Sunday, June 27, 2010

Want to find your mind? Learn to direct your dreams

Dream catcher (Image: David Bray)

Nice article from New Scientist on lucid dreaming as a way to know our minds - and becoming aware of our awareness. Gerald Edelman, a great neuroscientist and author, proposes two primary states of consciousness - the basic sensory perceptive awareness, and the awareness of our world and reality. Most often, in the dream realm, we lack the second form of consciousness, unless we learn to become lucid.

Want to find your mind? Learn to direct your dreams

15 June 2010 by Jessica Hamzelou
Magazine issue 2764. Subscribe and save
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AM I awake or am I dreaming?" I ask myself for probably the hundredth time. I am fully awake, just like all the other times I asked, and to be honest I am beginning to feel a bit silly. All week I have been performing this "reality check" in the hope that it will become so ingrained in my mind that I will start asking it in my dreams too.

If I succeed, I will have a lucid dream - a thrilling state of consciousness somewhere between waking and sleeping in which, unlike conventional dreams, you are aware that you are dreaming and able to control your actions. Once you have figured this out, the dream world is theoretically your oyster, and you can act out your fantasies to your heart's content.

Journalistic interest notwithstanding, I am pursuing lucid dreaming for entertainment. To some neuroscientists, however, the phenomenon is of profound interest, and they are using lucid dreamers to explore some of the weirder aspects of the brain's behaviour during the dream state (see "Dream mysteries"). Their results are even shedding light on the way our brains produce our rich and complex conscious experience.

It's a central issue in the study of consciousness. In 1992, Gerald Edelman at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, proposed that there are two possible states of consciousness, which he called primary and secondary consciousness. Primary consciousness is the simple subjective experience of sensory perception and emotions, which could be applied to most animals. It's a state of "just being, feeling, floating", according to Ursula Voss at the University of Frankfurt in Germany.

The mental life of your common or garden human, however, is a lot more complicated. That's because we are "aware of being aware". This allows us to reflect upon ourselves and our feelings and, in an ideal world, make insightful decisions and judgements. This state, dubbed secondary consciousness, is thought to be unique to humans.

"When you're awake, you have both primary and secondary consciousness. Secondary consciousness is that reflective awareness that determines a great part of waking consciousness," says Voss.

Pinning down how our brain produces these two, subjective, states of consciousness is a tough challenge, because it's difficult to isolate the different aspects of consciousness in fully awake subjects from other neural processes unrelated to awareness.

Which is where dreams come in. When we dream, we experience events (albeit imagined) and emotions but, crucially, we lack certain aspects of self-awareness that we normally feel when we are awake, particularly those involved in the rational reflection on what we are experiencing. You could easily see an outrageous event - a fluorescent pink kitten flying past on golden wings, to name but one - without batting a dream eyelid. "If we can accept really weird and bizarre events as perfectly normal happenings, that means there's something wrong with our reflective, rational consciousness," says Patrick McNamara of Boston University.

For this reason, some researchers, like Allan Hobson at Harvard Medical School, believe that dreams are akin to Edelman's definition of primary consciousness. Comparing the dream state with the waking state could let us explore the way the brain generates the self-awareness of secondary consciousness.

Some headway had already been made in this direction by the late 1990s. In 1997, Eric Nofzinger and his colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, compared the brain activity of awake individuals with dreamers using PET scans, which reveal how much energy parts of the brain are using. The team identified three main regions that showed more activity during dream sleep, which is characterised by rapid eye movement (REM). The areas were along the midline of the brain, the insula and the left amygdala. Together, these regions are thought to be involved in motivation and reward mechanisms, and processing emotions, which Nofzinger reckons might explain why dreams are often so emotional.

Surprisingly, given the irrationality of the dream experience, many of the frontal areas of the brain involved in advanced cognition such as reasoning and forward planning were also active in the dreamers. But there was one notable exception: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) was remarkably subdued in REM sleep, compared with during wakefulness. To Hobson, that strongly suggests that this particular area, above other frontal regions, is crucial for the critical reflective awareness present in waking, and therefore secondary, consciousness (Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol 6, p 475).

Could this one brain region alone explain our secondary consciousness? It's here that lucid dreams enter the picture. With their increased self-awareness, lucid dreams share certain aspects of secondary consciousness, so researchers are now vying to observe what happens in the brain when someone "wakes up" within their dream, and whether they exhibit any further signatures of consciousness. "It's a very interesting leap because it can show you exactly what occurs if you jump from limited consciousness to very high consciousness," says Victor Spoormaker of the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, Munich, Germany. "This should be one of the main themes of lucid dream research."

