I really hate it when a dream seems so real that I believe the events actually happened. I’ll do something terrible or embarrassing, and the next day I will feel like everybody remembers I did those things (only, of course, to realize that it never happened and they don’t know why I’m acting strangely). If only there was a way to tell myself that I’m just dreaming, I could have some control over the situation.
Well, some say there is a way. Lucid dreaming is the phenomenon in which the dreamers become aware that they are dreaming and are able, in some cases, to assert themselves over the content of the dream. If you are not making a conscious effort to achieve lucidity, it may happen infrequently, but you have probably experienced it at some point in your life. I remember my most vivid lucid dream. I became aware I was dreaming, but I still didn’t grasp the potential for experimentation. My dream still had to follow a story, so I created transitions instead of abrupt changes.
It went like this: I was walking down a highway and off to my left was this great prehistoric forest. Huge vines and massive trees set down in a valley. I was amazed and thought “I wish I could show this place to my friends…but it’s a dream.” With this realization, a light rain started to fall. I didn’t try to stop the rain. Instead, I created a place to escape the rain. On the other side of the highway, a strip mall opened up. The signs were all spinning like counters waiting for me to choose what kind of store each belonged to. What did I want? “Hmm, I could really go for some frozen yogurt.” A sign stopped on the TCBY logo and I went in to dry off and enjoy my dessert.
I hadn’t been trying at lucid dreaming; I wasn’t expecting it. I was unprepared for it, so I feel like I didn’t make the most of it. It’s hard to say if I could have controlled the dream any more if I had been expecting it, because our minds are wired to believe what they see. This is why hallucinations are so dangerous. Even if you rationally understand that your friend’s face couldn’t turn into a pile of squirming maggots, if that’s what you see, it will be hard to convince you it’s not real. For the same reason, no matter how strange and surreal the dream becomes, our brain is willing to accept it as reality.
EEG readings show higher amounts of beta-1 waves during lucid dreaming, which seems to indicate conscious thought. It can begin during a dream (dream-initiated), or you can transition directly from awake to dreaming without losing self-awareness (wake-initiated). I believe on occasion I’ve been able to transition through wake-initiated lucid dreaming, but it is very difficult to maintain conscious focus once you cross that threshold. I will close my eyes and begin dictating my environment, only to realize in a few minutes that my attention has wandered, wake and try again. Truly, if you need to get to sleep and your body/mind won’t let you, just close your eyes and really try to build a story. Don’t just think about things you have to do, visualize yourself doing them step by step. You’ll be dreaming in no time. Probably not lucid dreaming, but you’ll at least be sleeping.
A fair amount of research has been done on lucid dreaming, and one observation has been that the perception of time seems to be about the same during lucid dreaming as while awake. How do we gauge this? Eye signals. During REM sleep, our eyes jump around quite a bit, but imagine for a moment that you realize you’re dreaming and you have the ability to control where you look. Yes, you’re actually just looking at your eyelids, but your brain is still telling you what you see, so without breaking from the dreamscape, you are able to give messages to the waking world where scientists with electrooculograms record your activities.
The eyes are our best bridge for communication with the dreamer. In fact, devices have been marketed to lucid dreaming hopefuls that produce a blinking red light which is visible through the eyelid as a signal to the dreamer. Many of these devices were discontinued due to discomfort and poor success rate. The manufacturer says that success will dramatically increase if you follow the instructions on reality checking, but if you’re able to reality check in a dream, congrats you’re already expressing conscious control. They will lead you to believe that if you couldn’t do the reality check, the device isn’t working because you’ve failed to do your part. Sounds like a snake oil to me.
Awareness in dreams has been recorded and given names throughout history, especially early Buddhism. The term lucid dreaming wasn’t used until 1913 when Frederick van Eeden used it in a commentary article on sleep. It would be interesting to know, based on yesterday’s entry about the chemicals of sleep, what role adenosine plays in lucid dreaming. If you remember, adenosine is responsible for suppressing arousal, so would it also be responsible for keeping us dreaming once we’ve realized we are dreaming? Would higher levels of adenosine allow us more conscious control over the dream for a longer time or would it simply prevent us from realizing we’re dreaming?
Aside: Seriously, you need to watch Inception if you haven’t already. It’s pretty dark, but very relevant, especially with the inclusion of reality checks.
When I asked about the most interesting facet of sleep/dreaming, lucid dreaming topped the list of responses, so I would like to spend more time on this subject. Consider this Part One and check back soon for the continuation where I will discuss some methods used to achieve lucidity. Tomorrow’s free topic is just around the corner. Are you prepared?