Lucid Dreaming: What Your Brain's Really Up To In This Sleep State

Has a dream ever felt so real that you were sure that you were living it? Lucid dreaming is a phenomenon that happens to millions of us across the globe and has reportedly occurred in at least 55% of adults, according to Sleep Foundation. Those who lucid dream often report that their dreams feel like real life and that they can control what happens as if it was happening in real time. Bizarrely, many lucid dreamers are often aware that they are dreaming too. However, those who study this type of dream are still unsure of the exact cause.

While much of the lucid dreaming world remains a complex mystery to scientists, there are some aspects of it that they do understand. Currently, they have a basic understanding of when and how this unique dreaming state happens, which at least provides some answers. In the meantime, many lucid dreamers continue to enjoy the freedom they find themselves with while they are sleeping, taking the opportunity to explore their inner thoughts and wildest dreams. So, what do scientists know so far about this magical dreaming state?

Lucid dreaming is connected to the REM stage

Studies into lucid dreaming are still ongoing, and scientists believe that they have only just scratched the surface when it comes to revealing the mysteries of the whirring machine that is our brain. However, what they do know is quite interesting.

To understand lucid dreaming, you first have to understand the four sleep states. The first three stages consist of NREM sleep. These three stages are basically the transitioning stage for your body to fall into a deep sleep, where your body temperature drops and your heart rate fully relaxes. The final stage is the REM stage, symbolized by the eyes' rapid movement and heightened brain activity. This stage is when the most dreaming occurs, including lucid dreaming.

Some researchers have theorized that "lucid dreams originate from non-lucid dreams during the REM sleep stage" (via Sleep Foundation), which would suggest lucid dreaming can only be achieved if REM sleep comes before it. This theory may explain why some people can have a normal dream only to realize that they are in fact dreaming, while still dreaming. However, with practice, some people can even use lucid dreaming to intentionally dream about someone. While achievable, this may take a while to accomplish. 

The prefrontal cortex very active

Brain activity is heightened during the REM phase; however, lucid dreaming seems to take it to new levels. A 2009 study by Frankfurt University, showed a dramatic increase in brain activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain while the test subjects were lucid dreaming, leading the researchers to theorize that lucid dreaming forms its own "hybrid state of consciousness" outside of REM sleep (via Sleep Journal). This activity was shown to be similar to awareness levels that are seen while awake. Speaking to Bustle, certified dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg weighs in on this idea. She explains that "the lines between your waking consciousness and sleeping brain are blurred" when lucid dreams occur. So, when you are lucid dreaming, your brain is incredibly active and acts as if you are in a wake-like state.

Of course, this increased activity has led scientists to believe that there is a strong connection between lucid dreaming and the prefrontal cortex of the brain — an area that is responsible for emotions, attention, and intuition, among other various capabilities. However, other parts of the brain are also active during lucid dreaming. Some of these areas include the supramarginal gyrus, inferior parietal lobules, and the precuneus (via Medical News Today). The increased activity in the prefrontal cortex and other areas may explain some phenomena that you experience during lucid dreams, such as being aware that you are dreaming and being able to control what happens.