Gray Areas

Awareness; also known as thought monitoring. Thought monitoring is a process in which our brain realizes a relationship between our thoughts and emotions and translates it into what we know as “reality.” Thought monitoring can be attributed to something called “gray matter.” Gray matter is a part of the central nervous system that processes information and relates it to the sensory organs. In other words, the more gray matter a person has, the more aware he or she is during consciousness.

As I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed the other day, a science article jumped out at me. Since it was about lucid dreaming, naturally, I had to read it. In a recent study at Max Planck Institute for Human Development, researchers compared lucid dreamers to people that did not have lucid dreams on a regular basis. Results showed that the people with a higher lucidity had greater gray matter volume in their brains, meaning that lucid dreaming actually does increase a person’s metacognitive abilities. A lucid dream occurs when you become aware during a dream that you are, in fact, dreaming. Simply put, your body is in a sleep state, but your brain acts as it would if you were awake and could make conscious decisions. So in a sense, you are able to control every aspect of your dream. It is very rare that people are able to do this without practice. If you have ever dreamed lucidly without practicing any sort of meditation processes or recording activities like journaling, then it is highly unlikely you have experienced a lucid dream more than once or twice. Because the brain activity (or inactivity) that is involved in sleeping, it must be trained to gain this type of awareness. There was a discovery that this training eventually leads to an enhanced awareness overall, while awake and asleep.

In the same study conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, it was discovered that people who are able to lucid dream regularly have overall better metacognition abilities (higher-order thinking that enables understanding, analysis, and control of one’s cognitive processes) and a heightened awareness to his or her surroundings. It is strange to think that a simple dream can increase “awareness” during consciousness so, what defines lucid dreamers as “more aware?” Human awareness while awake can be defined through an enhanced ability to self-reflect. It has been proven that lucid dreamers have a larger anterior prefrontal cortex (which is an area that control conscious cognition and self-reflection) when compared to other people that are not able to control their dreams. Often times, these people that are more self-reflective than others tend to focus more on one’s goals, behavior, and general state of mind on a daily basis.

Before I knew the “behind the scenes” of lucid dreaming, I did not think to analyze my mental state during the day. I thought that lucid dreaming only involved brain processes that occurred during sleep. Ever since reading this article, I started recording and evaluating how I felt each day during consciousness. In the beginning, my lucid dreams only consisted of occurrances like realizing I was actually dreaming. Usually, I would notice that something was particularly strange and come to this realization. After several months of keeping dream journals and using reality checks (such as an object or a marker that indicates whether or not you are dreaming), my lucid dreams became a lot more vivid and easier to control. I compared how I felt after the initial dreams and how I felt after the more “controlled” dreams. Maybe it might be a bit of a stretch (or due to my tendencies to overanalyze), but after longer, more complex lucid dreams, I noticed that my ability to stay focused and productive throughout the day did, in fact, increase.

gray-matter

REMaining Awake

When I first discovered that there was a way to control what you dream about, I was fascinated and tempted to try it. I figured it would be like starring in your own movie, where you are allowed to decide exactly what happens. I learned that it was called lucid dreaming and occurs when you gain a sense of awareness during sleep. Recently, I have come across an online article that addresses the debate over whether the abnormal state of consciousness that occurs during a lucid dream affects the quality of a person’s sleep. Since I have now had some experience with lucid dreaming myself, I found this quite interesting. I often wondered if this activity of “conscious dreaming” affected the quality of rest I was receiving. Looking further into it, I discovered that during each normal night of sleep, a person usually experiences something called a Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep state. (If you have ever watched a person experience REM, it’s a bit freaky because our eyes do, in fact, flutter very rapidly). Reaching this REM state determines whether or not your night’s sleep is restful or not. People that wake up often during the night and never experience any cycles of REM sleep tend to feel much more sleep deprived.

There are a total of three stages of REM (the first two are rather short and do not involve deep sleep). In the final stage of REM sleep, your body works on repairing and strengthening tissue, muscle, and the immune system. At this point, certain portions of the brain are normally deactivated. One part of the brain, the frontopolar cortex (also known as Brodmann area 10), located in the front part of the brain just above the eyes and is responsible for multitasking and memory recall, is included in this deactivation. However, when a person experiences lucid dreaming, the frontopolar cortex is reactivated and regains reflective abilities and awareness. This reactivation can occur while a person is still in the last stage of REM sleep.

So, does lucid dreaming mean less sleep? Or lower the quality of your night’s sleep? Maybe some, but not enough to produce significant affects. Because reactivation of the frontopolar cortex is still possible during REM sleep, a person is still able to lucid dream while receiving a restful night of sleep. In fact, some lucid dreamers have reported waking up with more energy and with a more positive attitude because of this control they have over their dreams. Based on my own experiences with lucid dreaming, I have also felt this energy boost following a night of lucid dreaming. So then, even though our brain seems to be more “awake” during lucid dreaming as opposed to normal dreaming, why do we still wake up feeling energized? As most of you already know, the human brain is an extremely complex and organ, and much of the Brodmann area 10 portion of the brain still remains a mystery to most scientists. It is possible that there are side effects involved in lucid dreaming, but none that we are currently aware of.