Those Who Know They're Dreaming Tend to Be Savvier When Awake

The cognitive benefits of self-awareness during sleep

It’s probably fair to assume that at this moment, you are, in fact, awake. You’re reading; you’re scrolling; sometime in the not-too-distant past, you somehow made your way to The Atlantic’s website. All waking activities.

But let’s say, hypothetically, that as you’re reading this, the floor and everything else beneath you dissolve, leaving your body floating where your chair had been seconds before. No one around you seems to think this is odd; they’re all floating, too.

There are a few options here. One, you can panic, because why is the floor gone? Two, you can roll with it, because cool, gravity’s gone. Or three, you can evaluate your surroundings, realize that neither the floor nor gravity is really going anywhere, and conclude that you must be dreaming.

Research suggests that there may be a benefit to option three: Lucid dreamers, or people with the ability to recognize their dreams as they’re happening, may be better at problem-solving during their waking hours.

In a study recently published in the journal Dreaming, psychologists from the University of Lincoln in the U.K. divided 68 undergraduate volunteers into three groups based on the self-reported frequency of their lucid dreaming—never, occasionally, or at least once a month. The participants were then asked to complete a series of word puzzles by identifying one word that linked three other words appearing on the screen. (The word linking “aid,” “rubber,” and “wagon,” for example, would be “band.”) On average, those who frequently had lucid dreams solved 25 percent more of the puzzles than those who had none.

According to study author Hannah Shaw, lucid dreaming may indicate a greater capacity for insight, which the researchers defined as “a lightbulb moment, or an ‘aha’ moment,” she explains in an email. “It appeared that lucid dreamers showed the ability to see the more remote connections needed to solve the [word] problems.” The ability to make outside-the-box associations, she says, is also the process that allows them “to overcome the habitual response of accepting the dream world as reality.”

In other words, lucid dreaming hinges on an ability to think critically: Past research has shown that most people who gain self-awareness during sleep do so either because the dreamer sees some specific element that doesn’t fit with reality—a vanishing floor, for example—or because of the overall “dreamlike sense” of their surroundings.

While the University of Lincoln study was small, it wasn’t the first to find a link between lucidity and enhanced cognitive abilities. Frequent lucid dreamers have been shown to do better at selective attention, decision-making, and processing out-of-context information. Another study, published in the journal Sport Psychologist, found that those who practiced actions requiring motor skills while lucid dreaming were better able to perform the same actions while awake.

Those whose dreams remain firmly separate from their waking life can still find ways to bridge the divide—there is some evidence that lucid dreaming can be taught. There are also different levels of lucidity: A dreamer who realizes they’re sleeping can simply buckle up and see where their subconscious takes them, or, in some cases, they can use that knowledge to change the direction of the dream at will. (What do people dream about when they can choose? Flying, sex, and magic, mostly.)

But there may be a downside to frequent lucid dreaming, cautions Patrick McNamara, a professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine: “We don’t know if you get sleep-deprived when you lucid dream.” The prefrontal cortex, which governs higher cognitive functions like self-awareness, typically shuts off during REM sleep (the state where lucid dreaming occurs). In people experiencing lucidity, though, it remains active. For this reason, some experts believe that lucid dreaming isn’t really dreaming at all, but rather a state that exists somewhere in the no-man’s land between sleep and wakefulness—meaning it’s still unclear whether lucid dreaming has the same energy-replenishing properties as regular shut-eye.

“When you go back to sleep after being awake for a long time, you have what’s called sleep rebound,” McNamara explains, but “nobody knows if that’s the case when you lucid dream. Do you have sleep rebound effects afterwards?”

Something to keep in mind for next time you’re dreaming.

Unless, of course, you already are.

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Cari Romm writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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