Is Conscious Dreaming Real?
Lucid dreaming remains a controversial concept but some experts are convinced.
Posted Apr 30, 2014
"I began to realize that I was driving rapidly down a winding road on the side of a steep hill. Everything was bright and crystal clear. To the side was a high cliff with no guardrail. I became deeply alarmed when I realized that I didn’t know how to drive. I was only 15 and had not yet started drivers’ education! What was I doing driving and in such a dangerous place? As I increasingly realized the nightmare-like nature of my experience, I began to grasp that I was dreaming. Somehow knowing this allowed me to relax and even begin to 'direct' the dream. The car seemed to be staying close to the road without much help from me. I had the thought that I wished there was someone who could help me. Suddenly my mother was in the car driving and I was safely in the passenger-side seat. As I became increasingly comfortable I awoke. Instead of feeling like I had come out of a nightmare, I actually felt strong and was looking forward to driving classes. I also wanted to be able to control my dreams in this way more of the time. Something similar to this has happened to me a few times since this first experience."
This description of lucid dreaming, given years later by an adult, may sound familiar to you. Many people have spontaneously had the experience of finding themselves conscious in a dream. In other words, they are aware that it is a dream and not consensual reality that they are experiencing. Sometimes they have found that they could also seem to direct and control at least some of the events in the dream. In the above example, the 15-year-old was most likely concerned about starting driving classes and this anxiety made its way into a dream that was on the way to becoming a nightmare. He found, however, that he could direct the action, and changed the dream from something terrifying to an empowering experience. Being conscious of being in a dream as it is occurring and even being able, to some extent, to control it has been called lucid dreaming.
Some people can apparently develop lucid dreaming to a very high level. David Jay Brown, a science-fiction author and psychonaut, reports that he first experienced lucid dreaming as a child, and has written extensively about his experiences. He describes lucid dreaming as something that he does frequently and enjoys very much. He has apparently developed the ability to have deeply sensuous experiences, near-death experiences, or visits to alternative realities. For people like Brown, lucid dreaming becomes another avenue of psychological or spiritual exploration.
While somewhat uncommon, patients presenting for sleep evaluations do report experiences of lucid dreaming and associated phenomena such as out-of-body experiences. When out-of-body experiences occur at sleep onset or later during the night, they seem to be a variant of the lucid dream. Patients have reported to me that during these experiences they travel to other parts of this world and sometimes to other realms or dimensions. While we may reasonably assume these experiences are produced by the mind in the dream state, for the person experiencing it, it often has the feeling of reality. Indeed, some patients who have reported these events believe in the literal reality of the ability to travel through thought and believe that they get useful and valid information from their travels—such as traveling to a loved one’s home and finding that the loved one has become ill, and then receiving a call the next day confirming this.
Obviously, with the vagaries of memory, especially involving sleep, it is hard to know what to make of these reports. It is possible that upon learning about an important event the person associates it with a dream-like memory and believes that they had previous awareness of something that actually occurred later.
I first became aware of the idea of something like the phenomenon of lucid dreaming when I watched the movie The Lathe of Heaven (1979). Ideas related to lucid dreaming have been explored in a number of science fiction movies. (See also this link.) Later, I began to get reports of actual lucid dreaming and out-of-body experiences from patients and colleagues.
The thing that distinguishes lucid dreaming from typical dreaming is that the dreamer has a sense of being consciously aware of being in a dream. The dreamer may also be able to direct the events that occur in the dream. Whether lucid or garden-variety, dreams hold elements not present in our normal waking reality. Awareness of the mysterious and unusual qualities involved in dreaming have been explored for centuries by shamans, traditional healers, storytellers, and philosophers. Shamans, for example, may claim to visit the dream world to get information that is brought back to help in healing. Researchers such as Stanislav Grof (2011) believe that such non-ordinary states of consciousness present difficult challenges for explanation within modern conceptions of physical and psychological reality.
In the 1800s, people began to write about the ability to direct dreams and control their content. In the 1960s an association was made between the state of lucid dreaming and REM sleep. The researcher who brought the idea of lucid dreaming to widespread attention was Stephen LaBerge. He developed a technique for research participants to use that involved making voluntary eye movements to signal researchers that they were conscious during a dream. The signal could be given and checked by the researchers and verified to see if the person was in a state of REM sleep, as indicated by EEG and EMG. This is a brilliant technique because we are paralyzed during REM sleep except for a few muscle systems, such as those that move the eyes. This voluntary movement can be used by the dreamer to signal the researcher even from the depth of REM sleep.
