The science behind lucid dreaming and its positive impacts on metacognition and mental health.


At one point or another, we all have had to make a tough choice. We think, should I rent or buy this house? or should I stay in Cupertino or move to Fremont? More often than not, when we don’t know what to do, we start to feel anxious and apprehensive. In situations like these, one of the most common pieces of advice heard is: “sleep on it.” Yet, is this just another excuse to procrastinate on the big decision, or is this actually a good idea that helps our mental well-being? 

ACADEMIC STRESSORS BEHIND MENTAL HEALTH

The truth is, “sleep on it” is one of society’s most useful sayings. In fact, according to WebMD, a good night’s rest is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, improving attention, behavior, learning, memory, and overall mental and physical health. However, many students at MVHS do not get the minimum 8-10 hours of sleep, struggling to balance various extracurricular activities, college applications, homework, balancing a social life or studying for standardized tests and finals. It is safe to say that we are sometimes swamped with the different commitments we take on. Dr. Leena A Khanzode, child adolescent and adult psychiatrist and an adjunct clinical faculty at Stanford University, shares her insight on the ideal of biting off more than we can chew, and how this leads to sleep deprivation which in turn causes stress and anxiety. 

“School work tends to be a big factor that [my patients] talk about. They have to stay up and finish their homework or study for a test,” Khanzode said. “But I also see that a lot of the kids are overscheduled with other activities, which is why they get to their homework pretty late. And then, when they [want] to finally sleep, they haven’t finished their work, and they’re stressed.” 

ENVIRONMENTAL STRESSORS BEHIND MENTAL HEALTH

Unfortunately, with all this work comes a price, and that price is deteriorating mental health. Of course, as mentioned above, sleep deprivation plays a huge part in long-term mental illness, but this is just one example of the many stressors that can lead to mental health issues if not taken care of, including the shear stress and isolation faced during the Pandemic. 

Surprisingly, mental health concerns among all ages have been increasing as social distancing has increased. In fact, according to the Household Pulse Survey, a study conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 47% of those sheltering-in-place reported negative mental health effects resulting from worry or stress related to COVID-19, greater than those not sheltering-in-place (37%). This indicates that not only are MVHS students at risk of deteriorating mental health from the pressure they put on themselves, but also from external factors happening around them. We have heard many stories about quarantine and its harmful effects on our brains, and MVHS junior Anika Nagavara shares her story about quarantine’s effect on her mental well-being as well. 

“I think I’ve definitely noticed that because we’re in quarantine and doing online school, it’s a lot harder to stay motivated… especially after sitting in front of a computer screen for six hours, and then having to, on top of that, spend extra time after school trying to finish [all the] homework and assignments,” Nagavara said. “And on top of work, I also think that while being remote, it’s very easy to lose sight of the bigger picture or goal because of the monotony of doing the same routine every day and feeling like [you] don’t have a support group or people to reach out to if [you] need to talk.” 

THE PROBLEM: DISREGARDING MENTAL HEALTH

Unfortunately, time and mental health care are both two very important factors of our lives, and time often holds more priority than the latter. It comes as no surprise that we tend to completely disregard our mental health and mental well-being, leading to the increasing rates of depression and anxiety among youth. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, although anxiety and depression are both treatable, 80% of kids with a diagnosable anxiety disorder and 60% of kids with diagnosable depression are not getting treatment.

THE SOLUTION: LUCID DREAMING

It turns out that one of the best ways to boost our mental health is the psychological phenomenon known as lucid dreaming. According to SleepFoundation.org, lucid dreaming is having an awareness that you’re dreaming while you’re dreaming, instead of thinking that you are awake as you normally do. In other words, you develop a hybrid state of consciousness, which is in part waking and in part dreaming. Hence, you would know that you are dreaming, but still not leave your dream state, thus allowing yourself to have more control over your dreams. But how exactly can lucid dreaming boost our mental health and metacognition?

LUCID DREAMING’S EFFECT ON METACOGNITION

Professor of Psychiatry, Emeritus, at Harvard Medical School, psychiatrist, and dream researcher J. Allan Hobson, shares his research on lucid dreaming and how it can benefit one’s way of perceiving themselves and their mental health. He begins by explaining one of his most important contributions to psychology, the questioning of the dream theory. His claim is that dreaming is brain-based, in turn leading to his conclusion that the mind and the brain are connected. 

