Scientists have long been interested in people’s dreams and in self-awareness, which seems to be a distinctly human trait. From an early age, people are able to view the world in a self-reflective manner, and scientists were previously unable to verify how. Recently, a team of researchers in Germany have discovered the source of human awareness in the brain through the analysis of dreams.

The differences between sleep and wakefulness are pretty plentiful and easy to spot. Most importantly for the researchers, from the Max Planck Institutes of Psychiatry in Munich, the Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig and Charité in Berlin, when you are awake, you are conscious of your place in the world. Asleep, you are not.

There is a third category of consciousness which is where lucid dreamers lie. Anyone is able to lucid dream, which means that you are aware of dreaming while sleeping. People who lucid dream are able to access memories, perform actions, and are aware of themselves – but are distinctly dreaming and not waking up. (This state is different than the state in which sleepwalkers and talkers find themselves, because sleepwalkers are not aware of themselves and what they are doing).

Lucid dreamers are also able to deliberately control their dreams. According to a statement released by the Martin Dresler, from Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, “In a normal dream, we have a very basal consciousness, we experience perceptions and emotions but we are not aware that we are only dreaming. It’s only in a lucid dream that the dreamer gets a meta-insight into his or her state.”

Previous research has been unable to document exactly what happens in the transitional period when people drift out of consciousness and into unconsciousness. But, by contrasting lucid dreams with non-lucid dreams, using EEG and MRI machines, researchers were able to discern exactly which brain areas came alive through lucid dreams.

Dresler said that the basic activity of brains is about the same, with one crucial difference. The area of the cerebral cortex drastically increases in activity within seconds. That area of the brain is responsible for evaluating our thoughts and feelings. Researchers have concluded that those neural networks are responsible for human consciousness.

The study was published in Sleep journal.