It’s the same sort of mundane stress dream you’ve been having half your life: You’re back in school and staring down at an exam you forgot to study for, panicked thoughts racing as you contemplate bolting from the lecture hall.
Wouldn’t it be nice if your conscious mind could snap into awareness, stop the formulaic scene your unconscious brain is playing out, and use the anything-goes imaginary universe to do something fun, like flying? Well, you can – using a practice known as lucid dreaming. The hitch is that unless you’re one of the lucky few who can do it naturally, developing this mental ability takes time and practice.
But now, a new study by experts from the Lucidity Institute and the University of Wisconsin-Madison has found that a drug used to treat the memory decline of Alzheimer’s disease significantly boosts the onset of dream awareness in people actively trying to learn lucid dreaming techniques.
“This protocol is one of the most effective methods for inducing lucid dreams known to-date, and holds promise for making lucid dreaming available to a wider population,” wrote lead author and psychiatrist Benjamin Baird, and his colleagues, in the journal PLOS One.
In past research, Baird’s team discovered that lucid dreams tend to occur during periods of increased physical activation during REM sleep, leading them to theorize that boosting REM nervous system activity could help people switch normal dreaming into lucid dreaming. And since REM sleep appears to be affected by the signaling of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, they sought to test whether drugs that ramp up acetylcholine signaling – by inhibiting the enzyme that breaks the molecule down – might do the trick.
In the current investigation, the researchers enrolled a diverse group of 121 adults, aged 19 to 75, and put them through an eight-day workshop on Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (MILD): a well-known lucid dreaming technique that involves identifying (while awake) a distinctive feature or element that is common in one’s normal dreams, then using visualization exercises to associate seeing this “dreamsign” with a conscious realization that one is asleep.