Usually when we dream, we are convinced that our experiences are actually happening. In a lucid dream, however, we are aware during our sleep that we are dreaming. Many people spontaneously experience moments of lucidity every now and then, for example when during a nightmare we realize that it was “only a dream", a realization that may often enable awakening from the nightmare or changing its course. A phenomenon that has been gaining popularity in recent years is trying to deliberately induce lucid dreams, in order to experience things that are impossible in waking life, such as flying. There are internet forums dedicated to the topic, and devices in the market that flash lights or make sounds that purportedly signal to dreamers that they are asleep.
In addition, several studies have even examined the possible utility of lucid dreaming training in reducing frequent nightmares, with mixed results. A recent research by Liat Aviram and Dr. Nirit Soffer-Dudek from BGU's Department of Psychology, explored in detail both the positive and the negative aspects of lucid dreaming among 187 Psychology undergraduate students. The study found that the phenomenon has become quite common: over a third of the sample reported that they had tried to deliberately induce lucidity at least once. However, the study raises the idea that despite the phenomenon's popularity, and the common notion that lucidity is necessarily related to enhanced mental health, people may sometimes cause themselves harm by attempting to deliberately achieve lucidity.
Liat Aviram, a recent graduate of a Master's degree in Clinical Psychology, who studied the subject in Dr. Nirit Soffer-Dudek's laboratory, says that merely experiencing the realization that you are dreaming while the dream is ongoing was not related to better or poorer mental health, but rather that lucid dreams may be positive or negative, depending on their specific characteristics. “It seems that there is continuity between the experience of control and positive affect during waking and during dreaming. Among lucid dreamers, those who felt control over dream events, confidence in the fact of dreaming, and longer lucidity episodes, reported lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress, compared to those who felt lack of control, low confidence, and more momentary spells of lucidity," she says.
The negative aspects of lucid dreams may be rooted in blurred boundaries between reality and fantasy or waking and dreaming. Techniques for achieving lucidity include repeatedly asking oneself whether one is awake or dreaming, both during the day and during the night, as well as empirically examining this question (for example checking if you are able to put your hand through a wall). The researchers proposed that the constant doubt places the individual in a sort of “grey zone" between waking and sleeping. And indeed, the study showed that those who had attempted to induce lucidity reported more sleep problems and stress, as well as sensations of experiencing themselves or the world as unfamiliar or dreamlike (dissociative experiences).
The researchers even demonstrated that these symptoms tended to increase during the two months following lucidity attempts. According to Dr. Soffer-Dudek, “Our research is unique because it is the first to explore whether lucid dream induction may harbor any risk. Many people are tempted to achieve an altered state of consciousness by attaining lucidity, but it seems that this may come with a price. We know from hundreds of studies the extent to which sleep is critically important for functioning, health, and mood; my recommendation is to consider with caution whether one wants to tamper with one's sleep and dreaming."