Science wakes up to people's increasing ability to manipulate their own dreams

LUCID dreaming - in which people are aware that they are in a dream and can therefore manipulate it - is real and becoming more common, experts believe.

In the most original Hollywood film of the year, Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page stroll through a dreamworld where they are able to bend streets into the sky, walk up walls and obliterate a cafe by force of will.

Inception is a fantasy, but Britain's leading authority on dreaming said that the incidence of lucid dreaming seems to have increased over the last few years.

Professor Mark Blagrove, a psychologist who runs a sleep laboratory at the University of Swansea, said that according to studies the number of people in Western societies who experienced a lucid dream had increased by between 10 and 40 per cent since the 1980s.

The most recent research suggests that about eight out of ten people will have a lucid dream in their lives.

It appears that "people's abilities during dreaming are altering" as they become more adept at recognising that they are able to control their dreams, Professor Blagrove said.

Work at centres such as Swansea is slowly building a picture of what might be happening during these dreams and what secrets about the uncharted subconscious they could yield.

Although lucid dreams were identified and named by the Dutch psychologist Frederik van Eeden in 1913 and dreaming groups have been springing up for years, they are still controversial among scientists because they are difficult to monitor and evaluate.

However, in response to recent progress in the field, The New Scientist said in a June editorial that "the study of lucid dreaming has been seen as a fringe activity for too long".

Professor Blagrove called lucid dreams a potential Petri dish for examining the neurological differences between the conscious and unconscious self, because the dreamer was not distracted by the stimuli of the waking world.

High brainwave frequencies of up to 40 hertz in the frontal areas of the brain have been observed during lucid dreams and suggested a level of mental activity comparable with an alert awake person.

However, the same experiments showed that overall brain activity was still significantly different to the waking state, meaning that the subjects could not have been awake and pretending to dream lucidly.

Lucid dreams are also emerging as the only area that certain personality types could correlate to a particular dreamlife.

There are certain traits that lucid dreamers share: they are creative but also problem-oriented and they tend to believe in personal responsibility rather than society's responsibility.

Part of the problem to boosting research is that scientists do not agree on what the biological function of dreaming is, let alone lucid dreaming.

Professor Blagrove said that it might have a role sifting and consolidating memories, which is backed by his experiments that showed dreams disproportionately featured information that was five to seven days old.

Professor Jim Horne, director of Loughborough University's Sleep Research Centre and one of the country's leading authorities, said that dreams are "the cinema of the mind", a whimsical distraction to keep us asleep.

"Dreaming is very subjective and you have no idea if what people say [about their dreams] is true," he said.