The ability to control what happens in one's dreams is an endearing prospect, so much so that there are pages of information online which supposedly help individuals achieve this curious state, which is known as lucid dreaming. Despite being a well-recognized phenomenon, we still know very little about it, nor why some people seem to experience it more frequently than others.
Now, a new study by scientists at the Max Planck Institute has offered some novel insight into the subject with the finding that a particular brain region known to be involved in self-reflection is larger in lucid dreamers. According to the researchers, this could mean that lucid dreamers are better at self-reflecting during wakefulness.
“Our results indicate that self-reflection in everyday life is more pronounced in persons who can easily control their dreams,” lead author Elisa Filevich said in a news release.
During a lucid dream, individuals are aware that they are dreaming but have not left the sleep state. Some people are even able to control what is happening in the dream, allowing them to dream about anything they desire. Although lucid dreaming is poorly understood, studies have shown that frequent lucid dreamers demonstrate greater insight in everyday life than nonlucid dreamers.
Some individuals have also reported that self-reflection is more pronounced in lucid dreams, which is why some scientists believe the phenomenon could be linked to metacognition, or thinking about thinking. However, no one had explored the relationships between lucid dreaming and thought monitoring at the neural level before, which is where the current study came in.
For the investigation, scientists asked participants to fill out a questionnaire examining lucid dreaming ability, and then split them into groups depending on the frequency of lucid dreaming. Both structural and functional MRI scans were taken of all the volunteers, which were then compared by the researchers.
As described in The Journal of Neuroscience, the brain images revealed that the most frequent lucid dreamers had greater volume in a brain region called the anterior prefrontal cortex compared to those within the low-lucidity group. This area is involved in controlling conscious cognitive processes and also plays a role in our ability to self-reflect. Alongside this apparent change in brain structure, the researchers also observed differences in brain function. They found that those in the highly lucid group displayed more activity in this brain region during megacognitive, or thought monitoring, tests while awake.
According to the researchers, these findings suggest a relationship between metacognition, in particular thought monitoring, and lucid dreaming and that these two abilities share neural networks. The researchers would like to continue this work by investigating whether it is possible to improve metacognitive skills through training. To do this, they will attempt to teach people how to lucid dream and then examine whether their thought monitoring abilities improve.