Lucid Dream

reality checks


A lucid dream is any dream in which one is aware that one is dreaming. The term was coined by the Dutch psychiatrist and writer Frederik van Eeden (1860–1932). In a lucid dream, the dreamer may be able to exert some degree of control over their participation within the dream or be able to manipulate their imaginary experiences in the dream environment. Lucid dreams can be realistic and vivid.

It is shown that there are higher amounts of beta waves (normally associated with waking consciousness) experienced by lucid dreamers, hence there is an increased amount of activity in the parietal lobes making lucid dreaming a conscious process.

The first book to recognize the scientific potential of lucid dreams was Celia Green’s 1968 study ‘Lucid Dreams.’ Green analyzed the main characteristics of such dreams, reviewing previously published literature on the subject and incorporating new data from subjects of her own. She concluded that lucid dreams were a category of experience quite distinct from ordinary dreams, and predicted that they would turn out to be associated with rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep). Green was also the first to link lucid dreams to the phenomenon of false awakenings (a convincing dream about awakening from sleep).

Philosopher Norman Malcolm’s 1959 text ‘Dreaming’ had argued against the possibility of checking the accuracy of dream reports. However, the realization that eye movements performed in dreams may affect the dreamer’s physical eyes provided a way to prove that actions agreed upon during waking life could be recalled and performed once lucid in a dream. The first evidence of this type was produced in the late 1970s by British parapsychologist Keith Hearne. A volunteer named Alan Worsley used eye movements to signal the onset of lucidity, which were recorded by a polysomnograph machine. Hearne’s results were not widely distributed.

The first peer-reviewed article was published some years later by Stephen LaBerge at Stanford University, who had independently developed a similar technique as part of his doctoral dissertation. During the 1980s, further scientific evidence to confirm the existence of lucid dreaming was produced as lucid dreamers were able to demonstrate to researchers that they were consciously aware of being in a dream state (again, primarily using eye movement signals). Additionally, techniques were developed that have been experimentally proven to enhance the likelihood of achieving this state.

A lucid dream can begin in one of two ways. A dream-initiated lucid dream starts as a normal dream, and the dreamer eventually concludes it is a dream. A wake-initiated lucid dream occurs when the dreamer goes from a normal waking state directly into a dream state, with no apparent lapse in consciousness. The wake-initiated lucid dream ‘occurs when the sleeper enters REM sleep with unbroken self-awareness directly from the waking state.’

Neuroscientist J. Allan Hobson has hypothesized what might be occurring in the brain while lucid. The first step to lucid dreaming is recognizing one is dreaming. This recognition might occur in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is one of the few areas deactivated during REM sleep and where working memory occurs. Once this area is activated and the recognition of dreaming occurs, the dreamer must be cautious to let the dream continue but be conscious enough to remember that it is a dream. While maintaining this balance, the amygdala and parahippocampal cortex might be less intensely activated. To continue the intensity of the dream hallucinations, it is expected the pons and the parieto-occipital junction stay active.

It has been suggested that sufferers of nightmares could benefit from the ability to be aware they are indeed dreaming. A pilot study was performed in 2006 that showed that lucid dreaming therapy treatment was successful in reducing nightmare frequency. This treatment consisted of exposure to the idea, mastery of the technique, and lucidity exercises. It was not clear what aspects of the treatment were responsible for the success of overcoming nightmares, though the treatment as a whole was successful. Australian psychologist Milan Colic has explored the application of principles from narrative therapy with clients’ lucid dreams, to reduce the impact not only of nightmares during sleep, but also depression, self-mutilation, and other problems in waking life. Colic found that clients’ preferred direction for their lives, as identified during therapeutic conversations, could lessen the distressing content of dreams, while understandings about life—and even characters—from lucid dreams could be invoked in ‘real’ life with marked therapeutic benefits.

In 1985, LaBerge performed a pilot study which showed that time perception while counting during a lucid dream is about the same as during waking. Lucid dreamers counted out ten seconds while dreaming, signaling the end of the count with a pre-arranged eye signal measured with electrooculogram recording. LaBerge’s results were confirmed by German researchers in 2004. The German study, by D. Erlacher and M. Schredl, also studied motor activity and found deep knee bends took 44% longer to perform while lucid dreaming. However, a 1995 study in Germany indicated that lucid dreams can have varied time spans, in which the dreamer can control the length. The study took place during sleep and upon awakening. They required the participants to record their dreams in a log and record how long the dreams lasted.

While dream control and dream awareness are correlated, neither requires the other—LaBerge has found dreams that exhibit one clearly without the capacity for the other; also, in some dreams where the dreamer is lucid and aware they could exercise control, they choose simply to observe. In 1992, a study by Deirdre Barrett examined whether lucid dreams contained four ‘corollaries’ of lucidity: knowing that one dreams, that objects will disappear after waking, that physical laws need not apply, and having clear memory of the waking world. She found less than a quarter of lucidity accounts exhibited all four. A related and reciprocal category of dreams that are lucid in terms of some of these four corollaries, but miss the realization that ‘I’m dreaming,’ were also reported. Scores on these corollaries and correctly identifying the experience as a dream increased with lucidity experience.

In a later study in Barrett’s book, ‘The Committee of Sleep,’ she describes how some experienced lucid dreamers have learned to remember specific practical goals such as artists looking for inspiration seeking a show of their own work once they become lucid or computer programmers looking for a screen with their desired code. However, most of these dreamers had many experiences of failing to recall waking objectives before gaining this level of control.

