Are there different types of dreams?
During a typical night’s sleep, everyone dreams but while some people easily and often remember their dreams, other people can’t recall their dreams. Dream content is often heavily influenced by our personal experiences, but researchers have found that certain dream themes are very common across different cultures. For example, people from all over the world frequently dream about being chased, attacked, or falling. Other common dream experiences include feeling frozen and unable to move, arriving late, flying, and being naked in public.
Dreaming occurs in both sleep states, both rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. Dreams are more fantastical, vivid and colourful during REM sleep as this is when the emotional region of the brain is highly active. REM sleep is associated with recalibrating and resetting our emotions by helping us vent and forget negative experiences. Dreams during non-REM sleep tend to be more factual.
What is lucid dreaming?
When we are asleep, we sometimes become aware that we are dreaming, which is known as lucid dreaming. Brain imaging studies have demonstrated that conscious awareness occurs during lucid dreams because the part of the brain involved in thinking and planning is active. Lucid dreaming has components of both dreaming and being awake, so it represents an in-between state which could offer insight into our subconscious. There are different levels of lucid dreaming, from simply being aware that we are dreaming and taking a passive role in the dream, to being an active agent and changing the course of a dream.
Lucid dreaming can promote creativity
Most of us have struggled to solve a problem during the day, then after having ‘slept on it’, woken to find the solution is obvious. Some people take this a step further and deliberately use lucid dreams to explore creativity and solve problems. The famous surrealist painter Salvador Dali produced many dream-inspired works such as ‘Dream caused by the flight of a bee around a pomegranate a second before awakening’, using lucid dreaming techniques. We can be trained to take a more active role in our dreams to the point that we choose the content, guide the dream, experience different outcomes and find solutions, which can help our creativity.
Coping with traumatic experiences and nightmares
Events from the day often invade your thoughts during sleep, and people suffering from stress or anxiety are more likely to have frightening dreams. Suppressing unwanted feelings and emotions during the day can result in unwanted feelings resurfacing in nightmares. Traumatic experiences such as accidents, disasters or the death of a loved one can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), of which nightmares are a common debilitating symptom. The content of nightmares and dreams can provide insight into our beliefs, fears and emotions.
Evidence suggests that becoming lucid, that is realising that one is dreaming, during a nightmare allows one to alter the nightmare storyline during the nightmare itself providing some relief f by reducing the frequency and severity of nightmares. Some people can even use dreams to provide a safe realm in which to try new behaviours to deal with different fears and emotions.
Recent research found that lucid dreaming training (LDT) can help people with who are having difficulty beginning or maintaining sleep over an extended period. People who were trained to control their dream as it happens, reduced their insomnia symptoms as well as their symptoms of anxiety and depression. While the results are promising, but we need more evidence before LDT-I (LDT for insomnia) can have a place in the management of insomnia.
What techniques are available to promote lucid dreams?
Some individuals spontaneously experience lucid dreams; however, lucid dreaming can also be induced by the use of specific techniques. You may find this video on how to promote lucid dreaming helpful. Try techniques that do not disrupt your sleep. Keep a diary of your dreams and set an intention before you go to bed about the nature of your dream. Other techniques such as scheduling waking in the middle of the night have been found to disrupt sleep patterns and should be avoided.
A word of caution
As so much of our dream content depends on our subconscious, we are not always able to control our dreams. Lucid dreaming is more likely to be a positive experience if you have a high degree of control over dream events and can avoid negative outcomes during dreams. It seems that setting a positive intention and finding the right technique for you is key to inducing lucid dreaming and ensuring positive outcomes. Deliberate lucid dreaming can also increase sleep and emotional disturbance. If at any point your dreams, or remembering your dreams, is causing you stress or anxiety, you should consider speaking with a doctor.
Schredl, M., Ciric, P., Götz, S., & Wittmann, L. (2004) Typical dreams: stability and gender differences. Journal of Psychology, 138(6):485-94.
Voss, U., Holzmann, R., Tuin, I., & Hobson, A. J. (2009). Lucid dreaming: a state of consciousness with features of both waking and non-lucid dreaming. Sleep, 32(9), 1191-1200.
Spoormaker, V. I., & Van Den Bout, J. (2006). Lucid dreaming treatment for nightmares: a pilot study. Psychotherapy and psychosomatics, 75(6), 389-394.
Ellis, J. G., De Koninck, J., & Bastien, C. H. (2020). Managing Insomnia Using Lucid Dreaming Training: A Pilot Study. Behavioral Sleep Medicine, 1-11.
Aviram, L., & Soffer-Dudek, N. (2018). Lucid Dreaming: Intensity, but not frequency, is inversely related to psychopathology. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 384.