Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hijack your own dreams to improve your skills

 THE ungovernable world of dreams can be a thrilling or scary place to spend the night. Add an element of control, though, and the dream world turns into something else: an environment so realistic that it can be used as a training ground to hone the cognitive skills we rely on when we wake up.
A slew of recent studies have shown that people can use dreams to improve decision-making and physical skills. They could even help people regain mobility following a stroke.
Rehearsing waking life <i>(Image: Garo/Phanie/Rex Features)</i>
Rehearsing waking life
Lucid dreaming is an unusual phenomenon in which some people are able to "wake up" while still in a dream. Though the dreamer is technically asleep, they are aware of their situation and are able to control the content of their dreams. In this state, people are also able to signal to researchers that they have entered a lucid dream through a series of prearranged eye movements; no other movement is possible during REM sleep.
Many people learn to lucid dream for pure entertainment - imagine being able to enact a fantasy in a vividly realistic setting (see "How to get lucid"). These individuals tend to wake up with a feeling of euphoria, says Ursula Voss, a dream researcher at the University of Bonn in Germany. "They really feel better with the sense of having accomplished something in their dreams."
Other potential benefits of lucid dreaming are beginning to become apparent. Achieving this twilight state of consciousness may have benefits for mental health more generally.
A couple of years ago, Evelyn Doll at the Medical University of Vienna in Austria and her colleagues used a questionnaire-based approach to compare the mental health of 27 frequent lucid dreamers with that of 33 people who said they rarely experienced the phenomenon. The lucid dreamers were more likely to report that they were free from mental health problems. They also scored more highly on questions relating to self-confidence, tended to be more assertive, and showed a greater satisfaction with life (International Journal of Dream Research, vol 2, p 52).
Lucid dreaming also appears to be linked with a greater ability to cope with traumatic events. A week after the 2008 Gaza war between Israeli and Palestinian forces, Nirit Soffer-Dudek and colleagues at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel tried to track down 223 women living in the area who had previously taken part in their lucid dreaming research. They managed to recall 79 participants and asked them to complete a questionnaire to judge how the conflict had altered their psychological state.
Soffer-Dudek's team found that while individuals who had been exposed to the greatest levels of violence displayed the highest levels of distress, it was less severe in those who claimed to be able to lucid dream (Journal of Traumatic Stress, DOI: 10.1002/jts.20601).
Voss thinks that the lucid dreamers are able to avoid nightmares, or wake themselves up if they begin one, which might help to explain the result. "They're not less sensitive, they're just more in command - they don't let things get to them as much," she says.
Being in command of dreams opens up opportunities to manipulate them for learning and training that have an impact once the dreamer wakes up. Peter Morgan at Yale University and colleagues have shown that lucid dreamers perform better in a gambling task designed to test the functioning of the brain's ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is thought to be involved in emotional decision-making and social interactions (Consciousness and Cognition, DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2010.08.001). By training this region through lucid dreams, Morgan hopes to be able to improve a person's social control and decision-making abilities. "We know that by engaging circuits in the brain we can change its architecture," he says.
Research has already shown that people who practise tasks in their lucid dreams are better at performing them the following day. In one study, Daniel Erlacher, now at the University of Bern in Switzerland, and his co-workers asked 20 people who can lucid dream to toss a coin into a cup. Erlacher's team assessed their skill and accuracy before and after a period of sleep in which the volunteers were asked to practise the coin toss in lucid dreams. The seven people who managed to have a lucid dream about this showed a significant improvement in their aim, while the others showed no change in their ability (The Sport Psychologist, vol 24, p 157). The finding fits with many athletes' claims that they are able to hone their skills through dream practice.
This kind of dream practice might also have therapeutic potential. Some people who experience a stroke lose some or all their mobility. Lengthy rehabilitation therapy sometimes includes what is known as mental practice, in which individuals are encouraged to imagine movement they might not physically be able to achieve. Research suggests that the neural networks involved in imagined and real movement are very similar, so training these brain areas through mental practice could make the real movement easier.
The research also indicates that the brain regions active in imagined tasks and in lucid dreams are the same too (New Scientist, 5 November, p 16). So lucid dream practice could prove at least as useful as mental practice.
Erlacher reckons the benefit from lucid dreaming could be even greater. The dreams are much more lifelike than imagination, providing a more realistic environment for practising, he says. Morgan thinks that learning could be boosted by the emotional nature of such dreams. "In lucid dreams, there is more positive reinforcement, which results in a reward signal in the brain and enhances learning," he says.

Is dream time the same as real time?

Upon waking from a particularly vivid dream, it can feel as though you have been through a lifetime in one night. In the film Inception, characters can achieve an hour's worth of activity in a dream that actually lasts 5 minutes. However, research suggests that the reverse is true when dreaming.
Daniel Erlacher, now at the University of Bern in Switzerland, and his colleagues gave 15 lucid dreamers tasks to perform in their dreams. In separate experiments, each participant counted to 10, 20 or 30 and walked 10, 20 or 30 steps.
The dreamers signalled their progress through eye movements. These were recorded using an electro-oculogram, which monitors changes in electrical activity as the eye moves between two fixed points. Dreamers signalled that they had begun the task by looking in one direction and finished looking in the other. The researchers ensured participants were asleep by recording brain and muscle activity.
Both tasks took longer for the dreamers to perform while asleep. The participants took around 30 per cent longer to count and 50 per cent longer to walk in their dreams than they did while they were awake. The findings were presented at the 2010 annual conference of the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity in Tuscon, Arizona.
"There may be a cognitive slowing in the simulated dream world," says Erlacher. "It's the opposite of what happens in Inception."

How to get lucid

1 Get into the habit of questioning reality. While it might seem odd to do this during the day, it is exactly what you need to be doing in your sleep to realise you are in a dream.
2 Plan how you want your dream to pan out before you go to sleep.
3 Jot down your dreams as soon as you wake up…
4 … and focus on a high-concentration task during the day, such as playing a musical instrument. Research suggests both this and writing down your dreams make lucid dreaming more likely.
5 Wake yourself up early, and get out of bed, then get back under the covers. You may be able to slip straight into REM sleep - the period in which most dreaming takes place - and are then more likely to lucid dream.


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