Can we significantly improve physical skills by practicing them while we sleep? Yes, scientists say. New research published in the Journal of Sports Sciences confirms that practicing motor skills while lucid dreaming can lead to real life improvements in skill performance that can be equivalent to practice in waking life.
Lucid dreaming is when the dreamer becomes aware that he or she is actually dreaming. This awareness typically comes hand in hand with greater control of what one’s dream self is doing, as well as the content of the dream.
A meta-analysis of the past 50 years of research (1966–2016) revealed that 55% of study participants have experienced one lucid dream or more in their lifetime, with 23% experiencing lucid dreams once a month or more.
Despite being a common phenomenon experienced in similar frequencies around the globe, the many challenges that come with investigating and understanding lucid dreaming make it a very mysterious state of consciousness indeed.
To help solve the many mysteries of lucid dreaming, Dr. Tadas Stumbrys, lead author of the study, and co-researchers, Associate Professor Daniel Erlacher and Professor Michael Schredl, analyzed data from 64 adults (average age 31) who completed the online experiment.
The experiment was a simple online version of a well-known sequential finger tapping exercise. Put simply, participants are shown a simple sequence of five numbers (e.g. 4-1-3-2-4) and are asked to type this sequence repeatedly “as quickly and accurately as possible” for 30 seconds.
The participants were split into four groups: frequent lucid dreamers (25%), a mental practice group (23%), a physical practice group (24%), and a control (no practice) group (24%).
In the middle of the night, alarms were set so that either lucid dreaming practice, mental rehearsal practice or real life physical practice of the finger tapping exercise could be completed at approximately the same time. Participants were then assessed the following day to see if practice in whatever form had improved their finger tapping performance.
Following statistical analysis the researchers found that:
All three types of practice increased performance speed without compromising accuracy – the error rate did not significantly differ between the two tests [i.e. the test during practice, and the follow up test].
Amazingly, no significant differences were found when comparing the improvements in performance gained from lucid dreaming practice whilst asleep (+20%), or physical practice (+17%) or mental rehearsal practice during waking life (+12%), with all three types of practicing having similarly large performance influencing effect sizes.
The only other comparable past research did find a difference in performance-boosting benefits between lucid dreaming (+43%) and physical practice (+88%), when aiming to improve the motor skill of flicking a coin into a plastic cup. However, when correcting the data and refining the analysis, physical practice and lucid dreaming practice actually had similar motor skill improving effect sizes as found for the most recent study.
Authors of the new study suggest that the physical practice group in the coin-flicking experiment had an unfair advantage seeing as they got to practice in the evening with their sleep undisturbed, unlike the lucid dreaming group. In the present study, practice times were matched which presumably evened the playing field, which is reflected in the similar rating of sleep quality between the practice groups and similar effects on motor skill learning.
Currently, research shows that the neural mechanisms that create physical movement are highly similar between waking, imagining and lucid dreaming states of consciousness. In fact, a recent brain imaging study showed that brain activity in the sensorimotor cortex that is responsible for controlling our physical movements is similar during imagined and lucidly dreamed movement, thereby allowing motor learning to occur.
Although not supported by the latest study, lucid dreaming is thought to hold the potential to be better than mental rehearsal.
It looks promising for athletes and those in physical rehabilitation from injury, and perhaps anyone who wants to learn or refine a new motor skill, or practicing something dangerous. Of course, further research with more complex skills is needed. First point of call perhaps, should be developing and researching lucid dream induction techniques so that we have reliable and consistent ways to allow for larger numbers of participants, and to take lucid dreaming from fringe science into everyday reality.
Dresler M, Koch SP, Wehrle R, Spoormaker VI, Holsboer F, Steiger A, Sämann PG, Obrig H, & Czisch M (2011). Dreamed movement elicits activation in the sensorimotor cortex. Current biology : CB, 21 (21), 1833-7 PMID: 22036177
Saunders DT, Roe CA, Smith G, & Clegg H (2016). Lucid dreaming incidence: A quality effects meta-analysis of 50years of research. Consciousness and cognition, 43, 197-215 PMID: 27337287
Stumbrys T, Erlacher D, & Schredl M (2016). Effectiveness of motor practice in lucid dreams: a comparison with physical and mental practice. Journal of sports sciences, 34 (1), 27-34 PMID: 25846062
This guest article originally appeared on the award-winning health and science blog and brain-themed community, BrainBlogger: Can You Improve Physical Skills While Dreaming?