Even though it has only come to the attention of the general public in the last few decades, lucid dreaming is not a modern discovery. In early Buddhism this may be one practice among people in monastic community. As preserved in the ancient Sarvastivada school’s Sutra on Mindfulness of the Body, it states that monks and nuns under practice should be ‘Understanding (having awareness in) the four postures and states of being asleep and/or awake’.’ Documented since the 8th century, Tibetan Buddhists and Bonpo were practicing a form of dream yoga held to maintain full waking consciousness while in the dream state.

One important message of the book is the distinction between the Dzogchen meditation of awareness and dream yoga. The Dzogchen awareness meditation has also been referred to by the terms rigpa awareness, contemplation, and presence. Awareness during the sleep and dream states is associated with the Dzogchen practice of natural light. This practice only achieves lucid dreams as a secondary effect—in contrast to dream yoga, which aims primarily at lucid dreaming. According to Buddhist teachers, the experience of lucidity helps us understand the unreality of phenomena, which would otherwise be overwhelming during dream or the death experience.

In Western culture, a letter written by St. Augustine of Hippo in 415 CE about a story of a dreamer, Doctor Gennadius, refers to lucid dreaming. The dreamer reported that he didn’t realize he was in the dream world but the man whom he met in his dream remind him about this and point out that his experience is a proof of life after death. An early recorded lucid dreamer was the philosopher and physician Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682). Browne was fascinated by the world of dreams and described his own ability to lucid dream in his ‘Religio Medici’: ‘…yet in one dream I can compose a whole Comedy, behold the action, apprehend the jests and laugh my self awake at the conceits thereof.’

Similarly, Samuel Pepys in a diary entry for 1665 records a dream ‘that I had my Lady Castlemayne in my arms and was admitted to use all the dalliance I desired with her, and then dreamt that this could not be awake, but that it was only a dream.’ Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denys argued that it is possible for anyone to learn to dream consciously. In 1867, he published his book ‘Dreams and How to Guide them; Practical Observations,’ in which he documented more than twenty years of his own research into dreams.

The term ‘lucid dreaming’ was coined by Dutch author and psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden in his 1913 article ‘A Study of Dreams.’ This paper was highly anecdotal and not embraced by the scientific community. Some consider this a misnomer because it means much more than just ‘clear or vivid’ dreaming. The alternative term ‘conscious dreaming’ avoids this confusion. However, the term lucid was used by van Eeden in its sense of ‘having insight,’ as in the phrase a lucid interval applied to someone in temporary remission from a psychosis, rather than as a reference to the perceptual quality of the experience, which may or may not be clear and vivid.

When a person is dreaming, the eyes vibrate rapidly. Scientific research has found that these eye movements may correspond to the direction the dreamer ‘looks’ at in the dreamscape. This has enabled trained lucid dreamers to communicate with researchers while dreaming by using eye movement signals. In a false awakening, one dreams of having awoken. The room the dreamer falsely awakens in is often similar to the room he/she fell asleep in. If the person was lucid, they often believe that they are no longer dreaming and begin their morning routine. The dreamer remains naive to the dream either until they realize they haven’t actually woken up or until they really do wake up.

During REM sleep the body paralyzes itself as a protection mechanism to prevent the movements that occur in the dream from causing the physical body to move. However, this mechanism can be triggered before, during, or after normal sleep while the brain awakens. This can lead to a state where the awakened sleeper feels paralyzed. Hypnagogic hallucination may occur in this state, especially auditory ones. Effects of sleep paralysis include heaviness or inability to move the muscles, rushing or pulsating noises, and brief hypnogogic or hypnopompic imagery. Experiencing sleep paralysis is a necessary part of WILD (wake-initiated lucid dream), in which dreamers essentially detach their ‘dream’ body from the paralyzed one.

An out-of-body experience (OBE) involves a sensation of floating outside of one’s body and, in some cases, perceiving one’s physical body from a place outside one’s body (autoscopy). About one in ten people think they have had an out-of-body experience at some time in their lives. Some work by neurologists suggests that such experiences are generated by the same brain mechanisms that cause lucid dreams. However, despite some similarities in their phenomenology and induction methods, EEG studies do not suggest an equivalence between OBEs and lucid dreams.

Lucidity is strongly associated with stage 1 REM sleep but OBEs are far less consistent, producing EEG traces that can variously resemble stage 3 sleep, a waking, eyes-closed state or other uncategorized states. However, while this may suggest that perceived OBEs are a type of lucid dream which takes place in a dream environment that mimics the actual environment of the dreamer, this falls short of supporting the idea that some conscious form of the dreamer actually leaves the body and perceives their external environment while still in a sleeping state.

During most dreams, sleepers are not aware that they are dreaming. The reason for this has not been determined, and does not appear to have an obvious answer. There have been attempts by various fields of psychology to provide an explanation. For example, some proponents of depth psychology suggest that mental processes inhibit the critical evaluation of reality within dreams. Certain physiology studies suggest that ‘seeing is believing’ to the brain during any mental state. If the brain perceives something with great clarity or intensity, it will believe that it is real, even when asleep.

Dream consciousness is similar to that of a hallucinating awake subject. Dreams or hallucinatory images triggered by the brain stem are considered to be real, even if fantastic. The impulse to accept the experience as real is so strong the dreamer will often invent a memory or a story to cover up an incongruous or unrealistic event in the dream. For example, ‘That man has two heads!’is not usually followed with ‘I must be dreaming!’ but with something like ‘Yes, I read in the paper about these famous Siamese twins.’ Other times there will be an explanation that, in the dream, makes sense and seems very logical. However, when the dreamer awakes, he/she will realize that it is rather far-fetched or even completely absurd.

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