This is what scientists learned from 50 years of lucid dreaming studies
To lucid dream is to be aware you’re traipsing through your subconscious. In some cases, lucid dreamers even report calling the shots in their REM-sleep narratives. And while the practice hasn’t gone fully mainstream, it has earned props from scientists as an objectively verifiable altered state of consciousness. But, knowing that people can have lucid dreams doesn’t translate to knowing who and how many of us are.
To get a handle on the incidence of lucid dreaming, UK researchers at the University of Northampton looked at any and all research on the subject published between 1966 and 2016. Their meta-analysis of 34 studies revealed fairly consistent findings across time and geographic borders. In most countries, roughly the same percentage of people say they know what it’s like to participate in their dreams: About 55 percent can check lucid dreaming off their bucket lists. And almost a quarter are frequent lucid dreamers, meaning they report at least one lucid dream per month.
Study authors noted some issues in comparing results from different investigations. For one thing, researchers vary in how they distinguish lucid dreaming from other journeys in REM-mentation. In the ’90s, one group of researchers said lucid dreaming requires only awareness of dreaming. But earlier notions of lucidity were more detailed. In 1913, for example, one scientist held that lucid dreamers must have complete memory of their waking life and be able to control elements of their dream activity. The control requirement might affect prevalence estimates, as recent studies suggest somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of lucid dreamers either can’t manipulate their dreams or only can once in a while. Given that sitting in the director’s chair isn’t the norm, study authors wrote, then it would make sense to use control over dreams as a way to measure depth of lucidity, rather than as a necessary feature of the experience.
Taken together, studies suggest most people can have lucid dreams, and that pursuit of the practice — motivated by cultural norms or individual beliefs — sparks adventures in the snoozing fantasy-land. Most nationalities boast somewhere near the 55-percent rate average. And, rates haven’t materially changed over time.
Compared to middle-aged and older adults, youngs appear more susceptible to frequent lucid dreaming. Efforts to explain this trend yielded the brain maturation hypothesis, which explains lucid dreaming as a “disassociated, hybrid neurological state.” As a result, the idea goes, frequency should peak during the teen years and level off during early adulthood, at which point rapid neural growth seen during adolescence draws to a close.
Differences in interpreting and assigning meanings to dreams seems to influence the breadth of getting lucid. Perhaps unsurprisingly, prevalence is higher — about 70 percent — in cultures and communities with an interest in lucid dreaming. Pasttimes associated with lucidity include meditation and video games. Apparently, there are “significant parallels” between losing the day to World of Warcraft, assuming lotus flower position and lucid dreaming. Both lucid dreaming and gaming, it’s been argued, “are grounded in similar spatial skills, require resilience to motion sensitivity and focused attention.” Hardcore gamers, defined as those who play a few times a week for stretches of two hours or more, or who started playing before the third grade and have at least 50 games under their belts, “have a familiarity with waking immersion in virtual worlds,” that may leave them prone to similarly immersive dreaming.