Lucidity on demand

Voss and her colleagues made tentative steps towards using lucid dreams to study consciousness in 2009. She trained a group of students to become lucid dreamers using a number of tips and tricks (see "Lessons in lucidity"). Once they had "woken up" within their dream, the subjects were then asked to signal to Voss that they were lucid by moving their eyes in a previously agreed pattern, which was measured with an electro-oculograph. "We have no other way of knowing they're really in a lucid dream," says Voss. "It's a great effort to make these eye movements because normally you're in that dream and you're busy with other things; you don't want to communicate with the outside world." At the same time, Voss used EEG - a cap of electrodes placed on the scalp - to record their brain activity.

Unfortunately, the team only managed to capture three lucid dreams, an indication of just how tricky they are to study. But it was enough to reveal a couple of intriguing differences between the lucid and non-lucid dreaming brain that may contribute to the secondary state of consciousness. Firstly, the team observed an increase in a specific brainwave - oscillating at 40 hertz - in the frontal regions during the lucid dreams compared to the non-lucid dreams, which tended to have slower brain waves. They also found greater synchronised activity between the frontal and parietal regions of the brain than in normal REM sleep, though less than would be expected in a fully awake subject (Sleep, vol 32, p 1191). Importantly, the overall brain activity was still significantly different to the waking state, meaning the subjects couldn't have been awake and simply pretending to lucid dream (see diagram).

What was the DLPFC up to? If it really were key to the self-awareness of secondary consciousness, you would expect it to "light up" during the lucid dreaming state. Unfortunately, EEG is not sensitive enough to measure the neural activity in such a small, specific area. However, preliminary work by Michael Czisch at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, Germany, hints at the answer. He used high-resolution fMRI scans to investigate the brain state of lucid dreamers. Although the results are currently being peer-reviewed, so many of the details are still under wraps, Czisch has hinted that the scans again reveal highly coordinated activity in the frontal regions of the brain, and also in the parietal and temporal zones, once the dreamers became lucid. The DLPFC was also more active than in a usual REM dream - providing tantalising evidence that it really is a crucial ingredient of secondary consciousness.

The million dollar question, of course, is how these specific patterns of electrical activity could give rise to our conscious experience. The DLPFC's role certainly makes sense, given laboratory studies that have shown it retrieves and analyses information in our working memory, and that it plays a key part in decision making.

What of the other signatures of lucidity? The coordinated neural activity may help the various brain regions communicate more effectively, "binding" together all the different thoughts and feelings being processed separately across the brain into a single unified experience, which we perceive as "the present". One might expect more binding - and therefore greater synchrony - in secondary consciousness compared with primary consciousness, simply because the experience is so much richer, combining analytical thoughts as well as sensory perceptions and emotions.

The specific frequency of much of the neural activity in the frontal areas - 40 hertz - is also significant. Slower frequency brain waves usually dominate in sleep, whereas 40 hertz waves are more characteristic of the waking state, suggesting secondary consciousness will only emerge if the relevant neurons are communicating at a fast enough rate. Hobson likens it to "turning up the volume" in the brain.

These experiments in lucid dreaming, few though they currently are, may have wide-reaching implications in clinical situations, particularly in the study of mental illness. "When you're a schizophrenic, you're in primary consciousness really," Voss claims. "What you're lacking is reflective awareness; you cannot distinguish between reality and your hallucinations." On this basis, Voss wonders whether it might be possible to stimulate the necessary regions in schizophrenic patients to help them achieve greater lucidity in their waking life. The work might even suggest ways for healthy people to enjoy lucid dreams. "Wouldn't it be nice if you could get somebody in REM sleep to become a lucid dreamer just by stimulating his brain?" says Voss. "No one's tried this before."

Luckily for me, I have been able to make my first foray into this strange state of consciousness without any artificial stimulation. I'm happy to report that on a sunny morning over the Easter weekend, I had my first lucid dream. It lasted all of a few seconds, and I was merely able to consciously twirl on the spot, but I woke up excited and happy. With the whole dream world now open to me, let's just hope this is only the start of my lucid life.

But wait . . . there's more . . .

Editorial: Wake up dreaming to explore consciousness

Lessons in lucidity

Lucid dreams may be an exciting state, in which you can control your dreams to live out even your most outré fantasies, but there are many other more serious reasons to try lucid dreaming. A pilot study by Victor Spoormaker at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, for example, recently found that lucid dreaming could help people overcome their nightmares (Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, vol 75, p 389), though it would not be recommended for those with a history of mental illness.

Here are some top tips on how to achieve lucid dreaming:

Step 1: The reality test.

Ask yourself whether you are awake or dreaming throughout the day. Later on, in the land of nod, you might find yourself pondering this question. If you succeed, congratulations! You have opened the door to lucid dreams.

Step 2: Focus your thoughts.

