Parasomnias Part 2: Lucid Dreaming and Nightmare Therapy

“I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I butterfly dreaming that I am a man?”- Chuang Tzu

In 2010, the movie Inception captivated audiences everywhere. I have to admit that I have seen it around 10 times. Each time the credits roll, I wish that it were real. Well, what if it is? Inception was actually inspired by a real phenomenon, lucid dreaming.

Lucid dreaming is when the sleeper becomes aware that they are dreaming, and then have the potential to control the dream storyline and content. Everyone can attempt to train themselves to lucid dream. Throughout the years, there have been a number of techniques to train people how to do so.

One example of this is Imagery Rehearsal Treatment. This is a three-step process:

1) Write down a brief description of a recent nightmare

2) Think of a way to change the nightmare (i.e. a less scary environment)

3) Imagine this altered version several times throughout the day.

While this method has shown some success, a new and exciting type of therapy has emerged. This machine looks like a high tech pair of goggles, and administers bursts of white light into the sleeper’s eyes during their dreaming stage. How do we know when someone is dreaming? Sophisticated sleep technology, called a polysomnograph, allows us to examine one’s sleep architecture (the different sleep stages). Also, you can look at their eyes. When we start dreaming, our eyes begin to move back and forth. This is why this stage of sleep is called rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

When the machine administers the burst of light, it actually lights up the dream world. Over time, the brain conditions itself to say, “When I see this flash of light, I am dreaming.” This technique can take considerable time to make the individual become a lucid dreamer, and may not work for everyone.

So what purpose does this serve, other than making my wish of a real life Inception come true? It may help alleviate severity and quantity of nightmares. This application becomes particularly relevant in individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); frequent nightmares accompany approximately 80% of people diagnosed with PTSD.

If you ever have had a nightmare, you know how awful they can be. When people frequently have nightmares, it can become very debilitating. Imagine if, while in the midst of a nightmare, you could change what was happening and make it less scary. This is the idea behind using lucid dreaming to mitigate nightmare frequency and severity.

In a 2001 study, these types of techniques led to decreases in chronic nightmares and also PTSD symptoms. This was a very exciting finding, and has warranted more research in this area. However, lucid dreaming is still somewhat controversial. Hopefully, over time, further research will advance our knowledge in this area.

Krakow, B., Hollifield, M., Johnston, L., Koss, M., Schrader, R., Warner, T. D., … & Prince, H. (2001). Imagery rehearsal therapy for chronic nightmares in sexual assault survivors with posttraumatic stress disorder: a randomized controlled trial. Jama, 286(5), 537-545.

Payne, J. D. (2014). The (gamma) power to control our dreams. Nature neuroscience, 17(6), 753-755.

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