An expansive hall full of laughter, jeers and people running and jumping. Fluorescent lights bounce off the walls. All different colors. Pink, yellow, red, purple. A young woman realizes that she is present amidst the chaos. She feels queasy, not sure how to handle the fact that her family is casting spells on each other. She knows this is not real, but that doesn’t stop her intestines from pulling themselves into anxious knots. She decides to restore order.
“Please, calm down— someone may get hurt.”
Gradually, they stop flourishing their wands, paying attention to the measured voice pleading reason. The hall is now devoid of color, and seems much more mundane.
My eyes flutter open.
I’m the young woman.
I’ve just been lucid dreaming.
Over coffee that morning, I think about how it felt being fully aware of being in a dream and being able to control the course of it. Contrary to my expectations, I feel disappointment—by exerting rational, real-world solutions on a hypothetical dream scenario, I lost the opportunity to get to know the person I could have been had I surrendered control. What I experienced matches the definition of lucid dreaming, a physiological state of sleeping and dreaming but one where the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming and may be able to achieve some degree of control over the events of the dream (Baird et al. 2018). But is this phrase “lucid dreaming” a contradiction in terms? The term “lucid” suggests a type of dream with enhanced awareness, but are we really aware of who we are if we block our unconscious mind from expressing itself?
The majority of neuroscientific studies on lucid dreaming go to great lengths to highlight its potential benefits. Lucid dreaming has been shown to increase creativity (Blagrove, and Hartnell), life satisfaction and self-esteem (Konkoly, and Burke), early morning positive affect (Stocks et al.), as well as improve mental health and self-confidence (Doll et al.). However, there is a lack of longitudinal studies assessing the long-term impacts of lucid dreaming on mood and sleep quality; study samples mostly contain undergraduate students (resulting in a lack of generalizability) and usually only a low degree of lucidity is achieved (Soffer-Dudek). The small number of studies investigating side effects points to an increased susceptibility to psychosis, dissociative symptoms, and impaired reality monitoring (Soffer-Dudek). Thus, empirical evidence favoring the association between lucid dreaming and psychological wellbeing is equivocal, and more research into its side effects is required before promoting its benefits.
Despite over a hundred years of scientific dream investigation and over a thousand years of cultural study, no one has been able to fully understand the role of dreams. Our failure to completely grasp this knowledge corresponds to a perspective often taken by the humanities, which embraces doubt about our capacity to understand their full nature. Perhaps dreams are more so a multilayered phenomenon, such that there can never be “the one” theory that perfectly explains them. Much like a good poem, dreams can be explained and interpreted in many different ways, each resulting in different kinds of insight. In contrast to this doubt, contemporary neuroscience, although well intentioned, is bent on taking control over this natural process by coming up with ways to voluntarily enhance dream lucidity through the use of various techniques and devices.
Mention lucid dreaming at a dinner with colleagues, and you will realize that most people talk about it with a sense of awe — awe at how consciousness can be merged with unconsciousness to produce a semi-conscious state in which the possibilities are endless. But are they really? How can we be exposed to endless possibilities if we refuse to relinquish control of the steering wheel? While I understand where the hype comes from — it can be amazing to watch your mind create supernatural scenarios — the push to enhance dream lucidity seems to be in direct contrast to the ample evidence in the neuroscience literature about the benefits of unconscious dreaming, specifically the vital neurobiological functions it is meant to serve. Thus, this overly optimistic view fails to take into account the unanticipated downsides of lucid dreaming.
Neuroscientist Erik Hoel proposes that dreams may serve an important biological function that he terms “overfitting,” meaning that dreams are integral for providing our brains the flexibility to find creative solutions to novel problems encountered in everyday life. One possible implication of this theory is that not being in control of your dreams is vital in order for dreams to be able to serve their biological function (Hoel, 2020).
Furthermore, research shows that there is a significant association between lucid dreaming frequency and poor sleep quality, suggesting that lucid dreaming decreases the restorative function of dreams (Schadow, Schredl, Rieger and S. Göritz, 2018). This association may be explained by a brain imaging study that showed that the brain state during lucid dreaming is an unnaturally occurring hybrid state unlike those of wakefulness or REM sleep (Voss, Holzmann, Tuin and Hobson, 2009). According to another theory, dreams serve to restore search activity, counteracting helplessness, freezing and depression in everyday life. Dreams simulate fight, flight, and creative behaviors, promoting our resistance to stress. However, these benefits are lost while lucid dreaming, since the dreamer is aware of being in a dream (Rotenberg, 2015).
Nevertheless, lucid dreams may have some clinical advantages, such as creating a distance between dreamer and dream contents and thus decreasing awakenings during emotionally distressing dreams in patients with PTSD (Rotenberg, 2015). They also strengthen an internal locus of control, which may decrease the distressing impact of nightmares (Soffer-Dudek). While I support further investigation into the clinical benefits of lucid dreaming, the side effects should receive an equal amount of consideration, and caution should be taken when promoting these dreams as a means of enhancing creativity and imagination in the lay public. We do not know, and may never fully understand the multifaceted functions of dreams in order to safely control this natural process on a long-term basis.
Despite the side effects and numerous unanswered questions, lucid dreaming is still held in an overly optimistic light in the neuroscientific community. This contradiction leads me to ask: where is the scientific drive into promoting the positive benefits of lucid dreaming coming from? Carl Jung, in his book Symbols of Transformation objects to the view that dreams have seemingly no face value:
Our culture … has neither eyes nor heart for these things. Anything that comes out of the psyche is regarded with suspicion at the best of times, and if it does not immediately prove its material value it goes for nothing. (310)
Certainly, being influenced by forces outside of our control can be uncomfortable. This discomfort is especially true regarding aspects of our lives our defense mechanisms keep us from acknowledging, leading us to feel that one would be better off controlling one’s dreams rather than letting this unknown force spur seemingly random images night after night.
However, dreams enable us to connect with what society wants us to repress. If we endorse lucid dreaming, we block the ability of our unconscious mind to fully express itself, depriving ourselves of useful insight that would be inaccessible otherwise. Connecting with our unconscious mind is important, because if we can integrate these desires into our conscious lives, in a way that is conducive to our wellbeing and that of others, we can be more authentic versions of ourselves. Dreams have the potential to enhance individual freedom, an inbuilt pathway to a fulfilling life.
The unconscious mind is a source of human creativity, imagination and, in turn, progression. To replace the notion of unconscious dreaming with lucid dreaming would be to obviate the need to integrate consciousness and unconsciousness, causing us to lose touch with the deepest hopes, fears, and wishes that make us more authentic, adaptable, and creative human beings.
I would like to give special thanks to Rodney Sharkey from Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar who offered some useful suggestions on the necessarily unconscious nature of the unconscious.
Author Bio: Manaal Siddiqui is a second year medical student at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar. Her interests include exploring the dialectic between neuroscience and the humanities.
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