“You can make the argument that REM sleep is kind of a neglected resource,” says Benjamin Baird, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who studies human cognition. “What if we could use this state for when people can actually have control over their thoughts and actions and decide what they want to do? The state could potentially be used for entertainment and creative problem–solving, and learning about how memory works, and all kinds of different [neuroscience].”
Baird thinks one especially intriguing application for lucid dreaming might be in art. “One technique from the visual artists I’ve met is that they find an ‘art gallery’ in their lucid dream and look at the painting hanging in the gallery,” he says. “They then wake up and paint what they saw. The same can be done analogously for hearing musical scores. It’s as if someone else is creating it, but it’s your own mind.”
A small but growing number of scientists led by Baird and other sleep labs around the world hope to learn more about how lucid dreaming works, how it’s triggered, and whether the average person can be taught how to do it regularly. By studying individuals who are able to recall what happened to them in their dreams, these researchers can correlate what cognitive processes are occurring in the mind while brain and physiological activity is being measured and observed. For example, how does the brain perceive specific objects or physical tasks taking place solely in the mind? How does it respond to visuals that aren’t really there? How does it emulate parts of consciousness without actually being fully conscious?
Some researchers, like Martin Dresler, a cognitive neuroscientist at Radboud University in the Netherlands, suggest lucid dreaming could even be used to combat clinical disorders like recurring nightmares or PTSD. “I think it’s quite intuitive and plausible that if during a nightmare you realize that it’s not real, that obviously takes much of the sort of sting out of the nightmare,” he says. You may be able to simply train yourself to wake up and end the dream, or overcome the very vivid feelings of fear and fright by telling yourself that it’s a dream.
In one memorable dream I played cards with my grandmother, who’d died years earlier. The experience helped me to understand my emotions toward her in a way I never could have managed as an ornery 13-year-old.