Videogames train you for lucid dreaming?

 Images Salvador-Dali-The-Dream1
Can playing videogames train you as a lucid dreamer? Psychologist Jayne Gackenbach thinks so, according to work she presented at this week's Games for Health Conference in Boston. For several years, Gackenbach, a researcher at Grant MacEwan University, studied similarities in skills between gamers and individuals who have learned to control their dreams. She also looked at how videogame-play seemed to affect nightmares. From LiveScience (painting is Salvador Dali's "The Dream"):
"If you're spending hours a day in a virtual reality, if nothing else it's practice," said Gackenbach. "Gamers are used to controlling their game environments, so that can translate into dreams...."

Finding awareness and some level of control in gamer dreams was one thing. But Gackenbach also wondered if video games affected nightmares, based on the "threat simulation" theory proposed by Finnish psychologist Antti Revonsuo. Revonsuo suggested that dreams might mimic threatening situations from real life, except in the safe environment of dream world. Such nightmares would help organisms hone their avoidance skills in a protective environment, and ideally prepare organisms for a real-life situation.

To test that theory, Gackenbach conducted a 2008 study with 35 males and 63 females, and used independent assessments that coded threat levels in after-dream reports. She found that gamers experienced less or even reversed threat simulation (in which the dreamer became the threatening presence), with fewer aggression dreams overall. In other words, a scary nightmare scenario turned into something "fun" for a gamer.

"What happens with gamers is that something inexplicable happens," Gackenbach explained. "They don't run away, they turn and fight back. They're more aggressive than the norms."
"Video Gamers Can Control Dreams, Study Suggests" (via The Anomalist)

And for an excellent HOWTO on lucid dreaming, I highly recommend the 1990 book "Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming" by Dr. Stephen LaBerge and Howard Rheingold (yes, that Howard Rheingold).


  1. My wife has dreams all the time. Often they are scary or unpleasant. If I have her play video games where she controls the environment, will it help her to stop having such vivid dreams?

    1. Yes but Farmville doesn’t count, you would have to put her on a “real” gaming PC or console (Xbox or Playstation) playing games like call of duty 4: modern warfare 2 or any decent first person shooter.

  2. I caught part of this talk at the conference – it was a pretty fascinating one amongst many others.

    The highlight for me was the Game Accessibility Day on Tuesday, put on by the AbleGamers Foundation. It concentrated on a broad spectrum of games and both physical and cognitive accessibility challenges.

    There is an amazingly cool hacker mentality on the (dis)ability side of gaming, including people who modify game controllers to operate with sip/puff (suck/blow into a tube) switches, chin operated joysticks, foot powered switches, head switches, etc.

    There was a guy there named Ben Heckendorn who’s a masterful hacker of hardware you should definitely check out. He’s got some sweet hacks to do things like make portable Atari 2600 game machines, PS3s and more. He’s also made foot powered controllers for people to play Guitar Hero and was working on a “shrug switch” for someone who could pull off shoulder shrugs. He told me he does about one custom PS3/XBox controller every 2 weeks for people.

    1. I have the Benjamin J. Heckendorn designed Audio FX Pro 5.1 Surround sound gaming headset for my PC. Best $75 I ever spent with regard to my gaming rig. Hardcore gamers LOVE the fact that people with disabilities game and mod their controllers to play.

  3. I have been known to “save my game” in dreams when faced with something risky, dangerous, or even, one time, when the wrong dialogue choice could have had disastrous consequences… I even did reload to a previous point one time.

  4. I would anecdotally agree with this. I used to be really into lucid dreaming, and one thing both myself and a friend found, after hundreds of hours of playing San Andreas, was that jetpacks started making appearances in our dreams. Ever since, if i’m flying in a dream, it’s because I have a jetpack.

    I’ve always been able to JUMP very long/high distances (really to anywhere in line of sight) in dreams but flat out flying was always very elusive. It’s like my mind can understand/rationalize a long, arcing trajectory, but propelled flight doesn’t make sense… Until you convince your brain by example that it does make sense – all you need is a jetpack.

