“All men whilst they are awake are in one common world: but each of them, when he is asleep, is in a world of his own.” ~Plutarch~
A while back I was at the gym, getting ready for class to start when one of my fellow Crossfitters started talking about how she dreamt the night before that she was doing double-unders. “Oh really?!” I replied. “I have dreams all the time that I am stringing together countless butterfly pull-ups and muscle-ups!”
Even before Crossfit, back in my days of ballet, I had dreams that my body had mastered skills that, in real life, I wasn’t proficient at. Perfect fouttés and grand jetés always came effortlessly to me in my dreams.
And though I’ve always found these dreams to be incredibly enjoyable, it never crossed my mind that perhaps they could be helping me master these movements in real life.
Recent research suggests, however, that practicing movement in lucid dreams, a type of dream occurring in REM sleep in which the dreamer is aware that he or she is dreaming and therefore able to consciously influence the dream, is quite similar to motor imagery, or mentally visualizing and rehearsing the movement while awake. Because motor imagery is linked to improvements in stroke recovery, rehabilitation, and sport performance alike (read about it here), it seems that practicing motor skills in lucid dreams would have very similar, if not better, effects on athletic performance.
A pilot study published in The Sport Psychologist in 2010 found that there is in fact value to practicing motor skills in lucid dreams. In the study, participants were asked to attempt to toss coins into cups. The participants completed 20 tosses in the first test done before bed, then 20 tosses in the post test done the next morning. One group of participants was instructed to practice their tosses for 6 minutes after the initial test and before bed, one group was instructed to practice during sleep while in a lucid dream, and one group was kept as a control and did not practice. Of the participants instructed to practice in lucid dreams, 7 were successful. Interestingly, results showed that practicing in lucid dreaming, though not quite as effective as physical practice, was still significantly more effective in improving performance than no practice at all.
A follow up study, published in 2015, this time studying complex finger tapping in designated patterns, also showed that participants who practiced in lucid dreams saw improvement in the skill as compared to no practice. Furthermore, lucid dream practice was shown to have similar effects as both motor imagery and physical practice!
Of course, the research is the area of lucid dreaming to improve performance is, so far, limited, but promising and fascinating nonetheless! According to the pilot study, approximately 26% of the general population experiences or has in the past experienced lucid dreams, and strategies for inducing lucid dreams, though not fully reliable, do exist (including keeping a dream journal and finding cues throughout the day to test if you are sleeping or awake, which ultimately helps us to recognize dreams in progress).
So what does this mean for athletes and casual exercisers alike? As researcher Daniel Erlacher notes in one article appearing in the Harvard Business Review, though “you won’t really get a six-pack just by dreaming, . . . research shows that envisioning yourself doing exercises can make specific muscles stronger, so you should get a stronger belly than if you didn’t dream about crunches.” He continues, “in general, if you want to improve in waking life, dreams are the perfect place to do it.”
Perhaps Walt Disney was correct, in the most literal sense, when he said “if you can dream it, you can do it.”
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