The Neuroscience of Lucid Dreams

Lucid dreams are perhaps the most bizarre perceptual experience one can have. You are asleep and dreaming, but suddenly you realize that it’s all just a dream. At that point, you can choose to wake up (I usually do… I don’t think I’ve ever had a lucid dream that wasn’t a nightmare) or you can continue to dream on, with one important advantage. You’re now aware that the world around you is completely made up by your brain. As with the post-awakening of Neo in the movie “The Matrix”, you can bend the physical laws to your liking. You can fly, stop bullets with your bare hands, or even deliver magical punches to the bad guys to make them shrink in size (yeah, I have weird dreams). There is no spoon.

The very first dream that I remember having, at the age of 4 or 5, was a lucid dream. I was waiting for my mother to finish her purchases at the neighborhood newsstand, when the boogeyman showed up. He must have been a philosophical boogeyman interested in moral dilemmas, because he asked me to decide the menu for his next meal: me or my mother. If I didn’t decide, he would eat us both. My mother, just a couple of meters away, was blissfully unaware of this exchange. I felt paralyzed. I didn’t want to be eaten, but feeding my mamá to the monster for dinner was unthinkable. I’d never been in such a horrible situation in my short life. Then it occurred to me: this is just too awful to be real, so it follows that I must be dreaming. I woke up with a start.

There have been other lucid dreams since. Sometimes I have two in a month, other times I go for the better part of a year without them. It turns out, the ability to experience lucid dreams differs wildly from one person to another.

A recent study, published earlier this month in the Journal of Neuroscience, set out to determine if people with high and low dream lucidity were also dissimilar in their metacognitive ability, that is, the ability to reflect on, and report, one’s mental states.
The study participants completed questionnaires that assessed their lucid dreaming frequency, intensity, and degree of control, and also their metacognitive skills, including their self-reflection and self-consciousness. The experimental subjects moreover underwent brain imaging while conducting a thought monitoring task. This consisted of two 11-minute runs during which the subjects had to evaluate the each and every thought that entered their heads on an externally-internally oriented scale. Externally oriented thoughts meant thoughts related to the external environment, such as the visual surroundings, or the noise from the scanner. Internally oriented thoughts were not related to the immediate environment, such as remembering past events or planning for the day ahead.

The research showed that the brains of people with high and low dream lucidity were different. Subjects with high lucidity had greater gray matter volume in the frontopolar cortex, compared to those with low lucidity. This brain region also showed higher activity during thought monitoring in both high- and low-lucidity subjects, with stronger increases in the high-lucidity group. The scientists concluded that lucid dreaming and metacognition share some underlying mechanisms, particularly with regards to thought monitoring. This relationship had been previously suspected, but never before explored at the neural level.

Future research may tell us if it’s possible to control the frequency and contents of our lucid dreaming by training ourselves to monitor our thoughts while we’re awake. I, for one, would love some lucid dreams that don’t involve Freddy Krueger every now and then.

Source: Scientific American

Related: Outer Places – Are dreams interactions between quantum parallel worlds?


Why Girls Are Most Likely To Be Depressed Than Boys

A new study had shown that girls as 12 years old are more likely to be depressed than boys and this is most likely due to their appearance. As they grow older, their rate of depression increased to the point where women are twice as likely as men to be depressed.

As they reach adolescence, girls tend to worry about their body appearance. This had been proven by a study conducted by Betty Merten and Peter Lewinsohn, psychologists at the Oregon Research Institute in Portland who studied 802 high school students.

”If adolescent girls felt as physically attractive and generally good about themselves as boys their age do, they would not experience so much depression,” Dr. Lewinsohn said.

Although depression rates before puberty are the same in boys and girls, ”at around age 12 girls start to have higher rates,” said Dr. Myrna Weissman, a psychiatric epidemiologist at Columbia University.

Another study by Dr. Lewinsohn of 1,7000 high school students shows that at the age of 14, the rate of depression for girls are twice of boys. He also found that 1.7% of the boys and 3.9% of the girls were currently depressed.

Not only that, a study of psychiatric disorders which studied 5,595 high school students found that 9% suffered from mild or severe depression, either currently or in the past. It also claimed that it was the most prevalent emotional disturbance of all.

”Girls have higher rates of both mild and major depression than do boys,” said Dr. Agnes Whitaker, a psychiatrist at Columbia University, who did the study.

Studies of all youths, not just those still in school, have found even higher overall rates of depression.