    The long-jump is almost as fun, though, and that sort of low-gravity stuff is very much rooted in the original Unreal Tournament. The first time i played that rooftop low gravity level I was blown away. Later on UT got matrix themed mods that allowed one to run on walls and all that crazy stuff. These things definitely altered the way my brain processed spacial geometry.

    I don’t lucid dream much anymore, though I do continue to have pretty cool dreams. To anyone looking to get into lucis dreaming or just more, better dreaming, I have 2 pieces of advice:

    The night before, eat pizza or something else loaded with cheese. I’m not making this up – google ‘cheese dreams’. This will help you have intense dreams in the first place. The second step is ensuring that you’ll have good recall:

    Set an alarm for ~2 hours before you would normally wake up. When it goes off, sit up in bed and turn it off. Set it again for 30 minutes from now. Remain sitting up but do not try to wake up – think about how much it sucks to be awake, and how much it sucks to be sitting up and about how much you’d really like to put your head back down on that pillow and go back to sleep. Then, after 30 seconds of this, lie back down and go to sleep.

    When the alarm goes off again in 30 minutes, repeat these steps, setting the alarm again for 30 minutes.

    You can try other time periods, everyone is different – i prefer 10-20 minute intervals, but even a 4 minute time period produces interesting results.

    Caveat: this will be difficult/impossible to do if you’re one of those people who can’t go back to sleep. Personally I have no problem sleeping anywhere from 16 to well over 24 hours straight. I run off 6 hours of sleep during the week and then on saturdays i’ll usually sleep from 2am until 5 or 6 pm. So YMMV.

  5. Lucid dreaming is one of those brain-body connections that begs further scientific study, simply fascinating.

    On a side note David, thanks for the two sequential references to educational institutions in Alberta, Canada. I am sure both the University of Calgary and Grant MacEwan University appreciate being Boing’ed.

  6. Being hyperfocused for four hours on solving a really difficult game-puzzle definitely leads to spending half my night playing over the level again and again in my dreams and trying to figure it out.

    Sometimes I wake up in the morning having actually come up with a better plan by dreaming through it. Most often I just wake up irritated and frustrated, because the damn purple zombie wombat toaster kept killing my Marios (or whatever).

    It’s definitely been a long time since I had proper nightmares – I tend to consciously recognize that I’m entering into one and either “take over” enough to shift the scenario in my favor, or at least “abort” and wake up.

    1. Replying to myself:

      I’ve had proto-nightmares where I “power up” and develop flight or water-breathing to escape, and I’ve had “I’m being chased” scenarios where I’ve set an ambush for my pursuers.

      And, when all else fails and I’m about to hit the ground/be eaten by giant Martian horseflies/be late for work/whatever, I wake up mildly disturbed instead of completely freaked out.

  7. Essentially, you are in control.
    Don’t push too hard, though, or the AI starts pushing back!

  8. The problem is, I don’t typically sleep long enough to have time to join raids. My dream avatar is stuck with non-epic items, and I can’t level up.

  9. “‘What happens with gamers is that something inexplicable happens,’ Gackenbach explained.”

    That’s quite a sentence. Is it explicable, or inexplicable? Either we, they’re *very* sure that it happens.

  10. This is a cool piece of research, and I’d love to try lucid dreaming, but the thing for me is I don’t really dream at all.
    Or, more accurately, I *never* remember my dreams. ( I know everyone dreams)
    I have had probably fewer than 10 dreams thatI remembered having the next morning in the last 25 years. (they were all flying dreams, in high school) and I also have not had a nightmare since I was 10 or so.
    not sure what this means, but, throwing it out there.

