Some people can control their dreams and do anything they want in them -- or can they?
Today we're going to descend into the twilight world of dreams, where anything can happen, and no rules need be followed. We all dream, some of us more often than others, and some of us more vividly than others. We watch them play out like little movies happening to us. But for a select few people, these are not merely view-only movies; they can become fully interactive virtual worlds in which we can do anything we can imagine. For today's subject is that fringe of the dream phenomenon called lucid dreaming: a reality to some, and nonsense to others.
They call themselves oneironauts — the people who live out their fantasies in virtual worlds of their own making. A lucid dream is one in which you become consciously aware that you are dreaming, and are then able to make conscious choices and direct the actions of the dream according to your desires. It's like having your imagination turn into a fully immersive virtual experience indistinguishable from reality — except for the fact that you are aware you're dreaming. Most lucid dreamers take to the air and fly like Superman. Many act out sexual fantasies with people who would otherwise be inaccessible to them. People often choose to see what it's like to have superpowers. One popular choice is to become a different person, real or imaginary, even an animated character or an animal. You have the ultimate freedom to do anything, free of any legal, physical, or social consequences. Although the level of control over the action and environment of the dream does vary from person to person and even from dream to dream, lucid dreamers retain their waking knowledge and memories, and generally have full awareness of their state.
Among the many of us who have never had a lucid dream, this all sounds a little too good to be true — a secret life of superpowers every night. Surely — it's natural to suspect — some of these people are exaggerating, or probably even just misinterpreting or misremembering regular dreams. But how could we really tell? We can't actually know what another person is thinking. In the 1970s, Keith Hearne, a PhD candidate at the University of Liverpool, was wondering about this exact question. Is there any way we can know for sure whether a person claiming a lucid dream is truly making conscious choices while asleep?
Hearne's basic proof of the reality of lucid dreaming came in 1975 in the sleep lab at Hull University. One test subject, Alan Worsley, was a frequent lucid dreamer. Hearne connected him up to a polygraph which incorporated an EOG — an electrooculograph — to detect and record his eye movements in addition to his EEG and other vital signs while he slept. Hearne instructed Worsley that if he became aware that he was dreaming, to move his eyes left and right eight times.
And there, on the polygraph's readout, was the proof. Although Worsley's electroencephalogram showed that he was definitely asleep, the EOG showed the evidence in black and white. Left and right went Worsley's eyes, eight times, whenever he was consciously controlling his dream. Hearne's original polygraph tape is now on permanent display in the London Science Museum, and his ocular signaling technique has since become a standard in the study of lucid dreaming.
Other research has continued to bolster a pretty solid foundation around our knowledge of the phenomenon. A decade after Hearne's first success, Stanford psychophysiologist Stephen LaBerge conducted the first study showing that time perception during a lucid dream was about the same as in real life; test subjects would do the eye movements, then count off some time, then repeat the eye movements. They would do this when awake as a control then repeat it during a lucid dream, and the timespan was always about the same.
The question you all want to know is whether you too can gain superpowers by becoming an oneironaut. A 2016 meta-analysis of 34 studies covering more than 24,000 people found that just over half — 55% — reported ever having had a lucid dream. But the majority of those had them only once or very rarely, with only about 13% of people having regular lucid dreams, meaning once a month or more.
There are a variety of methods used by people who wish to develop this ability. Although it does appear that just about anyone can learn to do it, the techniques all require hard work and some people don't find any success for months or even years. Many people fail to continue the techniques before ever achieving a lucid dream. Some companies sell electronic gizmos or smartphone apps claiming to put you into a lucid dream, but although these might work for a few people, most experienced lucid dreamers dismiss them as useless.
Most of us are not among the lucky few to whom lucid dreaming comes naturally, so if we want the same experience, we have to work at it. The most successful technique for triggering lucid dreaming is called MILD (Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreaming), developed by Stephen LaBerge. It's easy but it requires some lifestyle changes, which few people follow through with. The first of these changes is to develop some sort of habitual behavior, a small action that you'll repeat throughout every day. This action will be a reality check; force yourself to check whether you're dreaming. Of course you won't be; but the idea isn't to check so much as it is to develop the habit of checking. If the behavior does become truly habitual, the idea is that you will also do it at some point during a dream. And then, the reality check will fail — and you will very likely become consciously aware in the dream.
