Lucid Nightmares: What They Are And Why They Appear

lucid nightmares

One of the experiences most reported in sleep studies is that of having awareness and even control over one’s own sleep. There are even techniques and training to induce these types of experiences and achieve pleasant emotions even when we sleep. But pleasurable experiences are not the only ones that usually occur.

On the contrary, there is another frequently reported experience: having lucid dreams characterized by an experience of anxiety and the inability to return to wakefulness. It’s about lucid nightmares.

We will see below what the main characteristics of these nightmares are and how they have been explained by some scientific research.

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What are lucid nightmares?

We know lucid those dreams where the person is aware that they are dreaming. These are usually positive experiences, whose content generates pleasant emotions, and whose course is easily influenced by the person who dreams. However, this is not always the case.

Lucid nightmares are a type of lucid dreams characterized by a terrifying context and due to lack of control during sleep. Just like common nightmares, lucid nightmares generate anguish and anxiety, but in the case of the latter, an extra stressor element is added: there is the intention to wake up, but there is an inability to achieve it.

These dreams were first described in 1911, when the Dutch psychiatrist and writer Frederick van Eeden coined the term “lucid dreaming,” referring to mental clarity during the dream state, as well as the awareness of being in said state.

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Main features

In a study conducted by psychologist specializing in scientific sleep studies, Tadas Stumbrys (2018), online surveys were administered to more than 600 participants to learn about their experiences with lucid nightmares. As a result, the following common characteristics were found:

  • There is awareness about the dream state.
  • However, there is an important feeling of lack of control.
  • Intense fear persists.
  • Violent characters are presented who seem to have autonomy beyond the person who dreams, and even decide in a way contrary to the wishes of the same person.
  • There is an inability to wake up.

The same study showed that lucid dreams were common in more than half of the population surveyed, but lucid nightmares were reported by less than half. They also found that those people who had frequent lucid dreams also had greater control over the plot of their dreams, as well as better abilities to reduce distress during lucid nightmares. That is to say, They perceived them as less threatening.

However, these same people also experience lucid nightmares more frequently (compared to people who do not typically have lucid dreams), and the intensity of distress experienced does not depend on the frequency of lucid dreams. Therefore, although they have greater control over feelings of anxiety during sleep, They are more exposed to experiencing them.

Why do they occur?

As we said, the content of lucid nightmares is by definition threatening. Sometimes it can lead to near-death experiences, and these experiences can even correspond to real life upon waking up. An example is the record of cases of people who, after dreaming that someone shoots their heart, wake up in the middle of a myocardial attack (McNamara, 2012).

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But is it a set of hallucinations? How do lucid nightmares occur? These are not exactly hallucinations.since there is full awareness that the movements, actions, emotions, environment and characters that are being experienced are not part of the objective reality of wakefulness, although it may seem otherwise.

Lucid nightmares, like lucid dreams, emerge in REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) which means rapid eye movement, and is the phase of greatest activity of the brain. This activity is, in fact, similar to that of the waking state, however it includes a slight blockade of neurons responsible for voluntary motor regulation.

But lucid nightmares not only occur in the REM phase, but also occur during the transition from REM to Non-REM sleep, or in a phase of partial entry into REM. No REN is the slow wave phase and is characterized by entering deep sleep. Manifests variations in brain activity and may contain hallucinations upon entry or exit.

Thus, lucid nightmares occur in a state of partial sleep, where the brain does not register complete resting activity, but neither does it register waking activity.

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Characteristics of brain activity in lucid nightmares

Unlike ordinary dreams, during the REM phase of lucid dreams the brain shows greater activity in the prefrontal and occipito-temporal cortex, as well as the parietal lobes. These areas are the ones that are theoretically deactivated during the REM phase in common dreams.

This seems to indicate that lucid dreaming is a phenomenon that does begin in this phase (maintaining some of its characteristics, such as muscle paralysis), but does not fully develop in REM, since has important differences at the brain level.

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Likewise, the aforementioned brain areas can explain the state of consciousness of lucid dreams and nightmares, as well as logical thinking, decision making, and the anguish generated by threatening stimuli. coupled with the inability to wake up.

However, explanations about the particular content of lucid nightmares, their duration and frequency, as well as the individual experience of anxiety, require deeper approaches.

Bibliographic references

  • McNamara, P. (2012). Lucid dreaming and lucid nightmares. Psychology Today. Retrieved September 21, 2018. Available at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/dream-catcher/201207/lucid-dreaming-and-lucid-nightmares.
  • Stumbrys, T. (2018). Lucid nightmares: A survey of their frequency, features, and factors in lucid dreamers. Dreaming, 28(3), 193-204.
  • Stumbrys, T., Erlacher, D., Schädlich, M., & Schredl, M. (2012). Induction of lucid dreams: A systematic review of evidence. Consciousness and Cognition, 21(3): 1456-1475.