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!)
I consider lucidity to be when I know I’m in a dream (or when I’m awake, since we’re not always lucid, either way), and have waking-level self awareness.
Ryan Hurd says
thanks Nihil. this is my standard definition too. BTW here’s a link to a list of lucid dreaming definitions throughout history that I find pretty interesting: http://dreamstudies.org/lucid-dreaming-definitions-throughout-history/
Peter Maich says
I am lucid at one level in a dream when I have external memories involved in the dream and use these to make decisions or question an event. The other end is what I call deep dreaming and I am fully aware and seeking to explore and interact with the dreamscape, I will question and at times explore beyond the normal dreamscapes
Ryan Hurd says
interesting Peter. I like the way you parse that. I have often had dreams in which I never thought the words “I am dreaming” but I know intuitively I am in a space where the rules are different. This is a type of lucidity too, in my opinion, that’s more about belonging in the dreamworld and navigating it well, rather than splitting awareness into meta-knowing distancing techniques.
Thanks for sharing with us the latest dream research, it’s always fascinating. I was interested in a final commentyou had about lucid dreaming and creativity studies. I’d love to hear more about that area of research. Have you blogged about it? Thanks, Jane
Ryan Hurd says
Hi Jane, yes! Although, at this point the research is more sociological, based on anecdotes of hundreds of artists, scientists and other creative people who claim lucid dreaming has directly offered solutions to waking life problems or puzzles. I recommend Deirdre Barrett’s book “The Committee of Sleep.” It’s not just about lucid dreaming, but the wider spectrum of creative problem solving in dreams. However, there are a few studies discussing how lucid dreaming is associated with “divergent thinking”, a trait that may make it useful for understanding mental illness as well as creativity.
Dear Ryan Hurd
Hi. your writing was very sweet. I enjoed it.
You forgot to write about the findings of Allan Hobson, 2003. which clearly specialized this parts of the brain that Max Plank research repeated.
I should give you an image to merge with above writing to complete it.
Ryan Hurd says
Hi Kayvan, thanks for the comment. this paper isn’t meant to be a review of all of the neuro work on LD, and the Voss reference I mentioned above is actually co-authored by Hobson too. But do send me that 2003 reference when you have a chance bc I don’t know it offhand. cheers!
Jane Austin says
I regard a lucid dream as an experience I have whilst dreaming where a) I am aware that I am dreaming and b) I am aware of what’s going on as a participant making decisions as I continue in the dream and as an observer processing the metaphors that surround me (my own dream dictionary) in ‘real time’. Also, in lucid dreaming, for me the light takes on a luminous quality.
Thanks for the summary of what’s out there in terms of neurological studies and lucid dreaming. Appreciate the links. Would love an MRT of what I call a Lucid Surrender dream! Would be very interested to see how the results compare with the lucid-control dreams.
Thanks again for the work you put into Dream Studies. It’s a great resource.
Hope you are getting some sleep! Best,
I enjoyed your managing method (not to input a part of my writing in your comments.)
It was very nice
Now, I am sure why you want to hear general people comments about the dream professional titles.
Thank you for giving best knowledge about the dreams.
Would you please ask your gusts, their comments about color of dream?
Todd Sharp says
My lucid dream experiences have been few and far between, but I had enough presence of mind in a couple of them to notice a difference between lucid dreaming consciousness and waking consciousness. It is my theory that these are actually two different forms of awareness. We take it for granted that because we “know we’re dreaming” in a dream that we must necessarily be using our waking consciousness. It’s my tentative assertion that lucid dreams are actually a kind of pseudo-awareness; or put in another way, we’re dreaming about being aware we’re dreaming. This isn’t meant to invalidate the state of lucidity in dreams. It definitely is a state of awareness, but I don’t think it’s the same type of awareness that we experience in waking life.
Morgan Sharp says
My lucid dream experiences have been few and far between, but I had enough presence of mind in a couple of them to notice a difference between lucid dreaming consciousness and waking consciousness. It is my theory that these are actually two different forms of awareness. We take it for granted that because we “know we’re dreaming” in a dream that we must necessarily be using our waking consciousness. It’s my tentative assertion that lucid dreams are actually a kind of pseudo-awareness; or put in another way, we’re dreaming about being aware we’re dreaming.
Marie Maynard Morgan says
Finally, a place to discuss lucid dreaming!
I have had lucid dreams all my life and felt embarrassed rather than able to communicate about it.
I have grown confident within my professional life and now feel ready to meet up or join a ‘lucid dreamers’ group. I would like the opportunity to ‘normalize’ the experience that I have taken for granted and to explore genuine thoughts around why we are naturally lucid, the huge benefits and what it means to us.
Marie Maynard Morgan
Gareth Roberts says
I have come to define my lucid dreams by the fact that I am recalling them as they happen rather than after the dream. This is because I have many non lucid lucid dreams where I dream I am lucid and manipulating the dream world but the first I know about it is when I wake up and recall the dream