Lucid dreamers are those who are aware that they are dreaming, while they are dreaming. They are often able to control their dreams and what happens while they are dreaming. Recently, researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development have joined forces in their discovery that the area of the brain responsible for self-reflection is larger in those who are lucid dreamers, which could be a clue as to why those people are also more self-aware when they are awake.
Welcome to metacognition
The human ability to self-reflect is also called metacognition, which is an awareness of one’s own internal thought processes. Neuroscientists from both Max Planck Institutes have been analysing the brain structures of people who frequently lucid dream and comparing them to those who never or very rarely lucid dream, and have found some very interesting peculiarities. Those who frequently lucid dream possess a much larger anterior prefrontal cortex, which is the brain region that controls our conscious cognition processes and our ability for self-reflection.
These differences in the anterior prefrontal cortex volumes may be telling us that metacognition (self-awareness) and lucid dreaming are closely connected.
How do we know this?
Scans of the subject’s brains while they were tasked with solving metacognitive tests showed that brain activity within the prefrontal cortex was much higher in the group of lucid dreamers. These results suggest that those who regularly practice self-reflection can also more easily control their dreams.
The interesting thing about self-awareness is that it is active while we are awake, but not so much while we sleep. Research on lucid dreaming is helping scientists pinpoint the parts of our brain involved in meta-consciousness. Until recently, self-awareness, self-reflection, and self-perception were still considered neuroscience phenomena. Now that we have magnetic resonance tomography (MRT) we can view the activation of certain brain regions when lucid dreaming occurs, which include the front polar-regions (self-evaluation of feelings), the precuneus (self-perception), and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (self-assessment.)
Why should we care about metacognition?
Because we still haven’t yet been able to truly define what “consciousness” is, these findings continue to bring science strides closer to understanding what happens between wakefulness and sleep, and what the real difference is between the two.
The more we can learn about consciousness, the more doors open to understanding just what exactly is this ball of electrically charged meat is doing floating around inside our craniums.
Next stop: figuring out whether we can develop stronger metacognitive skills, i.e.; can we train ourselves to lucid dream to improve our abilities in self-reflection?