    1. i found this out but i recently realised something. if you want to have a dream, no matter how tired you are, just lie in bed for like 5-10 minutes and think. dont fall asleep straight away.
      for some reason this helps for e

  11. Xenu • #9 • 10:16 AM Friday, May 28, 2010 • Reply Are you dreaming right now?

    If you are not sure of the answer, you are.

    Or you’re nuts :)

  12. Probably related: if I play a computer game about an hour a day for two days or more, I will dream in the game’s perspective (say, first person) and if I try to visualise something scenes from the game start ‘invading’ the mental picture, including low framerates. On the other hand, I hardly ever have lucid dreams.

  13. This does explain why I so rarely get nightmares, and when I do, I treasure them.

    I find sleeping on my back definitely helps to create nightmares, but it’s nearly impossible for me to fall asleep in this position.

  14. I have lucid dreams nearly on a weekly basis (I’m not a gamer though) and have been having them increasignly for years.

    However, I found that the more I try to assert anything on the other people in the dreams (for instance fighting, playing or discussing), or control the dream’s circumstances, the more passive and non-reactive the dream becomes. It’s like the second I realize it is a dream and assert my own will, any trace of will or character in the other people begin to melt away. It becomes dully obvious that I am the only person around and that I am merely trying to interact with an image in my own head.

    So I usually just try to explore a bit with my own perception in the dream, sensations, flavours etc… It’s interesting, albeit a bit anticlimactic.

    1. I had a few lucid dreams. The first time I realized I was dreaming, I wanted to fly, but shot up instantly over the city. This scared me– I forgot the detail that I was in my dream body, and could not get hurt. Another time, I was trying to consciously go down stairs but couldn’t move my limbs. So you need to remember that your physical body is disengaged during dream times.
      Also, I read an account about 20 years ago that there was a dream discussion group in New York City. A couple of group members, Art and Ben, had dreams that included each other. They did not live together, but had been dreaming the same dream. They were able to fill in the details of the shared dream when they recounted the dream for the group. Art said that when he became lucid in the dream, he was sitting in a circle that included Ben, and Art decided to wake himself up. Ben said that he saw Art in this circle,and Art faded away.

      we have five sense organs, but we only see/hear/feel/taste or even make sounds within limited ranges compared with other members of the animal kingdom. We know there are spectra beyond our ability to perceive. Or do we have other ways that our cultural parameters tell us are impossible?

  15. Not to be critical but the painting is called “Sleep” by Salvador Dali. Nice article anyways

  16. I have to agree that virtual worlds are a great source of subliminal processing,
    My machinima offering of The Jabbberwocky evokes various psychological models as the ‘hero’ defeats his fears, but later we find that the ‘fears’ are in fact independantly autonomous and not a cause for concern at all.
    My point being that as we use the virtual world as tools to externalise our inner and often subliminal worlds ie of lucid (or not so) dreaming etc, we are so empowered to process and resolve their meanings.

    Take a look, and hopefully enjoy…

    celestial elf

  17. I don’t know how much truth is in this.
    But I do actually find nightmares fun, sometimes I even become threatening presence as well. It is fun to go crazy and murder dream people with no consequences.
    In fact I can’t remember a time in the last 10 years when any dream brought me any discomfort. Even if I’m running in the dream, the chase is satisfying I feel tired yet happy.

  18. Anecdotally agree:

    My eight year old daughter has bad nightmares and is — without any prompting from anyone, let alone stupid me! — training herself to lucid dream her way out of them.

    She says she has a lot of dreams based on the video games she plays, now.

    (Geeky kids FTW.)

  19. I actually took a class with Dr. Gackenbach on the Psychology of Consciousness and she is a very interesting and engaging speaker if a bit enigmatic.

    She has even presented her findings on lucid dreaming to the Dalai Lama.

  20. lol I had this happen to me a few months ago. I dreamed zombies were everywhere and then that an alien ship crashed and they started killing people. I was scared as sh1tless. Then I reached some level of lucidness and thought of armor and then the Halo master chief armor appeared on me and I started slaughtering them.

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