Here's how to do it. Write something on your hand or tie a string around your finger — or anything — that you will notice throughout the day, or set your watch or phone to beep on the hour. Every time that happens, check reality. Many people will try to push a finger through the palm of their other hand — something that doesn't work when you're awake, but that works fine when you're dreaming. Others will look at a digital watch; letters and numbers typically jumble themselves in a dream, but are clear and reliable when you're awake.
The other lifestyle change is that you need to start a dream diary. Write down every dream you can remember. The studies have shown that people who remember all their dreams are far more likely to have lucid dreams. If you don't have any luck writing down dreams, it probably means that your dreams aren't very vivid, and thus having lucid dreams is going to be much harder for you.
Now comes the procedure to actually trigger a lucid dream. What you need to do is wake up early in the morning, during REM sleep when you're most likely to be having a vivid dream. If you don't happen to wake up on your own, set an alarm — for most people this best REM sleep comes about six hours after hitting the pillow. Wake up fully. Get out of bed and do something. For some people this period is ten or fifteen minutes; for others it's up to an hour. Then go back to bed, and recite to yourself some mantra, some variation that works for you: "In my next dream, I will remember I'm dreaming", "I will have a lucid dream tonight", or "I'm dreaming now". Visualize the dream you woke up from, replay it in your mind, and try to pick it up where you left off.
For you lucky lucid dreamers, you'll dream of trying your reality check, and it will fail. You'll be living a dream, literally.
The reality of lucid dreaming should not be taken to mean that the community is free of woo. There is, undeniably, a spectrum of science to pseudoscience defining the lucid dreaming phenomenon. This spectrum is anchored at one end by the fact that people who meditate regularly tend to be much more likely to be lucid dreamers — a fact validated by study after study. One needs only to crack open the 1989 book Control Your Dreams by Jayne Gackenbach and Jane Bosveld — two legitimate psychology researchers — to find that this spectrum is a slippery slope. The book strays quickly into spirituality, the philosophy of consciousness, and a holistic mind-body connection. Many other researchers have also written books advocating Buddhism, yoga, and other spiritualist practices for lucidity. When you write on science, it goes into journals; when those same authors stray too far outside the science, journals are no longer an option, so they turn to mass media publication — free of scrutiny or peer review.
No one exemplifies this better than Stephen LaBerge, whose academic background is rock solid and whose contribution to the science of lucidity is unmatched, yet whose for-profit Lucidity Institute and its yoga retreats in Hawaii prompt such testimonials as:
At the far end of the spectrum are those who draw no dividing line between dreams and reality, considering all consciousness to be a dream within a dream within a dream. It won't take you very long on YouTube to find that the oneironaut community is deeply entangled with the farthest-out New Age spiritualist gobbledegook.
There are interesting potential clinical applications for lucid dreaming, beyond the obvious recreational use. It has promise in helping people with dream anxiety disorder, where the fear of nightmares triggers a slew of other sleep-related problems. It has potential as a tool for treating PTSD, as well as insomnia and other parasomnias. It offers a highly interesting possibility of freedom for people who are paralyzed or otherwise debilitated, including people who are incarcerated. Work in these fields is progressing. And, as we've discussed, being a fluent oneironaut is about the coolest recreational activity imaginable. So why the need to adorn lucid dreaming with meaningless metaphysics and woo? This is a neat phenomenon, and potentially an important one. Stop trying to characterize it as some sort of spiritualism that the evil scientific establishment closes its mind to. It's not supernatural and it doesn't require Buddhism or any other belief system: it's real, it's proven, it's measurable, and it could well be very useful in addition to being fun. So, enjoy your lucid dreaming if you are lucky enough to be able to, and enjoy it without the pressure of feeling you need to embrace some New Age woo.
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