Spend a few minutes searching lucid dreaming and you’ll uncover a wide variety methods for inducing the state. Some online oneierauts say journaling is the key; others recommend eye masks with a specially tuned lighting array. Still others swear by pre-bed vitamin supplements. Despite the varied methodology, one thing is certain: To gain god-like command of your dreams, changes must be made to your standard routine.
However, more and more research says that an activity millions of people already take part in may hold the key to achieving control: video games.
“Gaming improves spatial skills. And people who spontaneously have lucid dreams also evidence superior spatial skills — so there is a lot of self-selection,” says Jayne Gackenbach, dream researcher and professor at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Canada. “But also the playing of video games improves spatial skills even in the novice player. Thus, it’s not unreasonable that those improvements would generalize to the dream state.”
For the past 20 years — ever since her son brought home an early NES console — Gackenbach has studied the link between the two fields. In particular, she says that first-person shooters like Call of Duty and Halo are the best way to induce a lucid state. But, in general, she says the two forms are complementary.
Considering the connection between the blue light emitted by screens (believed to disrupt our sleeping patterns), gaming and dreaming might seem like strange bedfellows. Then there’s the addictive nature of video games — what console owner hasn’t stayed up to the wee hours playing Call of Duty or World of Warcraft? Finally, there’s damning research from facilities like the Beverly Hills Center for Self Control and Lifestyle Addictions, which says that excessive gaming can lead to the deterioration of real-world relationships.
A 2012 study from Flinders University in Australia, however, found that moderate gaming before bed didn’t inhibit sleep, even in teenage boys who played for an hour before hitting the sheets. Moderate gaming, even in those who weren’t regular players, might even improve sleep. Other studies have shown that, in moderation, joystick toggling can help correct dyslexia, slow the aging process, speed up decision-making and lead to better adjusted youths.
As Gackenbach’s research proves, a few rounds of sniping enemies could prepare you for a night of full awareness. The big idea: Because video games allow players to take complete control of an artificial environment, they prepare the mind in a unique way for lucid dreaming. This special preparation might even subvert one of the most fundamental ideas about lucid dreams.
According to traditional logic, in order for a dreamer to achieve lucidity, he or she must first recognize the fact that they are asleep. For gamers, this might not be so. Gackenbach’s 2014 research, which included watching horror films before bed and playing rounds of the first person adventure shooter Destiny in between the film and sleep, suggests that, because the dreamscape will often resemble the setting of the video game, gamers’ brains are able to immediately recognize it as a place over which they have control. Whether or not they’ve actually recognized that this is a dream makes no difference.
“What is common is that [players] can control their gamer egos in the game, and it’s the same in the dream,” Gackenbach explains. She goes on to say that players can still control to some extent what’s happening, something that wasn’t popular before the emergence of interactive media. What’s more, the staggering pace of game development (specifically, their verisimilitude) has led to more gamers reporting lucidity in their dreams — no other methods necessary.
Gackenbach’s research hints at a connection between gaming and dream control, but also between gaming and what she calls the Nightmare Protection Effect. With gamers being more prepared to take control over an external environment, nightmares cease to be helpless scenarios defined by fear. Instead, they transform into exciting scenes defined by challenge.
“There are a variety of differences between gamers and non-gamers regarding dream control, a fact that overlaps into the Nightmare Protection Effect,” says Gackenbach, who coined the latter term last year. “Gamers are better able to fight back in the classic chase nightmare sequence, and because they play so many action-packed games, these nightmares may actually be fun.”
The control offered by lucid dreaming and facilitated by moderate gaming may even have therapeutic value. According to psychologists at the University of Lincoln in England, frequent lucid dreamers were more effective at problem-solving tasks involving original insight. This finding is supported by other, smaller studies that suggest the practice may help improve mental health and fight depression.
No one can truly observe a dream, so much of the information is self-reported by subjects. But these findings point to gamer brains behaving differently. “There’s some indication that their dreams may be more bizarre,” says Gackenbach. “The self is typically the most stable part of the dream experience, but gamers are more likely to experience the self as a fantasy figure, an animal or all the various imaginary characters present in games.”
The state is ever evolving. Recently, Gackenhbach’s subjects have reported dreaming in the third person. This, she believes, may be an evolution of the gaming dreamer. If she's correct, it’s not just first-person shooters that can help achieve lucidity in dreams, but the mere act of gaming itself.
Gackenhbach’s research comes at an exciting time. As devices such as the Oculus Rift are making the gaming experience more immersive, the way people dream will fundamentally change. If Gackenbach’s research keeps pace with the technology, the doors of perception into the nature of our dreamworld may be kicked down.