When I went to graduate school, lucid dreaming was a concept everyone knew of, yet knew nearly nothing about. Generation X missed the lucid dreaming debates of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. After that, the debates faded out and lucid dreaming became the geeky subject matter of a few liberal intellectuals hardly anyone had heard of. Christopher Nolan’s movie Inception, perhaps misleadingly, brought the concept back into the core of the minds of the masses.
Lucid dreaming is your chance to play around with the extraordinary abilities buried in unused parts of your brain. Regardless of whether your are superhuman in real life or not, lucid dreaming is a way for you to put the deepest areas of your brain to good use while you’re sleeping. You can be a Jane Doe while awake and superman while sleeping. All the obstacles of reality can be set aside, as you make trips to the sun or the interior of the earth or test your craziest science experiments on your worst enemies.
Lucid dream researcher Beverly D'Urso knows everything about lucid dreaming: She has been a lucid dreamer since she was seven years old. She has worked with psychophysiologist Stephen Laberge, the founder of the Lucidity Institute. She was the first person to have a recorded orgasm during a dream. During her lucid dreams, she has tasted fire, visited the sun and overcome a writer's block. She has done it all. We recently conducted an interview with the lucid dream expert.
What does "lucid dreaming" mean?
Even though the term "lucid" means clear, lucid dreaming is more than just having a clear dream. To have a lucid dream you must know that it’s a dream while you’re dreaming. That's it. It doesn't require that you can control anything in your dream, though control is what beginning lucid dreamers often aim at. People get attracted to lucid dreaming because they want to be able to do things they could never do in waking reality, for example, taste fire or fly to the sun. More and more experienced lucid dreamers are realizing the benefits of lucid dreaming. You can use it to explore the boundaries of your own agency and the limits of the universe.
What's the best technique for becoming lucid in dreams?
The best technique for becoming lucid is to actually become more aware and look and listen and pay attention to details, because when you see things that don’t fit, that’s a clue that you’re dreaming. To facilitate the process you can form the habit of examining the environment or your state of awareness during the day. Mental habits you practice during the day tend to continue in dreams. So you examine your environment during the day, you examine your awareness, and then you may notice that something is different once you start dreaming. Someone who has become lucid has much higher levels of awareness—and obviously, I think that’s one of the biggest benefits of lucid dreaming.
What is the phenomenology of lucidity?
Here is an example. I was playing around in a lucid dream and happened to be at a campsite. Since I knew I was dreaming, I thought I might as well jump into the camp fire. I didn't get burned. I was kind of playing around with the flames. I then decided to eat the flames. I actually put them in my mouth. And I remember having the sensation of them being salty! I was already pushing limits. So I decided to fly to the sun. I started to fly sort of superman style—faster and faster and faster, almost exponentially faster. As I got closer and closer to the sun I couldn't really see anything. I couldn't really feel my body either. But I noticed a sense of vibration and sound and light. Obviously, there was a lot of light coming from the sun, and I kind of stayed in this state which I can’t really describe. So the phenomenology of lucid dreaming really is very different from the phenomenology of regular experiences.
As lucid dreamers you occasionally participate in dream psychic contents. What happens at those contests?
We have an online conference once a year that lasts two weeks. It was founded by the International Association for the Study of Dreams, which I’ve been involved with almost since the very beginning about 26 years ago. A friend of mine actually started it. We get about 10 or 20 people who present either a short paper or lead a workshop.
During that two-week period we usually have three contests. A typical one is the picture content. Prior to the conference an outsider collects thousands of images. During the conference a random picture is picked, and a self-proclaimed psychic person will then attempt to send that image to all the dreamers one particular night. The next day when you wake up, you submit a report of what you dreamed, and the following day they’ll show you the picture and you can check what kind of connections your dream had to the picture. We have a panel of judges, and we also allow people to look at other people's dreams and say what they think matches. Finally, there’s a first, second, and third place winner.
Have you ever engaged in mutual dreaming?
