ʻLucid dreamingʼ is a term first coined by Frederik van Eeden, when he used the word ʻlucidʼ to infer mental clarity. This reflects the essence of lucid dreaming, where the dreamer is aware that they are in a dream, and can excerpt some measure of control over dream events. These dreams are rare and most people are not aware that they are in a dream state. This is thought to be a protective mechanism, as it has been suggested that we do not realise we are dreaming so as not to ʻact outʼ our dreams and potentially hurt ourselves. We instead settle for a ‘seeing is believing’ approach whilst paralysed by sleep. The brain is essentially protecting us from ourselves.
With increased public interest and scientific research involving altered states of perception in recent years, the science behind lucid dreaming is under massive scrutiny. A glance at the latest available iPhone apps confirms this: awareness is higher than ever before. Regardless, lucid dreaming is not a modern discovery. The scriptures of early Buddhist schools (namely the ʻSutra of Mindfulness of the Bodyʼ in the Madhyama Āgama) taught practitioners to be aware of four states of being asleep and/or awake. An idea also contemplated by both the Bonpo when exercising their form of ʻdream yogaʼ and by Dzogchen awareness meditation, both of which hope to attaining lucidity.
But how and why does lucid dreaming occur? Norman Malcolmʼs 1959 text, Dreaming, suggests that lucidity in dreams often occurs when subjects pass directly from wakefulness into Rapid-Eye Movement (REM) sleep. This REM sleep is thought to be the ʻdeepestʼ sleep state, with its rapid, low-voltage brain waves most resembling those shown by the conscious subject. Approximately 20-25% of the sleep cycle is spent in this phase, and this is when and where the most memorable and vivid dreams are likely to occur. The purpose of the different phases of sleep is unknown, however there is a school of thought suggesting that these β-waves, in conjunction with deactivation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, have a role in memory, with deprived subjects recalling fewer events.
Despite the scientifically sound events recorded by electroencephalography (EEG), the validity of research into lucid dreaming remains under question. It is difficult to quantify and trust first hand observations recorded by the dreamer. This was remedied by Stephen LaBergeʼs Stanford dissertation, where he developed an eye-signaling technique where subjects who were aware of their dream could inform him without releasing themselves from the dream. He found that time-perception within the dream followed a typically awake pattern, and that subjectsʼ perception of reality would alter. Events which couldnʼt possibly be true, such as seeing the deceased, where justified by the dreamer, allowing them to convince themselves that the dream was reality.
With anecdotal evidence of such powerful phenomena it is not surprising that potential uses of lucid dreaming has been explored further. Australian psychologist Milan Colic suggested that teaching nightmare sufferers how to enter a lucid dream state could help in reducing their fear in a similar way to narrative therapy. Creating a vivid description of life events could help patients come to terms with their emotions, which could in turn reduce the distressing content of dreams. Other, more commercial technologies such as the NovaDreamer also hope to induce such a state, purely for recreational enjoyment. This again calls for further study. Perhaps it is in a not so distant future we may all be able to control the previously uncontrollable.