Dreams are the playground of the mind. Anything can happen when one is dreaming. The only limitation is that we only rarely realize the freedoms granted to us in our dreams while we have them. Lucid dreaming is the ability to know when one is dreaming, and be able to influence what will be dreamt. A normal dream is much like passively watching a movie take place in your skull. In a lucid dream, the dreamer is the writer, director, and star of the movie. Lucid dreams are exceptionally interesting.
Lucid dreaming is defined as dreaming when the dreamer knows that they are dreaming. The term was coined during the 1910’s by Frederik van Eeden who used the word “lucid” in the sense of mental clarity (Green, 1968). Lucidity usually begins in the midst of a dream, when the dreamer realizes that the experience is not occurring in physical reality, but is a dream. Often this realization is triggered by the dreamer noticing some impossible or unlikely occurrence in the dream, such as meeting a person who is dead, or flying with or without wings. Sometimes people become lucid without noticing any particular clue in the dream; they just suddenly realize that they are in a dream. A minority of lucid dreams (about 10 percent) are the result of returning to REM sleep directly from an awakening with unbroken reflective consciousness (LaBerge, 1985). These types of lucid dreams occur most often during daytime napping. If the napper has been REM deprived from a previous night of little sleep their chances of having a REM period at sleep onset are increased. If the napper is able to continue his or her train of thought up to the point of sleep, a lucid dream may develop due to an immediate REM period.
The basic definition of lucid dreaming requires nothing more than the dreamer becoming aware that they are dreaming. However, the quality of lucidity varies greatly. When lucidity is at a high level, the dreamer is aware that everything experienced in the dream is occurring in their mind, that there is no real danger, and that they are asleep in bed and will awaken eventually. With low-level lucidity they may be aware to a certain extent that they are dreaming, perhaps enough to fly, or alter what they are doing, but not enough to realize that the people in the dream are just figments of their imagination. They are also unaware that they can suffer no physical damage while in the dream or that they are actually in bed. Lucidity and control in dreams are not the same thing. It is possible to be lucid and have little control over dream content, and conversely, to have a great deal of control without being explicitly aware that one is dreaming.
Lucid dreams usually happen during REM sleep. Working at Stanford University, Dr. Stephen LaBerge proved this by eliciting deliberate eye movement signals given by lucid dreamers during their REM sleep. LaBerge’s subjects slept in the laboratory, while the standard measures of sleep physiology (brain waves, muscle tone and eye movements) were recorded. As soon as they became lucid in a dream, they moved their eyes in large sweeping motions left-right-left-right, as far as possible. This left an unmistakable marker on the physiological record of the eye movements. Analysis of the records showed that in every case, the eye movements marking the times when the subjects realized they were dreaming occurred in the middle of unambiguous REM sleep. LaBerge has done several experiments on lucid dreaming using the eye-movement signaling method, demonstrating interesting connections between dreamed actions and physiological responses.
It has been debated if lucid dreaming interferes with the function of “normal” dreaming. According to one way of thinking, lucid dreaming is normal dreaming. The brain and body are in the same physiological state of REM sleep during lucid dreaming as they are during most ordinary non-lucid dreaming. In dreams the mind creates experiences out of currently active thoughts, concerns, memories and fantasies. Knowledge that a person is dreaming simply allows them to direct their dream along constructive or positive lines, much like they direct their thoughts when awake. Furthermore, lucid dreams can be even more informative about the self than non-lucid dreams, because one can observe the development of the dream out of one’s feelings and tendencies, while being aware that one is dreaming and that the dream is coming from the self. The notion that dreams are unconscious processes that should remain so is false. Waking consciousness is always present in dreams. If it were not, we would not be able to remember our dreams, because one can only remember an event that has been consciously experienced. The added “consciousness” of lucid dreaming is nothing more than the awareness of being in the dream state.
The first thing that attracts people to lucid dreaming is often the potential for adventure and fantasy fulfillment. Flying is a favorite lucid dream delight, as is sex. Many people have said that their first lucid dream was the most wonderful experience of their lives. A large part of the extraordinary pleasure of lucid dreaming comes from the exhilarating feeling of utter freedom that accompanies the realization that one is in a dream, where there will be no social or physical consequences of one’s actions.
