Ever had the distinct feeling that you've experienced something that in reality seems impossible? Well, you might have — in dreamland, that is. If you've ever noticed you're in a dream while it's actually happening, you're lucid dreaming. And here's what happens to your brain when you lucid dream that allows those sleep-time experiences to feel so real.
If this sounds like you, don't fret: Lucid dreaming is common and normal, says Dr. Lisa Medalie, a sleep specialist at University of Chicago and founder of sleep coaching app DrLullaby. Studies have found that more than half of people have a lucid dream at least once during their lifetime. And if you've noticed that you have a more active dream life lately, there's a good reason for that — Medalie says that pandemic-induced changes in sleep patterns are often the culprit for having more frequent or more vivid dreams.
So what exactly is happening in your brain during these ultra-realistic dreams? Here, experts explain what's going on behind the scenes while you're in lucid dreamland.
What Is A Lucid Dream?
Lucidity occurs when you realize you're dreaming, usually because you notice that something is "off," like seeing a backwards clock or being able to walk through a wall, says certified dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg. Other times, you start lucid dreaming in the middle of a nightmare after your fear brings you to consciousness. That's all to say that lucid dreams come in many stripes: They can be fantastical or exciting, mundane, frightening, and everything in between, according to Loewenberg.
While more pleasant lucid dreams are ideal, she notes the nightmarish ones have their place. "When you become lucid, that's the opportunity to consciously explore the inner self," she tells Bustle. "If you become lucid within a nightmare, don't use it to wake up — use it to confront the beast. Ask it a question like, 'who are you? What do you represent?'" She says this may help unlock feelings or answers in your subconscious.
There's no clear reason behind why lucid dreams happen when they do — Medalie says it's likely random. That said, she notes there are techniques to train yourself to lucid dream or take control of the dream while it's happening. Lucid dreaming may also be a side effect of certain medications, she adds. Regardless, odds are you'll have one in your lifetime, or perhaps even fall into the 23% of people who have them on the regular.
What's Happening To Your Brain When You Lucid Dream
The short answer of what happens in your brain during these special dreams: The lines between your waking consciousness and sleeping brain are blurred, says Loewenberg.
Your brain goes through different stages of sleep when you hit the hay. REM cycles start about 90 minutes after you start snoozing and repeat every 90 minutes or so thereafter. During REM sleep, your brain is active, says Medalie — so active that your brain waves look similar to when you're awake. All that brain activity is what makes REM the most likely phase for dreaming to occur, she says, and lucid dreams are included.
As you'd imagine, your brain is even more active during a lucid dream than a non-lucid dream, according to Medalie. A 2017 study published in the journal Neuroscience of Consciousness found that while you lucid dream, the regions in your brain responsible for insight, attention, and agency activate similarly to when you're awake. Your frontal cortex — the part of your brain that handles memory, emotions, and problem solving — also lights up, which Medalie says may contribute to your awareness and ability to self-reflect during a lucid dream.
While lucid dreams can be a cool experience, Medalie cautions that the heightened brain activity may disturb the quality of your sleep. So if you're trying to make one happen, perhaps clear your calendar of any early morning obligations.
Baird, B. (2018). Frequent lucid dreaming associated with increased functional connectivity between frontopolar cortex and temporoparietal association areas. Nature, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-36190-w
Dresler, M. (2012). Neural correlates of dream lucidity obtained from contrasting lucid versus non-lucid REM sleep: a combined EEG/fMRI case study. Sleep, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22754049/
Hooper, R. (2020). How the coronavirus crisis is affecting your dreams. New Scientist, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7252031/
Mota-Rolim, S. (2013). Neurobiology and clinical implications of lucid dreaming. Medical Hypotheses, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2737577/
Mutz, J. (2017). Exploring the neural correlates of dream phenomenology and altered states of consciousness during sleep. Neuroscience of Consciousness, https://academic.oup.com/nc/article/2017/1/nix009/3859602
Patel, A. (2020). Physiology, Sleep Stages. StatPearls, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK526132/
Sauders, D. (2016). Lucid dreaming incidence: A quality effects meta-analysis of 50 years of research. Consciousness and Cognition, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1053810016301283
Soffer-Dudek, N. (2019). Are Lucid Dreams Good for Us? Are We Asking the Right Question? A Call for Caution in Lucid Dream Research. Frontiers in Neuroscience, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6993576/
Vallat, R. (2019). Is It a Good Idea to Cultivate Lucid Dreaming? Frontiers in Psychology, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6874013/
Voss, U. (2009). Lucid Dreaming: A State of Consciousness with Features of Both Waking and Non-Lucid Dreaming. Sleep, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2737577/
Lauri Loewenberg, certified dream analyst