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What are lucid dreams?

pic What are lucid dreams? What are lucid dreams? picThe term lucid dreaming refers to dreaming while knowing that you are dreaming. It was coined by the Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden in 1913. It is something of a misnomer since it means something quite different from just clear or vivid dreaming. Nevertheless we are certainly stuck with it. That lucid dreams are different from ordinary dreams is obvious as soon as you have one. The experience is something like waking up in your dreams. It is as though you ‘come to’ and find you are dreaming. This experience generally happens when you realize during the course of a dream that you are dreaming, perhaps because something weird occurs. Most people who remember their dreams have had such an experience at some time, often waking up immediately after the realization. However, it is possible to continue in the dream while remaining fully aware that you are dreaming.
One distinct and confusing form of lucid dreams are false awakenings. You dream of waking up but in fact, of course, are still asleep. Van Eeden [Van13] called these ‘wrong waking up’ and described them as ‘demoniacal, uncanny, and very vivid and bright, with … a strong diabolical light.’ The one positive benefit of false awakenings is that they can sometimes be used to induce OBEs. Indeed, Oliver Fox [Fox62] recommends using false awakenings as a method for achieving the OBE. For many people OBEs and lucid dreams are practically indistinguishable. If you dream of leaving your body, the experience is much the same.

LaBerge’s studies of physiology of the initiation of lucidity in the dream state have revealed that lucid dreams have two ways of starting. In the much more common variety, the ‘dream-initiated lucid dream’ (DILD), the dreamer acquires awareness of being in a dream while fully involved in it. DILDs occur when dreamers are right in the middle of REM sleep, showing lots of the characteristic rapid eye movements. DILDs account for about four out of every five lucid dreams that the dreamers have had in the laboratory. In the other 20 percent, the dreamers report awakening from a dream and then returning to the dream state with unbroken awareness — one moment they are aware that they are awake in bed in the sleep laboratory, and the next moment, they are aware that they have entered a dream and are no longer perceiving the room around them. These are called ‘wake initiated lucid dreams’ (WILDs).

For many people, having lucid dreams is fun, and they want to learn how to have more or to how to induce them at will. One finding from early experimental work was that high levels of physical (and emotional) activity during the day tend to precede lucidity at night. Waking during the night and carrying out some kind of activity before falling asleep again can also encourage a lucid dream during the next REM period and is the basis of some induction techniques. Many methods have been developed and they roughly fall into three categories.

One of the best known techniques for stimulating lucid dreams is LaBerge’s MILD (Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreaming). This technique is practiced on waking in the early morning from a dream. You should wake up fully, engage in some activity like reading or walking about, and then lie down to go to sleep again. Then you must imagine yourself asleep and dreaming, rehearse the dream from which you woke, and remind yourself, ‘Next time I have this dream, I want to remember I’m dreaming.’

A second approach involves constantly reminding yourself to become lucid throughout the day rather than the night. This is based on the idea that we spend most of our time in a kind of waking daze. If we could be more lucid in waking life, perhaps we could be more lucid while dreaming. German psychologist Paul Tholey [Tho83] suggests asking yourself many times every day, ‘Am I dreaming or not?’ This exercise might sound easy, but is not. It takes a lot of determination and persistence not to forget all about it. For those who do forget, French researcher Clerc suggests writing a large ‘C’ on your hand (for ‘conscious’) to remind you [GB89]. This kind of method is similar to the age-old technique for increasing awareness by meditation and mindfulness.

The third and final approach requires a variety of gadgets. The idea is to use some sort of external signal to remind people, while they are actually in REM sleep, that they are dreaming. Hearne first tried spraying water onto sleepers’ faces or hands but found it too unreliable. This sometimes caused them to incorporate water imagery into their dreams, but they rarely became lucid. He eventually decided to use a mild electrical shock to the wrist. His ‘dream machine’ detects changes in breathing rate (which accompany the onset of REM) and then automatically delivers a shock to the wrist [Hea90].

Meanwhile, in California, LaBerge [LaB85] was rejecting taped voices and vibrations and working instead with flashing lights. The original version of a lucid dream-inducing device which he developed was laboratory based and used a personal computer to detect the eye movements of REM sleep and to turn on flashing lights whenever the REMs reached a certain level. Eventually, however, all the circuitry was incorporated into a pair of goggles. The idea is to put the goggles on at night, and the lights will flash only when you are asleep and dreaming. The user can even control the level of eye movements at which the lights begin to flash. The newest version has a chip incorporated into the goggles, which will not only control the lights but will store data on eye-movement density during the night as well as information about when and for how long the lights were flashing, making fine tuning possible.

There are two reasons for associating lucid dreams with OBEs. First, recent research suggests that the same people tend to have both lucid dreams and OBEs [Bla88, Irw88]. Second, as Green pointed out [Gre68b] it is hard to know where to draw the line between an OBE and a lucid dream. In both, the person seems to be perceiving a consistent world. Also the subject, unlike in an ordinary dream, is well aware that he is in some altered state and is able to comment on and even control the experience. Green refers to all such states as ‘metachoric experiences.’ It is possible to draw a line between these two experiences, but the important point to realize is that that line is not clear, and the two have much in common.

But there is an important difference between lucid dreams and the other states. In the lucid dream one has insight into the state (in fact that fact defines the state). In false awakening, one does not have such insight (again by definition). In typical OBEs, people feel that they have really left their bodies. Those experiencing NDEs may have a sense of rushing down a long tunnel, which some perceive as being an entryway into a world beyond death. It is only in the lucid dream that one realizes it is a dream.

Just as in the case of OBEs, surveys can tell us how common lucid dreams are and who has them. Blackmore estimates that about 50 percent of people have had at least one lucid dream in their lives [Bla91]. Green [Gre66] found that 73% of student sample answered ‘yes’ to the question, ‘Have you ever had a dream in which you were aware that you were dreaming?.’ Palmer found that 56% of the townspeople and 71% of the students in his sample reported that they had had lucid dreams and many of these claimed to have them regularly [Pal79b]. Blackmore found that 79% of the Surrey students she interviewed had them [Bla82]. Beyond producing these kinds of results, it does not seem that surveys can find out much. There are no very consistent differences between lucid dreamers and others in terms of age, sex, education, and so on [GL88]. All these surveys seem to agree quite closely, showing that the lucid dream is a rather common experience — far more common than the OBE.