Lucid Dreamers May Help Unravel the Mystery of Consciousness

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We spend around six years of our lives dreaming – that’s 2,190 days or 52,560 hours. Although we can be aware of the perceptions and emotions we experience in our dreams, we are not conscious in the same way as when we’re awake. This explains why we can’t recognize that we’re in a dream and often mistake these bizarre narratives for reality.

But some people – lucid dreamers – have the ability to experience awareness during their dreams by “re-awakening” some aspects of their waking consciousness. They can even take control and act with intention in the dream world (think Leonardo DiCaprio in the film Inception).

Lucid dreaming is still an understudied subject, but recent advances suggest it’s a hybrid state of waking consciousness and sleep.

Sleep paralysis. My Dream, My Bad Dream, 1915. (Credit: Fritz Schwimbeck/Wikimedia)

Lucid dreaming is one of many “anomalous” experiences that can occur during sleep. Sleep paralysis, where you wake up terrified and paralyzed while remaining in a state of sleep, is another. There are also false awakenings, where you believe you have woken up only to discover that you are in fact dreaming. Along with lucid dreams, all these experiences reflect an increase in subjective awareness while remaining in a state of sleep. To find out more about the transitions between these states – and hopefully consciousness itself – we have launched a large-scale online survey on sleep experiences to look at the relationships between these different states of hybrid consciousness.

Lucid Dreaming and the Brain

About half of us will experience at least one lucid dream in our lives. And it could be something to look forward to because it allows people to simulate desired scenarios from meeting the love of their life to winning a medieval battle. There is some evidence that lucid dreaming can be induced, and a number of large online communities now exist where users share tips and tricks for achieving greater lucidity during their dreams (such as having dream totems, a familiar object from the waking world that can help determine if you are in a dream, or spinning around in dreams to stop lucidity from slipping away).

recent study that asked participants to report in detail on their most recent dream found that lucid (compared to non-lucid) dreams were indeed characterized by far greater insight into the fact that the sleeper was in a dream. Participants who experienced lucid dreams also said they had greater control over thoughts and actions within the dream, had the ability to think logically, and were even better at accessing real memories of their waking life.

Another study looking at people’s ability to make conscious decisions in waking life as well as during lucid and non-lucid dreams found a large degree of overlap between volitional abilities when we are awake and when we are having lucid dreams. However, the ability to plan was considerably worse in lucid dreams compared to wakefulness.

Lucid and non-lucid dreams certainly feel subjectively different and this might suggest that they are associated with different patterns of brain activity. But confirming this is not as easy as it might seem. Participants have to be in a brain scanner overnight and researchers have to decipher when a lucid dream is happening so that they can compare brain activity during the lucid dream with that of non-lucid dreaming.

Ingenious studies examining this have devised a communication code between lucid dreamer participants and researchers during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, when dreaming typically takes place. Before going to sleep, the participant and the researcher agree on a specific eye movement (for example two movements left then two movements right) that participants make to signal that they are lucid.

The prefrontal cortex. (Credit: Natalie M. Zahr, Ph.D., and Edith V. Sullivan, Ph.D. – Natalie M. Zahr, Ph.D., and Edith V. Sullivan, Ph.D.)

By using this approach, studies have found that the shift from non-lucid to lucid REM sleep is associated with an increased activity of the frontal areas of the brain. Significantly, these areas are associated with “higher order” cognitive functioning such as logical reasoning and voluntary behaviour which are typically only observed during waking states. The type of brain activity observed, gamma wave activity, is also known to allow different aspects of our experience; perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and memories to “bind” together into an integrated consciousness. A follow-up study found that electrically stimulating these areas caused an increase in the degree of lucidity experienced during a dream.

Another study more accurately specified the brain regionsinvolved in lucid dreams, and found increased activity in regions such as the pre-frontal cortex and the precuneus. These brain areas are associated with higher cognitive abilities such as self-referential processing and a sense of agency – again supporting the view that lucid dreaming is a hybrid state of consciousness.

Tackling the Consciousness Problem

How consciousness arises in the brain is one of the most perplexing questions in neuroscience. But it has been suggestedthat studying lucid dreams could pave the way for new insights into the neuroscience of consciousness.

This is because lucid and non-lucid REM sleep are two states where our conscious experience is markedly different, yet the overall brain state remains the same (we are in REM sleep all the time, often dreaming). By comparing specific differences in brain activity from a lucid dream with a non-lucid one, then, we can look at features that may be facilitating the enhanced awareness experienced in the lucid dream.

