You can learn how to ride a unicycle by dreaming about it. That’s the claim made decades years ago by Paul Tholey, a German psychologist who pioneered clinical lucid dreaming research and its connection to sports psychology. He had never been on a unicycle in waking life, so the story goes, but after a couple lucid dreams, he hopped on one like a pro. It was perhaps one of the most provocative claims ever made about lucid dreaming, but maybe he was on to something after all.
A new report published in the Journal of Sports Science has presented fresh evidence that lucid dreaming can indeed improve waking performance when a task is practiced within the lucid dream state.
Although not as dramatic or complex as riding a unicycle, this new study focused on a complex finger tapping exercise. Practice groups were divided into lucid dreaming practice, mental practice (while awake) and physical practice. The control group did not practice at all. Results indicate that all three practice groups significant improved performance from pre- to post- practice tests, and the control group did not really improve much at all.
To put this in relief, the study’s results are suggestive that dreaming about performing a complex action is as effective as actually practicing it. That’s right, there was no significant advantage for those who physically practiced the test compared to the dreaming and mental practice groups.
Let that sink in….
The study underscores not only the value of dreaming as rehearsal (which has evolutionary implications), but also the importance of mental practice for athletic performance. All coaches and athletes know this intuitively: mental practice is half the game.
The scientific support for mental practice’s effectiveness is already well established. So now, more than ever, these researchers are suggesting that lucid dreaming can be considered a legit form of mental practice that gets results.
Study in Context
This is not the first time researchers have suggested the performance benefit of lucid dreams. Many athletes who lucid dream have reported anecdotally that their performance on the field improves after practicing manuevers in the dream. (By the way, the maverick psychologist Paul Tholey also claimed to learn how to juggle and snowboard by dreaming).
But quantified data sets on the topic are still sparse. A 2010 pilot study, conducted by the same researchers as the present study, also concluded that performance was improved by practicing in a lucid dream. In this earlier study, the behavior was tossing coins into a cup, suggesting that not only is the neurological substrate of dreams interwoven with our motor skills learning, but also that lucid dreaming can be incorporated into a drinking game. Bonus!
What’s so hard about Finger Tapping?
In the present study, the task of finger-tapping sounds easy enough, but the devil is in the details:
A computerised online version of the sequential finger-tapping task was used, which requires the participant to press four keys on a computer keyboard with a non-dominant hand producing a sequence of five elements as quickly and accurately as possible for a period of 30 seconds. Each sequence started and finished with the little finger; index, middle and ring fingers were used once (e.g. “4–1–3–2–4”).
This computerized finger-tapping application was developed by Laurens Van Keer of Snoozon, a website dedicated to evidence-based lucid dreaming training for the public.
Getting participants to lucid dream in the lab is really difficult and expensive, so this study had participants do their lucid dreaming in their own homes and collected their self-reports. This allowed for a larger sample size than most lucid dreaming clinical studies, in fact, the 21 lucid dreamers who succeeded were represented by 11 different countries around the world. On the minus side, of course, the researchers lost the ability to do physiological measures on the dreamers while dreaming, such as time-stamping and EEG verification of REM sleep and awakenings.
Like in waking life, the dreamers practiced the task for 30 second intervals (self-estimated of course), and then rested in the dream for another 30 seconds, when allowed to practice techniques for prolonging the lucidity of the dream.
Again, the results clearly indicated that all three practice groups (lucid, waking mental, and waking physical practices) improved performance on the difficult finger-tapping test, whereas the control group showed no statistically significant improvement. In fact, all three practice groups not only improved speed, but did so without comprising accuracy. If you have ever had to take a typing test, you know how those two measures can be at odds. For me, very odd, as I still peck like a chicken who has had too much coffee this morning.
Implications for Sports Psychology
Study authors Tadas Stumbrys, Daniel Erlacher and Michael Schredl suggest, “While further research with more complex skills is very much needed, current research with simple motor skills, such as finger-tapping or coin-tossing, shows that LDP [Lucid Dreaming Practice] gives an additional opportunity to athletes to practice specific sport skills during the night time when physiologically asleep.”
Lucid Dreaming Practice for athletes who are currently injured is another potential application, especially as earlier research has suggested that lucid dreaming may provide a better, more realistic simulation of waking life than doing mental practicing during the day. Practically speaking, in my opinion, doing both is a win-win.
Now, who’s ready to test that lucid dreaming drinking game again? That’s a core skill I could definitely improve upon.
First Image: Reality Checks by Mark Anderson (c)2015, winner of Dream Studies Grand Prize for Lucid Dreaming Day.