The findings were then used to conduct a research to have an insight of why depression occurs in early life with the hope to find head off depression or for it to be treated more effectively in children and adolescents. As for now, there are already a few methods to cure depression in children.

”I think that adolescent girls’ preoccupation with how they look accounts for much of the jump in depression for girls at puberty,” said Dr. Merten. ”Body image is a huge part of how girls think of themselves and of their self-worth.”

The study by Dr. Merten and Dr. Lewinsohn were the first study that gives heads up on how girl’s appearance are linked to depression. The ones that were reported to have low self-esteem due to appearance were more likely to be diagnosed with depression a month later.

”Adolescence is a rough transition for girls, much rougher than for boys,” Dr. Merten said. ”Boys have different pressures; whatever problems they may create, they don’t cause such a jump in depression.”

Researchers are searching on why girls started to concern about attractiveness even before they reach adolescent. ”Thinking about their appearance is at the top of girls’ minds by age 10,” said Jeannette Haviland, a psychologist at Rutgers, who has studied emotions in teen-agers. ”It may be there even earlier, but we haven’t looked for it yet.”

For girls who are diagnosed with depression, their normal concern with looking good becomes distorted into devastating self-criticism.

”They are convinced that they’re too short or too tall, their hair is too curly or too straight, they feel too fat, or are convinced they have a terrible complexion – despite the fact that nothing is really wrong with their appearance,” said Dr. Haviland.

However, that is not the case for boys, they are most likely to be depressed due to social isolation. ”Depressed boys don’t spend times with their friends, though they have them,” said Reed W. Larson, a psychologist at the University of Illiinois. they spend a great deal of time alone in their bedroom,”

In Dr. Larson’s study, 483 boys and girls from fifth through 11th grade in Chicago carried beepers with them, and were beeped at random times through the day. Each time they filled out a report of what they were doing and how they felt.

He also found out that girls with depression doesn’t spent time alone as much as depressed boys. ”I suspect that with girls, if you’re depressed you can talk about that with your friends and be accepted,” he said. ”But that’s not true for boys. When boys talk about their feelings with each other, it makes them uncomfortable.”

The impression is shared by therapists who treat depressed teen-agers. ”Boys just don’t have the same kind of social network as girls,” said Dr. Donna Moreau, clinical director of the Children’s Anxiety and Depression Clinic at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. ”If they feel depressed, they can’t talk about it. They end up withdrawing.”

She said: ”It’s harder to tell if a boy is depressed by asking him directly, where you can with a girl. It’s both that boys are reluctant to talk about their emotions, particularly sadness, and that they are just not as aware of how they feel as are girls.”

Dr. David Shaffer, a child psychiatrist at Columbia University claimed that despite of boy’s reluctance on depression, it also has it’s own advantages. ”It may not always be such a bad thing that boys don’t own up to depression,” he added. ”Ruminating can worsen depression. For instance, if a girl gets a social slight she might take it as being proof that she is ”awful,” and talk about it with her friends, which amplifies its significance until it becomes a major blow to her self-image.”

Dr. Moreau stated that for both genders, the therapy for depression in adolescence are more successful than it may seem to parents. ”We get referred lots of depressed teen-agers, who experience their feelings so intensely it looks like something that would be very hard to treat in an adult,” she said. ”But very often a brief therapy clears it up quickly.”

A program by Dr. Lewinsohn has been designed for depressed teenagers. It is modelled on a small seminar where the teenagers meet in small groups twice a week for two months with the motive of overcoming their depression.  One of the main skills is ”constructive thinking,” a method for countering the self-defeating thoughts that obsess depressed people.

He explained: ”If one of these teens got a bad grade, he might think: ‘I’m stupid, I’ll always be a failure, I’ll flunk out.’ Instead we show them a more positive way to think about the experience: ‘I didn’t prepare as much as I could have, I’ll prepare more next time, and besides I’m not stupid; I’m doing fine in other classes.’ ”

They will also learn ”friendly skills,” which educate them to communicate better with peers and to increase their self-esteem and be more confident.

”We show them how to defuse a potential argument with their parents,” said Dr. Lewinsohn. They learn how to compromise when negotiating using the car, keeping their room clean, or being home at a certain time.”

Other than that, they also get to learn technique on how to relax in a tense situation and making an enjoyable hobbies to do once a week.

”We’ve treated over a hundred depressed kids from 14 to 18,” he said. ”After two years, three-quarters haven’t been depressed since. That’s better than you see in therapy with depressed adults.”