Unfortunately for many people, instead of providing an outlet for unlimited fantasy and delight, dreams can be dreaded episodes of limitless terror. Lucid dreaming may well be the basis of the most effective therapy for nightmares. If one becomes aware that they are dreaming they can realize that in a dream nothing can harm them. There is no need to run from or fight with dream monsters. In fact, it is often pointless to try because the horror is in their own mind, which can pursue them wherever they dream themselves to be. The fear is real, but the danger is not. The only way to escape is to end the fear, for as long as they fear their dream, it is likely to return. Unreasonable fear can be defused by facing up to the source, or going through with the frightening activity, so that one can observe that no harm comes to them. In a nightmare, this act of courage can take any form that involves facing the “threat” rather than avoiding it. Monsters often transform into benign creatures, friends, or empty shells (Saint-Denys, 1867/1985) when courageously confronted in lucid dreams. This is an extremely empowering experience. It teaches in a very visceral manner that fear can be conquered.
Lucid dreaming can also help people achieve goals in their waking lives. There are many ways that individuals can use lucid dreams to prepare for some aspect of their waking activities. Some of these applications include: rehearsal (trying out new behaviors, or practicing them, and honing athletic skills), creative problem solving, artistic inspiration, overcoming sexual and social problems, coming to terms with the loss of loved ones, and physical healing. If the possibility of accelerated physical healing, suggested by anecdotes from lucid dreamers, is born out by research, it would become a tremendously important reason for developing lucid dreaming abilities.
The following is an excerpt from Dr. LaBerge’s book entitled Lucid Dreaming. In it he gives advice on how to dream with lucidity.
There are several methods of inducing lucid dreams. The first step, regardless of method, is to develop your dream recall until you can remember at least one dream per night. Then, if you have a lucid dream you will remember it. You will also become very familiar with your dreams, making it easier to recognize them while they are happening. If you recall your dreams you can begin immediately with two simple techniques for stimulating lucid dreams. Lucid dreamers make a habit of “reality testing.” This means investigating the environment to decide whether you are dreaming or awake. Ask yourself many times a day, “Could I be dreaming?” Then, test the stability of your current reality by reading some words, looking away and looking back while trying to will them to change. The instability of dreams is the easiest clue to use for distinguishing waking from dreaming. If the words change, you are dreaming. Taking naps is a way to greatly increase your chances of having lucid dreams. You have to sleep long enough in the nap to enter REM sleep. If you take the nap in the morning (after getting up earlier than usual), you are likely to enter REM sleep within a half-hour to an hour after you fall asleep. If you nap for 90 minutes to 2 hours you will have plenty of dreams and a higher probability of becoming lucid than in dreams you have during a normal night’s sleep. Focus on your intention to recognize that you are dreaming as you fall asleep within the nap. (LaBerge, 1985)
External cues to help people attain lucidity in dreams have been the focus of Dr. Stephen LaBerge’s research at the Lucidity Institute for several years. Using the results of laboratory studies, he has designed a portable device, called the DreamLight ($950), for this purpose. It monitors sleep and when it detects REM sleep it gives a cue (a flashing light) that enters the dream to remind the dreamer to become lucid. The light comes from a soft mask worn during sleep that also contains the sensing apparatus for determining when the sleeper is in REM sleep. A small custom computer connected to the mask by a cord decides when the wearer is in REM and when to flash the lights.
The phenomena of lucid dreaming has been looked into as a possible explanation of the out-of-body experience. In an Out-of-Body Experience (or OBE) a person feels that they are separated from their body and are free to float or fly about. They feel as if they are perceiving the physical world from a location outside of their physical body. The OBE has also been linked with the Near-Death Experience (or NDE) wherein a person who is at the brink of death has an OBE. The NDE, the OBE, and lucid dreaming all have the common element of being separated from the physical body. All include the sensation of flying combined with a feeling of freedom. In an attempt to explain the OBE and the NDE, lucid dreaming has come up as a reasonable theory. It is thought that in a half-awake and half-dreaming state a person dreams of leaving their body. OBE’s are often elicited during deep meditation and relaxation where it is reasonable to assume that during the trance a person could fall asleep and have a lucid dream which felt like an OBE but was just a dream. Further research into this area is certain to be done in the future.
Since we spend about 9% of our lives in the dream world it would make sense to make the most of that time. By exploring that world with a conscious awareness one can see the inside of their own head, actually see their thoughts being formed. A lucid dream has infinite possibilities, it can happen every night of one’s life, and best of all it is totally free of charge.
Green, Celia (1968). Lucid Dreams. London: Hamish Hamilton.
LaBerge, Stephen (1985). Lucid Dreaming. New York: Ballantine Books
LaBerge, Stephen, & Rheingold, Howard (1990). Exploring the World of
Lucid Dreaming. New York: Ballantine Books