Dr. Andrew Huberman’s podcast, The Huberman Lab, is one of the most popular podcasts on the science of wellness, exploring how to optimize our lives for maximum health and success, including how to improve our sleep. Within a year of launching his first podcast in 2020, Dr. Huberman, professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford University School of Medicine, skyrocketed to fame and is consistently among the top 10 podcasters on Spotify. His podcasts, in which he combines a talent for delving into granular scientific studies with an ability to extract the most significant findings of those studies and explain them in layman’s terms, have made him wildly popular among both the scientific community, many of whom are guests on his podcasts, and people who just want to learn how to have a better relationship with sleep.
In his podcast Understanding and Using Dreams to Learn and Forget, Dr. Huberman outlines the different phases of sleep and their importance to our process of integrating new information, making healthy neural connections between experiences and emotions and the benefits and drawbacks of lucid dreaming. In this article, we’ll cover Dr. Huberman’s explanations of the neural and cognitive functions of slow wave vs REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep and how they relate to learning new skills, controlling emotions, and mastering lucid dreaming.
In his podcast, for convenience’s sake, Dr. Huberman lumps the sleep cycles into slow-wave sleep and REM sleep, the main difference between the two being 1) the chronological order in which they appear during the sleep cycle and 2) the chemicals produced in the brain during these cycles.
The cycles of sleep start with the different phases of slow-wave sleep and culminate in REM sleep. Then the cycle repeats. The first REM cycle usually lasts about 10 minutes, with the last one lasting up to an hour, if uninterrupted.
You can read more about the sleep cycles right here.
During slow-wave sleep, large areas of the brain experience neural activity and the main chemicals found in this phase are the hormones norepinephrine and serotonin. Norepinephrine, commonly known as adrenaline, is responsible for regulating attention, cognition, and stress reactions. It is one of the main chemicals released by the brain’s sympathetic system during fight-or-flight mode. This chemical is produced in our brains on a consistent basis and, at optimal levels, allows the brain to function well, but when off balance, can lead to a series of health issues, including sleep disorders.
During sleep, norepinephrine plays an important role in allowing us to learn new information related to coordination, such as a new dance routine, as Dr. Huberman suggests, or detailed information such as spelling, rules, or instructions. For athletes, this phase of sleep helps them integrate new techniques learned throughout the day. If this phase of sleep is disrupted, then the learning process and the ability to integrate these types of information are diminished.
At the same time, the hormone serotonin is present, which, in addition to being responsible for a sense of bliss and well-being, also helps manage learning and memory. The combination of chemicals found in slow-wave sleep are why Huberman labels this sleep phase as the optimal phase for learning.
One of the most notable things about REM sleep is that neither serotonin nor norepinephrine are found in the brain. The absence of norepinephrine is particularly important as it is the only time in both sleeping and waking life that this chemical is not present. This has important implications for our emotional states. For example, during REM sleep, our bodies often experience atonia, or a state of paralysis and the dreams we are having are often quite vivid and intense. We may relive stressful events from that day or from other periods in our lives in vivid hallucinogenic images but without the release of stress hormones normally associated with them. This chemical respite from stress hormones is significant in that it can help us cope with trauma or challenging experiences during waking life. In this sense, Huberman notes that REM sleep acts like a form of therapy, removing stress and fear so that we can observe and experience stressful events without forming emotional attachments to them. The absence of stress hormones in REM sleep is why Dr. Huberman calls this sleep cycle the ideal cycle for unlearning negative associations, helping to promote psychological healing from trauma.
Furthermore, REM sleep doesn’t just help us break negative connections, but it also helps us to form the right neural connections that reduce over-emotionality. For example, Huberman explains that when people don’t get enough REM sleep, they tend to be irritable during the day and feel anxious, angry, or fearful about non-threatening events. This is because their brains have not had the respite from adrenaline that REM sleep provides and the neural connectivity to negative events becomes overemphasized. REM sleep helps us distinguish between things that are important and things that are not important and to have appropriate reactions to them.
Nightmares can occur in both slow-wave and REM sleep cycles. The difference is that while the images experienced during REM sleep may be particularly vivid and disturbing, the emotional association is lacking due to the absence of the stress hormone norepinephrine. However, many people have the experience of suddenly waking from a vivid nightmare with their heart racing. This adrenaline surge occurs at the moment of waking and is not produced during the REM sleep cycle.