LaBerge developed a number of techniques to help people develop the skill of lucid dreaming, such as giving oneself suggestions at bedtime to be aware of and remember dreams when they occur. Another technique involved using devices to provide some external light stimulus when entering REM sleep so that the light gets incorporated into the dream. He created a device for this purpose called the DreamLight. To support this work, he founded the Lucidity Institute which provides workshops and training. (See an interesting FAQ here.)
Some people develop lucid dreaming skills as almost a pleasant form of entertainment. Others see a spiritual aspect to the practice. Just as meditation and other spiritual practices can increase a person’s sense of the vastness of reality, or open up new realms of discovery, so can increasing awareness of and involvement in our own dream worlds. The controversial integral philosopher Ken Wilber (2001) has discussed the experience of profound states of meditation. According to Wilber, some advanced meditation practitioners are able to become conscious not only of the dream state but of the deep formlessness of delta sleep. Currently it is hard to understand how it might be possible for people to be conscious of deep sleep as the brain is in a far more synchronized and deeply unconscious state while in deep sleep than in any other state of consciousness besides perhaps general anesthesia or coma.
The concept of lucid dreaming remains controversial, and alternative explanations have been given for the phenomenon. It may be that lucid dreamers are not actually sleeping but may be in a daydream-like state of semi-wakefulness. Or perhaps they are just dreaming but have a memory of the dream and believe that they were conscious and directing the dream but were not. It could be a “sleep state dissociation,” in which the person is both awake and asleep in the dream state at the same time. It is even possible that people are being fraudulent and not reporting true experiences. Research is complicated by the similarity between the EEG pattern of REM sleep and wakefulness. A distinguishing feature of REM sleep is that paralysis occurs during it. This paralysis does not typically occur in wakefulness and is the reason that the eye-movement technique was needed by LaBerge’s research participants.
I have no financial interests in and cannot recommend any products, but there are a number of devices available or being developed to purportedly help people learn to dream lucidly. Research backing the claims of many of these systems is limited or nonexistent. Most are similar to light and sound devices that have been available since the 1980s for creating relaxation or altered states of consciousness, except that they are used when sleeping rather than during wakefulness. They are similar to LaBerge’s DreamLight, which is no longer available, and use a headband to detect REM sleep and then provide a flashing light stimulus through goggles that are worn over the eyes. One such device is the REM-Dreamer. Another in development is called the NovaDreamer. There was even a Kickstarter campaign for a product called Remee, a REM-enhancing lucid dreaming mask.
And of course, there is an app for that—Dream:On, which attempts to use the motion-detection system in a smartphone to identify REM sleep based on mattress movements. Once REM has been detected the device provides a “SoundScape” to help increase awareness of dreaming. (While for sleep professionals it may sound ludicrous that REM could be detected without the use of EEG and EMG monitoring, I recently gave a presentation to a group of professionals who all said that the apps seemed to be giving accurate information about their sleep based on mattress movements. But this is anecdotal and does not constitute reliable or valid research.) I should also note that this app was not highly rated by reviewers.
Lucid dreaming is certainly a topic worthy of continued research. It may provide another avenue for improving life or solving problems. It may have therapeutic value, perhaps in helping deal with some of the symptoms of PTSD.
Some cautions are, however, in order: Lucid dreaming has been reported to occasionally result in pathological or disturbing reactions. Nielsen and Zadra (2011) note that some people have felt "burned out" by overuse of lucid dreaming while others have experienced overlap of dreaming and ordinary mentation resulting in confusion and quasi-psychotic states. Intense fear that control could be lost over the vivid dream states has also been reported.
So it is interesting that lucid dreaming has been used clinically as a technique to treat nightmares (Zadra & Phil, 1997), an issue I will discuss in the next post.
Brown, David Jay. (2013). The new science of psychedelics: At the nexus of culture, consciousness, and spirituality. Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press.
Grof, S. (2010). The ultimate journey: Consciousness and the mystery of death. Santa Cruz, CA: MAPS.
Nielsen, T. A. & Zadra, A. (2011). Idiopathic nightmares and dream disturbances associated with sleep-wake transitions. In Kryger, M. H., Roth, T. & Dement, W.C. (2011). Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine, 5th edition. St. Louis, Missouri: Elsevier Saunders.
Wilber, K. (2001). Sex, ecology, spirituality: The spirit of evolution. Boston, MA: Shambhala.
Zadra A. L. & Phil, R. O. (1997). Lucid dreaming as a treatment for recurrent nightmares. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 66 (1), p 50 – 55.