Furthermore, by using eye signaling as a marker of when a sleeper is in a lucid dream, it is possible to study the neurobiological activity at this point to further understand not only what characterizes and maintains this heightened consciousness, but how it emerges in the first place.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Unwanted Thoughts? Don’t Try to Suppress Them

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Consider every long song you hear on the radio. How many begin or end with the lyrics, “I can’t get you out of mind”? The human brain is conditioned to obsess — its negative bias makes us worry and fret. Despite our valiant efforts to shift our thoughts, they follow us into the shower and to work meetings.

The Untamed Thought

It’s time to accept the good/bad news: Thought suppression doesn’t work. The harder you try to eliminate something from your mind, the more likely it will stalk you.

1943 study published in the Social Science Research Council Bulletin, for example, found that people instructed to avoid making color associations with stimulus words were unable to stop the associations, even when threatened with shock for doing so.

More recently, Gordan Logan and Carol Barber published a study in the Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, detailing an experiment to determine whether a stop-signal procedure is sensitive enough to detect the presence of inhibited thoughts. Their results showed that the stop-signal can, in fact, pick up on inhibited thoughts, even when a person is immersed in a complex task.

The White Bear Study

By far the most famous and fascinating study on thought suppression was the one led by Daniel Wegner in 1987, published in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology. Wegner, a social psychologist, wanted to test a quote he came across in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Winter Notes on Summer Suppression,” which said, “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”

Wegner conducted an experiment where he asked participants to verbalize their stream of consciousness for five minutes, while not thinking of a white bear. Every time a white bear popped into their thoughts, they were to ring a bell. How many times did the participants ring a bell? On average more than once per minute. That’s a lot of bears.

They then did the same exercise but were asked to think of a white bear. Interestingly enough the group that was originally told not to think of a white bear had far more white-bear thoughts than the group that was never given the first instructions. Apparently the act of suppressing the thought in the first exercise stimulated the brains of the folks in the first group to think of white bears even more often.

Strategies for Unwanted Thoughts

From that study, Wegner went on to develop his theory of “ironic processes” that explains why it’s so hard to tame unwanted thoughts. He conceded that when we try not to think of something, part of our brain cooperates while the other part ensures the thought won’t surface, thereby causing the thought to be even more prominent. While presenting his theory to audiences across the country, people would ask him, “Then what do we do?” In response, he compiled a few strategies to tame unwanted thoughts. Among them:

  • Choose a distractor and focus on that. If you’re given two things to think about, your concentration is fractured, and will give your brain a small break from focusing on the unwanted thought. For example, think of a white bear and a zebra at the same time and see what happens.
  • Postpone the thought. Set aside an “obsession time,” whereby you allow yourself to think about the forbidden thought all you want. Theoretically, this frees up your other minutes. I found the strategy helpful for mild-to-moderate ruminations, but not with severe.
  • Cut back on multitasking. Studies consistently show that multitaskers make more mistakes. However, Wegner asserts that multitasking also leads to more unwanted thoughts. More specifically, his studies show that an increased mental load increases thoughts of death.
  • Think about it. Like the “postpone the thought” strategy, this is a form of exposure therapy where you allow yourself to face your fear in a controlled way. According to Wegner, when you allow yourself the freedom to think the thought, your brain doesn’t feel obligated to check in on removing it, and therefore doesn’t send it to your consciousness.
  • Meditation and mindfulness. Whenever possible stay in the present moment, connect with your breath, and try to calm yourself. However, don’t make the white bear angry by forcing meditation and mindfulness.

The next time a white bear or any other unwanted thought pops into your noggin, don’t fight it. Consider its soft fur, sharp claws, or clumsy run.

Thought suppression doesn’t work. May this truth set you free.

Your Identity Is Almost Entirely Based On Unconscious Brain Processes

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We often think that our deeply held beliefs, opinions, and emotions are the result of a long time spent thinking. We see ourselves as an executive of sorts somewhere inside our own head, pondering, making plans, and coming to decisions. This is what is known as a top-down model of executive control. It isn’t only laypeople who think this way, but scientists and scholars, many anyway. This has been the prevailing theory for decades.

Most experts see human consciousness as a combination of two different phenomena. The first is the consciousness we experience from one moment to the next. That’s knowing who and where in the world we are. It’s also the ability to evaluate things, and calculate opportunities and threats. The second is our thoughts, feelings, impressions, intentions, and memories. So here’s the innovation, a 2017 paper published in Frontiers of Psychology says that actually, our thoughts and feelings are developed by unconscious mechanisms behind our logical thoughts.

We don’t so much come to conclusions on things as become aware of how we feel. In fact, researchers write that the “contents of consciousness” are completely unrelated to the “experience of consciousness.” The contents of consciousness are derived from “non-conscious brain systems.” In fact, study authors write that “personal awareness is analogous to the rainbow which accompanies physical processes in the atmosphere but exerts no influence over them.”