People who focus single-mindedly on a task during the day, be it a computer game or playing a musical instrument, are more likely to experience lucid dreams, says Jayne Gackenbach at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, Canada.

Step 3: Plan your fantasy.

Almost as fun as the dreaming itself. Before you go to bed, think about what you want to dream lucidly about, in as much detail as possible.

Step 4: Total recall.

When you wake up, try to recall as many of your dreams as you can.

Step 5: Wake up and get motivated! ...And then go back to bed.

Probably best for lazy weekends. Set your alarm for an hour before you would usually wake up. When it goes off, try to remember your dreams. Then get out of bed, and only head back under the blankets an hour later, focusing on trying to have a lucid dream.

How dreams change as we age

Fetuses spend a lot of time in REM sleep, and infants up to the age of 1 spend four times as long in REM sleep as adults. But are they dreaming? "The fact that they twitch and have inhibited muscle tone and brain activation is a sure sign they're in REM sleep, but not that they're dreaming," says Allan Hobson at Harvard Medical School.

Even so, dreaming must at least begin in our first few years. "As soon as children are able to talk, they seem to report happenings that could only have been going on in their dream life," says Patrick McNamara at Boston University. When children do start reporting their dreams, they almost always feature animals. "Nobody has any idea why," says McNamara.

Children who report the most dreams tend to have more developed mental imagery in their waking lives too, which may be linked to the development of the parietal lobes involved in visuospatial skills. Adolescence seems to be the peak of our dream life, and unfortunately, it tends to go downhill from there, with less REM sleep and therefore fewer dreams after the age of 20. Our dreams as adults are less pleasant, too, with more aggressive themes.

Dream mysteries

Why are some tasks impossible for our dream-selves?

You probably know the feeling: in the middle of your dream, you come across something vital revealed in the written word, only to find the sentences just slipping away before your eyes. But is this true for all complex tasks in dreams, or do our altered selves maintain some of our waking abilities? Robert Piller of Pomona College in Claremont, California, asked 27 lucid dreamers to try to perform a range of tasks in their dreams, like reading, writing and speaking a sentence, painting, drawing a cube and humming a tune. The linguistic tasks were all particularly difficult for the subjects, but somewhat surprisingly, the rest were more manageable. Piller thinks it's because the left cerebral hemisphere - the seat of language - is relatively inactive during REM sleep, whereas the right hemisphere, which takes care of more creative, visuospatial activities like painting and drawing, is still functioning (Dreaming, vol 19, p 273).

Why are we dead to the world when we sleep?

Our insulation from the environment during sleep is astonishing. In one extreme study in the 1960s, some sleeping subjects were completely unaware of their surroundings even when their eyes were taped open and objects were lit up in front of them. Neuroscientists believe that's due to "gates" of temporarily inactive neurons in the thalamus or certain regions of the cortex that prevent sensory information from propagating to the regions where it could be processed and consciously perceived.

Jessica Hamzelou is a writer based in London

Finally, the editorial . . .

Wake up dreaming to explore consciousness

THE study of lucid dreaming has been seen as a fringe activity for too long. The little research that has been done suggests lucid dreamers' brains are in a penumbral state between waking and sleeping, offering all kinds of opportunities for study. Some now believe it could be possible to induce lucid dreams at will.

Doing so would offer more than the chance to enjoy fantastical adventures. Harnessing lucid dreams could provide insights into consciousness (see "The secret of consciousness: Reinterpreting dreams").

As with any advance into a twilight zone, there will be concerns. A lucid dreamer might lose their ability to distinguish between the dream world and reality, for example.

It is right to be cautious but let's not lose sight of the opportunities. Some believe that confronting our demons in lucid dreams could help us overcome phobias. Others see the research leading to therapies for schizophrenia. There are even suggestions that practising a motor task in a lucid dream - such as dancing or playing an instrument - can hone skills in the waking world. By harnessing our night-time dreams we may be able to realise our waking ones more easily.

1 comment:

Richard Harrold said...

Carlos Castaneda wrote that Don Juan showed him how to take control of dreams and recognize them as a reality parallel to our waking state. The process was to mentally prepare yourself before sleep by telling yourself to look at your hands in your dream.

Hands are chosen because they are a familiar form to us. You look at your hands and bring them into focus; when they are in focus, you look around you to scan your surroundings. As soon as your surroundings begin to fade and wobble, return to your hands to regain focus, then look around some more. After time, you're supposed to become skilled enough that as soon as you recognize you are dreaming, you can act willfully in the dream state.

Many years ago I succeeded in finding my hands and was able to look around. But it is very difficult, and I eventually stopped the practice. I may try it again. It seems like using the hands as a base is not unlike finding the breath as a base for meditation and directed thought.