Lucid dreams — where people become aware that they're in a dream, and can actively alter or adapt it — are weird and wild, especially for the dreamer.
Want to talk to animals? Go right ahead. Turn that recurring nightmare of falling in an endless void into a power fantasy of soaring through the air like Superman? No problem. In a lucid dream, in theory, if you can imagine it, you can do it. What's more, the phenomenon has recently become fertile ground for psychological research.
Is Lucid Dreaming Real?
Yes, there is scientific evidence that lucid dreaming is a real phenomenon. In 2021, an international group of researchers were able to establish real-time dialogue between lucid dreamers and the experimenters. Participants were able to answer yes-no questions and simple math problems, while dreaming, by intentionally moving their eyes and facial muscles.
Clearly, the prospect of controlling the action in a dream holds enormous appeal for dreamers and scientists alike. But are there any downsides to lucid dreaming, or could it even be dangerous? Some research suggests they could infringe on the quality of your sleep — but other studies have found enormous benefits, like more positive dream content and a better waking mood the next day.
What Are the Benefits of Lucid Dreaming?
Much has also been made of the psychological benefits of lucid dreaming. In studies, self-reports from lucid dreamers have been linked with an increased propensity for problem solving, enhancements to overall wellbeing, spiritual growth and even the ability to resolve bad dreams.
“Lucid dreaming has a variety of benefits," says Tadas Stumbrys, who researchers lucid dreams at Vilnius University in Lithuania. "First, most often it is a very positive and rewarding experience in itself, leading to a positive mood after awakening."
Beyond that, Stumbrys says, lucid dreams can also be used to cope with nightmares — especially the recurring ones. "Once the dreamer realizes that the entire experience is merely a dream, the strong emotional feelings subside, and they can also do something about the unpleasant situation," he adds, like changing the dream's plot or waking themselves up.
“Lucid dreams can be used for practicing various skills (and the research shows that such lucid dream practice leads to performance improvements after awakening), as well as for creative problem solving (as our brain is in a very creative state during REM sleep when dreams typically occur),” he adds.
Read More: Can You Learn How to Have a Lucid Dream?
Is Lucid Dreaming Dangerous?
In light of the positive effects of lucid dreaming, Stumbrys wanted to probe their potential dangers, too. In a study published recently in Psychology of Consciousness, Stumbrys took a closer look at any potential negative effects of lucid dreaming. While it seems like a safe practice, an overly intense preoccupation with techniques for inducing lucid dreaming could possibly have detrimental effects, particularly involving sleep quality and mental health.
In the new study, Stumbrys asked 489 respondents, 94 percent of whom were lucid dreamers, about the frequency of their lucid dreams, their emotional tone and whether they had noticed any negative consequences of lucid dreams on their life — looking specifically at sleep quality, dissociation and mental wellbeing.
The research found that nearly 80 percent of lucid dreamers didn't observe or report any negative effects, while most of them considered their dreams to be emotionally positive experiences. (Only 10 percent of lucid dreams were negatively toned.) Ultimately, the study showed that the majority of lucid dreamers didn't experience any negative consequences from their flights of imagination.
"And [individuals who had] more frequent lucid dreams did not have poorer sleep quality or more propensity to dissociation," says Stumbrys. "In fact, they had even greater mental wellbeing."
Should You Try to Have a Lucid Dream?
For now, researchers generally point to lucid dreaming as a positive experience with real benefits, particularly if you are dealing with recurring bad dreams and nightmares, or for practicing skills and creative problem solving.
Stumbrys sheds some light on the possible mechanisms of such benefits. “For instance, the benefits in performance improvement when practicing skills in a lucid dream or a creativity boost in creative problem solving are likely to be related to the physiology of the lucid dream state," he says. That's because our actions while lucid dreaming are physiologically processed in a similar manner as when we're awake, leading to tangible benefits to performance and creativity.
In any case, lucid dreaming induction techniques are easily accessible if you want to resolve an ongoing sleep issue — or even if you want to creatively address something that might be bugging you in your waking life.