Can You Learn How to Control Your Dreams?

While 50% of people say they’ve had a lucid dream, only 20% have them regularly. 

 

Have you ever had a dream so real, you mistook it for reality? This is a state called lucid dreaming. Truth be told, little is known about sleep, a condition we’re in for about a third of our lifetime. The average person over age 10 dreams about 4-6 times per night.


By conducting experiments using an EEG machine on sleeping subjects, a body of research has found that three elements must be present for someone to have a dream: they must have an adequate level of brain activity, external stimuli must be shut out, and self-awareness must be shut off. The exception is lucid dreaming, when you’re actually aware that you’re a bug caught in the amber of your own mind.

This type of dreaming has been something of a mystery to scientists. This state gives the dreamer exceptional freedom. You could fly for instance or visit a loved one who passed away and tell them all the things you never got to. In one well-regarded survey, researchers found that around 50% of people have experienced a lucid dream at some point in life, while 20% have them often. The thing about lucid dreams, they’re exciting. Your senses are vibrant. Everything looks and feels so real. You wake up feeling exhilarated.   

A sleep deprivation epidemic and a rise in sleep disorders may be limiting the number of lucid dreams we have, by limiting REM sleep. Credit: Getty Images.

There are several online communities who discuss lucid or conscious dreams, help one another interpret them, and discuss how to induce and control them. Could their methods be legit? One landmark 1981 experiment proved you can consciously control your dreams. Participants were able to signal to researchers through pre-arranged eye movements during REM sleep. Though there are a number of different apps dedicated to inducing lucid dreams, there isn’t much evidence to back them up.

A German study found that those who are naturally prone to lucid dreams have a larger pre-frontal cortex, and may outpace others in certain cognitive abilities, such as self-reflection and meta-cognition or pondering one’s own thinking processes. A few studies have found that focusing on problems within a lucid dream can offer results in the real world. Creative types may also be more prone to lucid dreams.

Those prone to lucid dreams may excel in meta-cognition and self-reflection. Credit: Getty Images.

One way to induce such a dream is simply to ask for one. That’s according to psychologist Deirdre Barret of Harvard University. She’s the author of the book: The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists and Athletes Use Dreams for Creative Problem-Solving—and How You Can, Too. According to Barret, the best way is to think or say each night, right when getting into bed, "Tonight when I dream, I want to realize I'm dreaming."

You can also make a conscious effort to better recognize when you’re dreaming and when you're conscious. To do so, be extra cognizant of your surroundings when awake. The thought is, the more you can separate the dreaming and wakeful states,  the more you’ll notice and remember your dreams and the better you can control them. How are dreams different from reality? Things are usually a little darker. You can’t read. Text looks garbled. You can’t see your feet. It feels like you’re floating. And if you look in a mirror, your image is fuzzy. Our mind can’t get a good handle on our own image in a dream state.

One alarm trick might work, but it won’t be fun. Credit: Getty Images.

There’s some evidence that you’re more likely to have a lucid dream if you’re woken up during deeper stages of slumber and then fall back asleep again. Set two alarms with about a half hour in between during the late night or early morning hours, to try to induce the lucid state.

If you have someone on the outside that’s willing to help in your sleep bound quest, you could set up a situation where while you’re in a deep sleep, they whisper certain important words to you, or spray a little water on you, shine light is shone in your eyes, or play a recorded message, or even exert pressure to one of your limbs. Any of these may induce the lucid state. Or piss you off.

There’s another snag. Sleep studies that offer evidence on how to induce lucid dreams often count on participants who already experience them regularly and know how to control them. Another issue is the number of studies on this topic as a whole are limited. Still, it’s been proven that you can control your dreams. And there are lots of people who claim they can.

In fact, the practice of dream yoga has been practiced by some Buddhist monks for a thousand years or more. There may even be connections between lucid dreaming, meditation, and the practice of mindfulness. So if you want to experiment, you may be able to enjoy the lucid state consciously and even benefit from it.

To learn more about the science of dreaming, click here: 

Related Articles

Major study: Drug overdoses over a 38-year period reveal hidden trends

It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction

From the study: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6408/eaau1184
Surprising Science
  • It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
  • If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
  • The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Keep reading Show less

Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
  • You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
  • This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.

Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.


How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."