Consciousness and Dreams

What is the significance of experiencing dreams when we sleep?

Posted Jan 25, 2016

Sam McGuire Photography, Los Angeles (used with permission).
Source: Sam McGuire Photography, Los Angeles (used with permission).

Dreams are among the most vivid and unique conscious experiences. Their narrative power is well documented throughout history, from spiritually uplifting stories such as the dream of Jacob, to revelations about the inner self that range from personal insight to Freud’s psychoanalysis. Despite their cultural and personal importance, dreams remain as enigmatic as ever.

The film Inception gives a dramatic portrayal of how dreams can be experienced in a very wakeful way. The possibilities of sharing a dream or embedding a dream within another dream (here, for the real life purpose of gaining time) are presented as possibilities compatible with the typical experience of dreaming. Generally speaking, however, one is not simply observing dreams from a “wakeful distance” where one can plan or even build an alternate reality. Rather, dreaming typically involves being deeply under the grip of the events experienced, without much planned control or wakeful awareness.

Still, consciously attentive dreaming does happen. Lucid dreaming, the attentive awareness that one is dreaming, can be described as a type of sustained attention to the manner in which one transitions into a dream state from waking consciousness. Evan Thompson highlights how the training of this transition from wakeful awareness into dream awareness has been practiced since at least the Buddhist spiritual exercise called “dream yoga”. An important aspect of this dream awareness is the conscious decision to attend to the dream as a dream. The point of the practice of lucid dreaming is to enter into the “dream-mode” of consciousness without letting oneself lose the type of conscious voluntary attention characteristic of wakeful consciousness. One enters dream consciousness with the attentive recognition that it is a dream. The fact that this practice (a type of attention routine) allows people to lucid dream suggests that there are two varieties of conscious attention in dreams: one lucid and one passively engaged. The consciousness and attention dissociation framework we have discussed in previous posts accommodates these two types of dream awareness. Lucid dreaming is more active and relates to voluntary conscious attention, while regular dreaming is more passive and may relate to automatic forms of attention.

Lucid dreaming opens intriguing possibilities for the study of consciousness. If one can attend lucidly to an experience as a dream (something that is driven almost exclusively by memories and not just by external sensory stimulation), we need to ask how this kind of attention is related to daydreaming and waking awareness. Could one reverse the roles and attend to waking awareness as if it were a dream? Life as a dream is an idea that has deep spiritual and artistic implications, and this is a familiar topic in philosophy and pop culture. Despite these implications, and although these are interesting changes of attention, we still do not have a good explanation for their cognitive purpose or function. What is the point of being able to shift attention in this way while dreaming?

Consider, for instance, that dreams may be defined as a form of psychosis, in the sense that dreams are hallucinatory-like experiences that lack contact with the immediate surroundings (see Hobson & Voss, 2011). The difference between dream and wakeful awareness is found both at the descriptive (phenomenological) level and at the neural level (Hobson & Voss, 2011). Since the difference between dream and waking conscious attention may also have different evolutionary origins (Haladjian & Montemayor, 2015), the question why dream consciousness evolved becomes pressing. Why would a form of “psychotic” conscious attention become a recurrent form of conscious awareness in humans? Is there a reason to experience dreams?

One possible explanation is that some kinds of conscious attention in dreams are particularly helpful for personal insight, understanding, and originality. After all, it would be incorrect to equate dreams with hallucinations because hallucinations involve a wakeful state of consciousness that is representing something that is not there physically, while in dreams one is in an entirely different state in which, for instance, the motor-control system is not active. Moreover, as Evan Thompson (2014, p.188) argues, practices such as attending to a dream as a dream make dreams resemble imaginary awareness and creative forms of consciousness, rather than hallucinations, because one is guiding attention in a fruitful way.

Therefore, it is possible that various forms of conscious awareness with different types of attention may be involved in the phenomenon we globally call “dreaming”. The idea that there are various forms of conscious awareness is plausible (see Kriegel, 2015), and it is important for future research to investigate whether or not these differences depend—and to what extent they depend—on different types of attention. Could it be, for example, that lucid dreaming relies on a voluntary and reflective form of attention that is not likely to be found in any other species? The suggestion that lucid dream experiences enhance our powers of imagination can explain why we value them and why they might be cognitively important, even if they technically could be considered forms of psychosis.

More controversially, some forms of psychosis, which may include dreams, seem to be particularly powerful sources of artistic inspiration and originality. The transformative power of these experiences plays an important role in art and religion. As Plato says in the Phaedrus, a good kind of madness frees the mind in ways that seem indispensable for truly insightful and original thought, as well as for artistic and poetic creation. If this is correct, altered states of consciousness, including dreams, would be fundamental for some of the cultural objects we value the most: artistic creations.

Another point to consider is the difference between dreams and wakeful memories. Recalling dreams seems to depend on a much weaker and fragile form of voluntary attention than the type of attention that guides and succeeds at retrieving wakeful semantic and episodic memories. Yet the memory involved in dreams seems to integrate important aspects of our personal lives. We believe that this kind of integration of memories in dreams may be relevant for the integration of personal narratives (see Montemayor & Haladjian, 2015, chapter 4). If this is correct, dreams may have a specific impact on autobiographical memory that goes beyond their relevance for original and insightful creation.

Independently of the creative powers of altered states of consciousness, the distinctions between lucid dreaming, dreaming, daydreaming, and wakeful consciousness would certainly highlight the dissociation between consciousness and attention. The ability to have lucid dreams in humans, which does not likely occur in other species (although some animals are thought to be able to dream when sleeping), is something that should be studied closely. Ultimately, this kind of research would help us to better understand the nature of consciousness.

- Carlos Montemayor and Harry Haladjian


Haladjian, H. H., & Montemayor, C. (2015). On the evolution of conscious attention. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 22(3), 595-613. 

Hobson, A., & Voss, U. (2011). A mind to go out of: Reflections on primary and secondary consciousness. Consciousness and Cognition, 20(4), 993-997.

Kriegel, U. (2015). The Varieties of Consciousness. Oxford University Press.

Montemayor, C., & Haladjian, H. H. (2015). Consciousness, Attention, and Conscious Attention. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Thompson, E. (2014). Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation and Philosophy. Columbia University Press.