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Lucid nightmares: what they are and why they appear

Lucid nightmares: what they are and why they appear

January 25, 2022

One of the experiences most reported in sleep studies is that of having awareness and even control over the dream itself. There are even techniques and training to induce this type of experience and achieve pleasant emotions even when we sleep. But pleasurable experiences are not the only ones that usually occur.

On the contrary, there is another experience frequently reported: having lucid dreams characterized by an experience of anguish and by the inability to return to vigil. It's about the lucid nightmares .

We will see below what are the main characteristics of these nightmares and how they have been explained by some scientific investigations.


  • Related article: "How to have lucid dreams? Science explains it to us"

What are lucid nightmares?

We know lucidly those dreams where the person is aware that he is dreaming . It is usually positive experiences, whose content generates pleasant emotions, and whose course is easily influenced by the person who dreams. However, this is not always the case.

Lucid nightmares are a type of lucid dreams characterized by a terrifying context and for the lack of control during sleep. Like common nightmares, lucid nightmares generate anxiety and anxiety, but in the case of the latter, an extra stressor is added: there is an intention to awaken, but there is an inability to achieve it.


These dreams were first described in 1911, when the Dutch psychiatrist and writer Frederick van Eeden coined the term "lucid dream", referring to mental clarity during the dream state, as well as the awareness of being in that state.

Main features

In a study conducted by psychologist specializing in scientific sleep studies, Tadas Stumbrys (2018), online surveys were applied to more than 600 participants to learn about their experiences with lucid nightmares. As a result, the following common characteristics were found:

  • There is awareness about the dream state .
  • However there is an important feeling of lack of control.
  • The intense fear lasts .
  • Violent characters appear who seem to have autonomy beyond the person who dreams, and even decide in a way contrary to the wishes of the same person.
  • There is an inability to wake up.

The same study showed that lucid dreams were frequent in more than half of the surveyed population, but lucid nightmares were reported by less than half. They also found that those people who had lucid dreams on a frequent basis, also had more control over the plot of their dreams, as well as better skills to reduce the anguish during the lucid nightmare. That is to say, they perceived them as less threatening .


However, these same people experience lucid nightmares also more frequently (compared to people who do not usually have lucid dreams), and the intensity of the anguish experienced does not depend on the frequency of lucid dreams. With which, although they have more control over the feelings of anguish during sleep, they are more exposed to live them .

Why do they happen?

As we said, the content of lucid nightmares is by definition threatening . Sometimes it can generate experiences close to death, and even such experiences may correspond to real life upon awakening. An example is the registry of cases of people who after dreaming that someone shoots at their heart, wake up in the middle of a myocardial attack (McNamara, 2012).

But is it a set of hallucinations? How are lucid nightmares produced? It is not really hallucinations , since there is full awareness that the movements, actions, emotions, environment and characters that are being experienced are not part of the objective reality of the vigil, although it seems the opposite.

Lucid nightmares, like lucid dreams, emerge in the REM phase (Rapid Eye Movement) which means rapid movement of the eyes, and is the phase of greatest activity of the brain. This activity is, in fact, similar to that of the waking state, however it includes a mild blockage of neurons responsible for voluntary motor regulation.

But lucid nightmares not only occur in the REM phase, but occur during the transition from REM to non-REM sleep, or, in a phase of partial entry to REM. The No REN is the phase of slow waves and is characterized by introducing us to deep sleep. Manifes variations of brain activity and may contain hallucinations at the entrance or exit.

Thus, lucid nightmares occur in a state of partial sleep, where the brain does not record a complete activity of rest, but neither of wakefulness.

  • Maybe you're interested: "The 5 phases of sleep: from slow waves to REM"

Characteristics of brain activity in lucid nightmares

Unlike common dreams, during the REM phase of lucid dreams the brain shows greater activity of the prefrontal and occipito-temporal cortex, as well as of the parietal lobes. These areas are those that are theoretically deactivated during the REM phase in common dreams.

This seems to indicate that the lucid dream is a phenomenon that does start in this phase (maintaining some of its characteristics, such as muscle paralysis), but it does not develop completely in REM, since keeps important differences at the brain level .

Similarly, the brain areas mentioned above can explain the state of consciousness of dreams and lucid nightmares, as well as logical thinking, decision making and the anguish generated by threatening stimuli. coupled with the inability to wake up .

However, explanations about the particular content of lucid nightmares, their duration and frequency, as well as the individual experience of distress, require more in-depth approximations.

Bibliographic references

  • McNamara, P. (2012). Lucid dreaming and lucid nightmares. Psychology Today. Retrieved September 21, 2018. Available at //www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/dream-catcher/201207/lucid-dreaming-and-lucid-nightmares.
  • Stumbrys, T. (2018). Lucid nightmares: A survey of their frequency, features, and factors in lucid dreamers. Dreaming, 28 (3), 193-204.
  • Stumbrys, T., Erlacher, D., Schädlich, M. and Schredl, M. (2012). Induction of lucid dreams: A systematic review of evidence. Consciousness and Cognition, 21 (3): 1456-1475.

How Lucid Dreaming Works (January 2022).


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