Well, I’ve had a lot of experiences with at least attempting mutual dreaming. You set it up in advance. You agree to meet somewhere, for example the Bahamas. Then while you both dream, you travel to that place. When you get there, you tell your partner a secret. After you both wake up you can check whether you really succeeded in meeting by asking each other about the secrets you told each other in the dream. I haven’t succeeded in this particular exercise.
A lot of people live out their fantasies in dreams. Does that ever seem to suffice as a replacement for the same fantasies in real life?
Yeah, dream fantasies are usually much more exciting. There are so many things you can do in dreams that you cannot do in waking life. You cannot taste fire or fly to the sun or have sex with strangers without potential serious consequences. But you can do all that in your dreams.
Have you ever experimented with sex in your lucid dreams?
Yeah, many times. At one point we were attempting to record sexual activity during lucid dreaming in the Stanford Sleep Lab. I was hooked up to electrodes and vaginal probes. My goal was to have sex in a dream and experience an orgasm. I dreamed that I flew across Stanford campus and saw a group of tourists down below. I swooped down and tapped one dream guy, wearing a blue suit, on the shoulder. He responded right there on the walkway. We made love, and I signaled the onset of sex and the orgasm to the experimenter. We later published this experiment in Journal of Psychophysiology as the first recorded female orgasm in a dream.
How is lucid dreaming used as therapy?
Let me give you an example. Back in the early 80s I was working on my Ph.D. dissertation. I’d done all my class work and I already had a topic, but I wasn’t actually writing it all up. I wasn’t actually completing the degree. My friend suggesteded, “Well, why don’t you work on your writer's block in your dreams?”
I decided to give it a try. In one dream I dreamed I was in my bedroom, but my computer was in the wrong place, instead of being on the left it was on the right, so I knew it was a dream. The first thing that happened was that I became totally paralyzed. Even though I knew I was dreaming I couldn’t move my body. All I wanted to do was get to the computer to start writing, and I kept telling myself, “This is my dream. I’m in a dream. I should be able to this.” And slowly—like in slow motion—I got to the computer. The seat had a hole leading down to hell. It was very scary but I sat down and let myself fall into this pit in hell—and then I woke up. Since then I have had no trouble writing.
What are the spiritual benefits of lucid dreaming?
Well, it certainly makes you a more enlightened person. You learn to be in the present moment and to notice your surroundings and take in things without being sidetracked by random thoughts or the past or the future. That’s what all big spiritual teachers teach you now: The importance of being in the present moment. That’s what lucid dreamer have been doing all along. They are aware of the present moment with more than just their physical body, because their agency is expanded to include a higher self.
Have there been any studies attempting to measure personality changes before and after regular lucid dreaming?
Sure. There are people who have looked at the characteristics of lucid dreamers. One study which I remember reviewing for a journal was about lucid dreamers noticing things in change blindness and inattentional blindness paradigms faster than most people.
Lucid dreamers are typically better at noticing things because of the heightened awareness I mentioned before.
Could lucid dreaming be dangerous? Suppose people mistakenly think they are dreaming and start doing crazy things.
No, it's not a potential problem for lucid dreamers. By definition, lucid dreamers know they are dreaming, so they are not confused about when they dream and when they are awake. However, non-lucid dreamers that could become confused between dreaming and being awake. People who are just starting out might want to take it easy and not stuff fire in their mouth or jump out from a cliff to see what happens. I don’t think an experienced lucid dreamer would ever jump off a cliff without first testing whether they could float in the air.
Does lucid dreaming ever make you tired? Do you ever feel being lucid in your dreams doesn’t let you rest as much?
People often say that, but I think it’s almost the exact opposite. I think there is some value in non-lucid dreams, but those are the ones that are tiring. I mean, who wants to be breaking up with a high school boyfriend all over again and be feeling all miserable? Who wants to take that test and worry about some test result when you’re not even in school anymore? It’s the lucid dreams that are refreshing and fun. Lucid dreams, not regular dreams, give me energy and make me wake up feeling refreshed. You should try it!
Berit "Brit" Brogaard is a co-author of The Superhuman Mind