental

Sally McGrane is a Berlin-based journalist, and writes about culture, business, politics, and science. The spy thriller“Moscow at Midnight” is her first novel.