“[Lucid dreaming will] educate you about the most important question in all of philosophy and science, are the brain and the mind separate systems or are they integrated,” Hobson said. “And once you accept the idea that they may be integrated, then you [have] made a huge breakthrough in terms of thinking about yourself and about your psychological realities, because you realize that you are using your brain and your mind as a unified system.” 

Once you come to this revelation that the brain and mind are a unified system, you not only have adopted a new way of thinking, but are also showing more awareness, both of which have been countlessly proven to suppress mental illness symptoms and boost mental well-being.

LUCID DREAMING’S EFFECT ON SLEEP

Lucid dreaming can also assist in overcoming sleep difficulties such as nightmares. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, neurocognitive models of the generation of nightmares actually illustrate a hyper-responsivity of the amygdala along with the prefrontal regions of the brain failing to function. This dampens the distinction between reality and the nightmare itself. Recurring nightmares can then lead to many mental health complications, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, stress, sleep disturbances (insomnia) and substance abuse. Thankfully, lucid dreaming has been shown to help in getting rid of these recurring nightmares; while lucid dreaming, the dreamer will be aware that the nightmare that they are “in” is just an augmentation of their reality, allowing them to take control of the psychological aspect of the nightmare, thus eliminating any fear. School-based therapist and student advocate Richard Prinz shares his experience with lucid dreaming. Prinz explained a nightmare he had and how he was able to overcome it by becoming aware of the fact that he was in a dream. 

“There’ve been times where I’ve been in a dream [and was] tortured, and then I realize [I’m] dreaming because [I’m] becoming aware of where I actually am, in a bed. And so, I think the benefit [of lucid dreaming] is that you don’t have to buy into [the dream], you don ‘t have to become part of it,” Prinz says. “You can fly away [and] there’s no pain. You can leave a lot of suffering and a lot of mental anguish by being aware of your situation.”

TIPS TO LUCID DREAM

There are many benefits of lucid dreaming, all fitting under the umbrella of improving mental health, metacognition and neurological ability as a whole. Lucid dreaming is a hard thing to master — luckily, Professor Hobson, a vivid lucid dreamer himself, shares tips on getting started with this phenomenon. Hobson’s first tip reflects on his own personal experiences with this neurological art. He explains that after he stopped sleeping past midnight and instead started sleeping at the recommended time (the National Sleep Foundation recommends going to bed anytime from 8pm to midnight), he was able to change his views on dreaming and pay more attention to the dreams themselves, allowing him to become more aware of himself and the world around him. 

“I myself learned to lucid dream by altering my sleep cycle. If you alter your sleep cycle, you will almost certainly alter your perception of sleep and dreams, and, [as] I did, become lucid,” Hobson said. “[My second tip is to] just pay attention to your dreams. If things are very peculiar, if things are happening that are impossible, then you know that you’re dreaming.” 

Hobson’s second tip is based upon the fact that if we are aware of when we are dreaming, it is easier to come to the realization that the events taking place are a figment of our imagination, thus allowing us to have the ability of changing those events. However, Hobson mentions that although these tips are quite efficient, his third and final tip is probably the best to get started with lucid dreaming. 

“Give yourself ‘free’ sleep: go to your bedroom, lie down, turn off the light, lie there in the dark and [tell yourself], tonight, I’m going to have a lucid dream. And I’m going to know that I’m dreaming.” Hobson said. “[Know that] things are going to happen that couldn’t possibly be true. Install the dream in your mind, just before you go to sleep. Give it a try.” 

This tip is based off of the mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (MILD). Based on a behavior called prospective memory, MILD allows us to effectively set intentions and carry them out in the future, according to a 2017 study in the journal Dreaming. This technique essentially trains us to increase our self-awareness, and thus makes it easier for us to actually recognize when we are dreaming. When we recognize that we are dreaming, we realize that we can change the dream to our liking, and begin to lucid dream. Hence, when we tell ourselves that we will lucid dream, it is easier to be aware and recognize that our dreams are not our reality. 

LOOKING AHEAD

Lucid dreaming is a neurological and psychological phenomenon that not only frees and relieves you, but also has many renowned benefits on our mental health and neurological function. Hence, the next time you are stressed, swamped with work or struggling from feelings of loneliness, depression, anxiety and more, stay calm and remember to lucid dream. In the words of Professor Hobson, “Give [lucid dreaming] a try.”

Note: It is important to understand that if done improperly, lucid dreaming can have potentially harmful effects, as articulated in Healthline’s Article (See the ‘Cautions’ section and onwards).

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