A fascinating new study has just come out showing precisely the parts of the brain that are associated with meta-consciousness, or the ability to be conscious of ourselves. Michael Dresler and co-researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry used magnetic resonance tomography (MRT) to demonstrate how the brain during a lucid dream differs from waking consciousness and ordinary dreaming.
Could this study provide, as it claims, new insight into the neural basis of human consciousness?
That’s a bold claim for a study, but the results of the MRT re-confirmed that during lucid dreaming –as defined by the press release‘s authors– “a specific cortical network consisting of the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the frontopolar regions and the precuneus is activated when this lucid consciousness is attained.”
This study in context
This not the first time that lucid dreamer’s brains have been mapped using MRI technology, nor the first time that these particular brain regions have been associated with areas of self-regulation and executive functioning, either. The value of the study is that it’s a confirmation and refocusing of earlier work done by the Max Planck Institute, such as this earlier 2011 paper. They are honing in, little by little.
But let’s not forget the pioneering–and still controversial–results of Ursula Voss and company’s 2009 EEG study, which also found strong synchronization in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Interestingly, a 2011 study of task performance found that lucid dreamers had higher performance in tasks that utilize the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a closely related area.
I love that several different groups are now doing this work, generating unprecedented discussion about lucid dreaming in the scientific community.
Waking life – not as rational as its cracked up to be
Yet I admit a little annoyance that has less to do with this brilliant study than the press release summarizing its results. “During wakefulness, we are always conscious of ourselves,” the announcement begins. This premise is absurdly false. Waking consciousness is not the hotbed of clear and steady rationality we assume it to be.
Rather, as summed up in this recent literature review on the dreaming brain, “Waking thoughts jump around and drift into bizarre daydreaming, rumination, and worrying far more than stereotypes of rational linear thinking suggest.”
The opposite assumption is also not true, that dreams are devoid of meta-cognition and awareness factors. Recent cognitive research by Stephen LaBerge and Tracey Kahan shows that ordinary dreams are in fact full of meta-cognition, such as thinking about our thoughts, noticing our emotional reactions, and planning the next move. In fact, in some measures, dreams show levels of meta-cognition comparable to waking life.
So how does this continuity work jive with the Max Planck resonance studies?
Firstly, knowing you’re dreaming is a very specific and specialized form of meta-cognition. As LaBerge and Kahan put it, lucidity involves “both participant and observer levels of awareness as well as awareness that the experience is occurring during the dream state.”
Secondly, and most importantly, there’s more than one way to be lucid. As we will see play out as these brain imagery studies are retested around the world, different definitions and cognitive postures in lucid dreams will probably reflect a variety of brain synchrony and cortical networks.
This opinion, certainly not unique to me, is explored by other lucid dream researchers in the aptly named 2010 paper “Different kinds of subjective experience during lucid dreaming may have different neural substrates,” published in the International Journal of Dream Research.
How does the Max Planck group define lucid dreaming? According to the press release (which is not the best judge to be sure), lucid dreamers “are aware that they are dreaming while being in a dream state, and are also able to deliberately control their dreams. (emphasis is mine). Those so-called lucid dreamers have access to their memories during lucid dreaming, can perform actions and are aware of themselves.”
So, lucidity for this research group is actually a sub-set of lucid dreaming known as lucid-control dreams.
To be sure, there’s a lot of other ways to be “lucid” in a dream than trying to control the content, or remember a specific task imported from waking life.
So, reigning myself in, let’s celebrate the new generation of lucid dreaming brain research! I can’t wait to see how this work develops, especially as lucid dreaming is applied to therapeutic interventions and creativity studies.
But, take it with a grain of salt — “the neural basis of human consciousness” has not been pinned down just yet.
Comments are welcome — and I’d like to ask how do you define lucid dreaming for yourself? (no wrong answers! — let us celebrate our lucid diversity!)