Though new research is constantly being done and more research is still needed to understand them, lucid dreams are generally agreed to occur during REM sleep cycles where stress hormones are not present. Therefore, they can hold the same benefits of REM sleep in terms of reducing emotional associations to trauma. In lucid dreaming, however, the conscious mind is present and directing, to some degree, the events in the dream. (The presence of a red apple, described below, is a simple example.) However, for people plagued by recurring nightmares, lucid dreaming has been explored as a tool to control the nightmares, reshape the narratives that are being lived in the nightmares and develop healthier neural connections that can improve their waking lives.
For others, lucid dreaming can be an exploration of problem-solving and creativity. Freed from stress hormones that are present in our waking lives that create pressure and anxiety around problems and performance while still having access to the cognitive benefits of our conscious states, lucid dreams can lead to an enhanced ability to find solutions and explore otherwise inaccessible creative ideas that carry over to waking life.
Lucid dreaming can also enhance the benefits found in slow-wave sleep, including enhanced motor coordination integration. Athletes, musicians, and other professionals who rely on advanced motor coordination skills can improve their performance through the practice of lucid dreaming.
Lucid dreaming combines and improves upon the benefits of REM sleep and slow-wave sleep, being a dream state that optimizes both of their benefits at the same time.
As Dr. Huberman expresses in his podcast, the benefits of lucid dreaming have a cost which is that many of those who experience it also experience their sleep as less restful. But if lucid dreaming occurs during REM sleep, where our deepest rest occurs, why would that be so? As a study published in the National Library of Medicine titled Lucid Dreaming: A State of Consciousness with Features of Both Waking and Non-Lucid Dreaming concludes, lucid dreaming occurs during a state that combines components of both REM sleep and waking. Therefore, the lucid dreamer, by residing in a space between REM sleep and our state of waking consciousness, potentially dilutes the restfulness experienced in REM sleep in exchange for the control and direction gained in lucid dreaming.
For those who wish to understand the science of sleep better and optimize the benefits of sleep, Dr. Huberman’s podcast offers a great deal of insight and fuel for exploration. His understanding of the role the different sleep cycles play in the quality of our waking lives and his tips on experiencing lucid dreaming to control nightmares and enhance problem-solving and creativity point the way to profound potential for bridging our dream and waking states to foster greater health and well-being.
Some future topics we would like to see explored on The Huberman Lab podcast are a more granular exploration of the chemicals present in lucid dreaming and ideas for balancing out the negative effects of lucid dreaming on the dreamer’s experience of deep rest. What other ideas related to lucid dreaming would you like to see discussed?
“When I was a child, I had a friend and he came over one day and he brought with him a mask that had a little red light in the corner. He had purchased this thing through some magazine ad that he had seen and this mask was supposed to trigger lucid dreaming. I tried this device. The way it worked was that you put on this mask during the waking state and you look at the little light flashing in the corner and then you’d also wear it when you went to sleep at night and indeed while I was asleep I could see the red light, presumably through my eyelids and then because I was dreaming and I was experiencing something very vivid, I was able to recognize that I was dreaming and then to direct some of the events within that dream.”
Watch the clip on YouTube here.
“Lucid dreaming is the experience of dreaming during sleep, but being aware that one is dreaming, in some cases being able to direct one’s dream activities. So, if you’re in a lucid dream and you want to fly, for instance, some people report being able to initiate that experience of flying or, to contort themselves into an animal or to transport themselves to wherever they want within the dream. Lucid dreaming occurs in about 20% of people, and in a small percentage of those people, they lucid dream almost every night, so much so that many of them report their sleep not being as restorative as it would be otherwise.”
Watch the clip on YouTube here.
“For those of you that are interested in lucid dreaming and would like to increase the amount of lucid dreaming that you’re experiencing…there are a number of simple, zero-technology tools that one could use in principle. One is to set a cue. The way this works is you come up with a simple statement about something that you’d like to see or experience later in dreams. You can, for instance, write down…something like ‘I want to remember the red apple’…You would probably want to write it down on a piece of paper. You might even want to draw a red apple, and then before you go to sleep, you would look at it. And then you would just go to sleep. There are some reports that doing that for several days in a row can lead to a situation in which you are suddenly in your dream and you remember the red apple and that gives you a sort of tether to reality between the dream state and reality that allows you to navigate and shape and kind of adjust your dreams.”
Watch the clip on YouTube here.