Dreams have long captivated the interest of experimental psychologists, and theories abound as to why they exist. Some claim that dreams are the output of a random firing of neuronsâ€”nothing more, nothing less. Others suggest dreams are a window into our subconscious, and that they hold a deep and untapped meaning in our lives. Still, others contend that dreams are an adaptive survival mechanism, helping us prepare for the challenges ahead.
But what, if anything, can we learn from our dreams? Are dreams something we should carefully observe and monitor, or are they largely irrelevant to our everyday lives?
New research published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that aspects of a certain type of dream, called a lucid dream, may be associated with psychological well-being (or, at least, the absence of psychopathology). Readers who have seen the movie Waking Life may know all about lucid dreaming. For those who havenâ€™t, a lucid dream is defined as a dream state in which the dreamer is aware that he or she is dreaming (but without waking up)Â and has the ability to at least partially control the outcome or direction of the dream. By some estimates, approximately 50 percent of people have experienced at least one lucid dream and about 20 percent of people are frequent lucid dreamers (defined as having at least one lucid dream per month).
In this research, psychologists at Ben-Gurion University in Israel recruited 187 undergraduate students to participate in a sleep diary study. They first measured students on a variety of psychological indicators, including sleep quality and sleep experiences, lucid dreaming, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, stress, depressive symptoms, schizotypy, and dissociation. Then, they asked a subsample of these students to complete a dream diary for a period of two-weeks.
What they found is fascinating: intense lucid dreamers had, on average, lower levels of psychological distress. Specifically, students who experienced high-intensity lucid dreamsâ€”as defined by high ratings on lucid dream confidence, control, length by seconds, and length by scenesâ€”had less depression, anxiety, and stress than low-intensity lucid dreamers. However, there was no difference in the psychological well-being of high-intensity lucid dreamers compared to non-lucid dreamers. Â
If you are a lucid dreamer, you may be better off if you haveÂ intense dreams than the humdrum kind. But donâ€™t take these results to mean you should start â€śinducingâ€ť lucid dream states to bolster your mental health. The researchers found that the use of deliberate induction techniques, such as lucid dreaming treatment (LDT), were associated with sleep problems and schizotypy symptoms. So, itâ€™s probably best to leave your dreams alone, but donâ€™t assume thereâ€™s anything abnormal about having the occasional intense lucid dream.