Fantasies created while we sleep can help treat mental disordersby Philip Hunter / July 23, 2009 / Leave a comment
You are dreaming that a hippo is charging towards a lake, and you are caught between the two, about to be trampled to death with no avenue of escape. Then all of a sudden you realise this is just a dream, turn around and the hippo stops in its tracks, turning into a gently grazing horse.
This phenomenon is known as lucid dreaming: we are aware that we are in a dream and may have some control over its course. It has been thought to provide a link between reason and emotion, or even spirituality. Indeed it appears that in the perfect lucid dream, there is a harmony between reason and emotion, with conscious awareness in the background keeping a watch over, but not interfering too much, with the unfolding dreamlike action. At least 60 per cent of people have experienced lucid dreams sometime in their lives, but only around 20 per cent do so regularly—once a month or more.
Over recent years more precise scanning of neural electrical activity, combined with greater knowledge of brain structure and biochemistry, have fostered substantial progress in understanding the mechanisms of lucid dreaming. Significantly, it shares similar patterns of neurological activity not only with its two close relatives, near-death experience and out-of-body experience, but also with a range of psychotic conditions. These include schizophrenia, states of paranoia and the not uncommon depersonalisation disorder where sufferers feel they are observing their own actions from outside and often describe their waking life as like a continuous dreamlike state.
Of course, if we carry on dreaming lucidly while we are awake we are in trouble. But some sufferers from psychoses can be treated by being trained to dream lucidly and confront their demons while safely tucked up in bed: a possibility that has revived the long discredited Freudian idea of dream therapy. The difference this time round is that the dream will provide the focal point of the therapy rather than just a putative window into a patient’s mental state and history.
Lucid dreams occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, when, apart from the characteristic fluttering of the eyelids, our pulse quickens and sexual arousal is likely. REM is a state between deep sleep and consciousness, when the brain is disassociated from working memory and awareness is cut off from sensory perception. Lucid dreaming often develops from normal dreams in the REM state, when…