Self-reflection may distinguish lucid dreamers

By Sports & Health Editor

Though frequent lucid dreamers are uncommon, the nocturnal phenomenon has been a topic of interest to psychologists and sleep scientists for centuries. New research published in The Journal of Neuroscience has established a link between certain cognitive functions and the likelihood of being able to lucid dream, shedding some new light on the hazy subject.

“Metacognitive monitoring is essentially the ability to monitor your own thoughts,” said Elisa Filevich, lead author of the study and postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. “It’s knowing what’s inside your mind.”

This ability to self-reflect has been associated more with lucid rather than non-lucid dreams, leading researchers to suspect a connection to the anterior prefrontal cortex—the brain area that controls conscious processing and enables humans to consider and gain perspective on their own thoughts and actions. The Jan. 21 study is the first to test a link between lucid dreaming ability and the metacognitive function of self-reflecting at the neural level.

“Dreams are normally not subject to this metacognitive monitoring,” Filevich said. “If you really were able to critically reflect on what you’re thinking, then you would notice that there are logical inaccuracies, logical failures—that things don’t follow one another,” Filevich said. “The only reason why you don’t realize you’re in a dream is because you’re not really thinking about what you’re thinking.” 

Study participants in a functional MRI machine were given two thought-monitoring tasks. In a portion of each they were asked to consciously self-reflect, to stay aware of their thoughts and what they were perceiving around them. Based on instructions given, the subjects indicated how internally or externally oriented their thoughts were. 

The fMRI data showed greater blood flow to the regions of the brain associated with metacognitive functioning in those participants who, based on a series of questionnaires and surveys, indicated that they regularly experienced lucid dreams. 

“We knew that we were expecting frontopolar cortex [activity based on previous research showing] that people with higher metacognitive ability have bigger brain matter volume in the prefrontal cortex,” Filevich said. “That was exactly where we expected the difference between lucid dreamers and non-lucid dreamers to be, and that’s what we got.”

According to Benjamin Baird, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the point has been made within lucid dreaming literature that it is uncommon for people to reflect on their current state of consciousness much of the time.

“Most people in their everyday lives don’t go around wondering whether they’re dreaming or not,” Baird said. “The kind of metacognition that’s talked about in terms of lucid dreaming is also something that doesn’t happen very frequently in the waking state.”

Baird said current research also reflects that ordinary, non-lucid dreams also routinely feature metacognitive-type processes. 

“If you look at people’s reports of their dreaming experiences, they are making judgments about things [and] considering other people’s reactions,” Baird said. “Those kinds of things happen frequently throughout the waking state and dreaming. The question is which ones we want to call metacognition.”

Memory and perception are two domains at the focus of metacognitive research, Baird said. Although structures in the anterior prefrontal cortex relate to both of those abilities, there is also evidence that other parts of the brain region may relate to thought-monitoring skills. 

According to Dr. Allan Hobson, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of multiple papers on dreams and dream consciousness, one theory that may help explain the occurrence of lucid dreams is the hybrid state hypothesis.

“What consciousness is doing is constantly updating our predictive blueprint about the world and yet our predictive blueprint of the world is constantly entering into whatever conscious state we are in,” Hobson said. “In waking, the predominant information is external and in dreaming the predominant information is internal. [When] lucid dreaming, we produce an alternation between these two states.”

According to a January 2015 paper co-authored by Hobson, the highest incidence rate of both intentional and spontaneous lucid dreaming was observed in young people, peaking at the age of 9. Neurobiological changes children experience at this age begin to activate the frontal lobe, which is engaged during lucid dreaming. These changes are taking place in the same area of the brain associated with the self-monitoring, metacognitive abilities. 

Filevich said in order to better answer the question of a causal link between anterior prefrontal cortex activity and lucid dreaming, she hopes to teach people how to lucid dream and measure whether this increases the gray matter in the part of the brain corresponding to self-reflection.

“[We want to see] whether it’s a completely trainable ability or if it comes with preconditions—whether your specific brain configuration helps you,” Filevich said.