About 50 per cent of us will at some point in our lives experience “waking up” and being conscious while still in a dream – possibly, we may even be able to act with intention in it. Such “lucid dreams” are not only a vivid and memorable experience for the dreamer, they are also of huge interest to neuroscientists and psychologists. That is because they represent a strange, hybrid state of waking consciousness and sleep which could tell us completely new things about our inner lives and the subconscious.
Many of the traumas we experience in our waking life are processed in our dreams. This has led some researchers to ask a bold question: could lucid dreaming one day offer a way to treat psychological disorders – enabling us to tackle fears and change behaviour in the relatively safe surroundings of our own dreams? So far, such psychotherapeutic application is relatively untested – but it has been used to treat recurrent nightmares, which are often associated with trauma.
Sleep and (non-lucid) dreaming perform a number of functions that are important for our emotional health. For example, over successive cycles of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep (the phase during which most dreaming occurs), an overnight mood regulation takes place which “resets” emotional brain centres. For example, research has shown that we tend to become more sensitive to faces displaying angry or fearful expressions as the day progresses but that a period of REM sleep can reverse this tendency. This kind of sleep is also known to help us find new, creative solutions to waking life issues.