by Fiona Macrae, published on October 19, 2010 - 1:58 AM|
It is the stuff of a Hollywood movie: a dreamworld that can be manipulated at will. But for more and more of us, it is becoming a reality, with the number of people experiencing lucid dreams rising rapidly. In the blockbuster film, Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page stroll through a dreamworld where they are able to bend streets into the sky, walk up wall and destroy a cafe by the force of will.
A scene from the Hollywood blockbuster Inception where people's dreams can be accessed and manipulated
While the plot of a lucid dream may not be as dramatic, the process is similar. Someone having a lucid dream realises they are dreaming and may from then on in direct the action. Alternatively, they may simply watch the dream unfold.
The sense of awareness makes it different from a dream that is simply extremely vivid and true to life. And while the description may seem bizarre, the process is far from alien to many of us. Studies suggest that the number of people in the Western world experiencing the occasional lucid dream has risen by between 10 and 40 per cent since the 1980s.
Today, they are so common that about one in eight of us will have one in our lives. Despite this, little is known about what triggers them - or what is behind the rise. Professor Mark Blagrove, a psychologist who runs a sleep laboratory at the University of Swansea, said that peoples abilities during dreaming are altering as they become more adept at recognising they are able to control their dreams. It could just be the mere fact that people have read about them or hear about them, said the professor. Sometimes I tell people about them in lecture and the next day someone will come to me and tell me theyve just had one.
In the blockbuster film, Leonardo DiCaprio and Marion Cotillard experience a dreamworld
Research carried out at the respected Harvard University in the U.S. showed the brain to be hard at work during lucid dreams. In fact, the level of mental activity in some parts of the brain was similar to that of an awake person. Lucid dreamers seem to share certain personality traits. For instance, they are creative but also problem orientated and believe in personal responsibility rather that letting society carry the can.
Scientists of course, do not know the function of dreams in general, far less that of lucid ones. Professor Jim Horne, director of Loughborough Universitys Sleep Research Centre, told the Times that dreams were the cinema of the mind - a whimsical distraction to keep us asleep. Professor Blagrove thinks that dreaming may help us back up our memories. His own research shows that dreams feature a disproportionate amount of information that is five to seven days old.
Our nightmares may reflect our waking concerns, with the five most common themes falling, being chased, feeling paralysed, being late, and the death of a loved one. Men are more likely to have nightmares about violence or being sacked while bereavement and sexual harassment crop up more in womens nightmares. Dreams about hair and tooth loss are also more common in women - perhaps signifying anxieties about losing their looks. Previous research has found that women have more nightmares than men. Their dreams are also more intense and leave more of an impression when they wake up.