Lucid DreamsPopular psychologists believe that all humans have dreams: dreaming is a normal, natural part of every person’s life. This belief is based on the traditional teachings of cultures from around the world, on the findings of the modern sleep laboratory, and on the experiences of popular psychologists in working closely with countless members of the general public.
Popular psychologists generally agree that dreams are formed out of material from people’s ordinary, daily life activities. They also agree that consciousness can play a large role in influencing and controlling dream content, for example, in the case of lucid dreaming.
Lucid dreaming is the ability to become aware within a dream that one is dreaming. In Western culture this ability was recognized at least as early as the time of Aristotle, was noted in passing by Freud, and was discussed at some length in the books of all the popular psychologists.
But only in the last few decades have scientific researchers begun making a truly detailed and systematic study of lucid dreams.
In1887, Frederic W.H. Myers wrote:I was, I thought, standing in my study; but I observed that the furniture had not its usual distinctness – that everything was blurred and somehow evaded a direct gaze.
It struck me that this must be because I was dreaming. This was a great delight to me, as giving the opportunity of experimentation. I made a strong effort to keep calm, knowing the risk of waking. I wanted most of all to see and speak to somebody, to see whether they were like the real persons, and how they behaved.
I remembered that my wife and children were away at the time (which was true), and I did not reason to the effect that they might be present in a dream, though absent from home in reality.I therefore wished to see one of the servants; but I was afraid to ring the bell, lest the shock would wake me. I very cautiously walked downstairs – after calculating that I should be more sure to find someone in the pantry or kitchen than in a workroom, where I first thought of going. As I walked downstairs I looked carefully at the stair-carpet, to see whether I could visualize better in dream than in waking life.
I found that this was not so; the dream-carpet was not like what I knew it in truth to be; rather, it was a thin, ragged carpet, apparently vaguely generalized from memories of seaside lodgings. The dream was very clear in my mind; I was thoroughly awake; I perceived its great interest to me and I stamped it on my mind – I venture to say-almost exactly as I tell it here. (pp. 241-242)Although we are usually unaware of the fact that we are dreaming while we are dreaming, at times a remarkable exception occurs, and as in Myers’ dream, we become conscious enough to realize that we are dreaming.
Lucid dreamers report being able to remember freely the circumstances of waking life, to think more or less clearly, and to act deliberately upon reflection, all the while experiencing a dream world that seems vividly real (Gackenbach ; LaBerge, 1988). Of course, this is all contrary to the characterization of dreams as essentially lacking any reflective awareness or true volition.Indeed, the concept of “conscious sleep” can seem so self-contradictory and paradoxical to certain ways of thinking that some theoreticians have considered lucid dreams impossible and even absurd. Probably the most extreme example of this point of view is provided by Malcolm (1959), who argued that if being asleep means experiencing nothing whatsoever, “dreams” are not experiences during sleep at all, but only the reports we tell after awakening.
This concept of sleep led Malcolm to conclude that the idea that someone might reason while asleep is “meaningless.” From here, Malcolm reasoned that “If ‘I am dreaming’ could express a judgment it would imply the judgment ‘I am asleep,’ and therefore the absurdity of the latter proves the absurdity of the former.” Thus “the supposed judgment that one is dreaming” is “unintelligible” and “an inherently absurd form of words” (pp. 48-50).
The point of this example is to show the skeptical light in which accounts of lucid dreaming were viewed before physiological proof of the reality of the phenomenon made philosophical arguments moot. As for the occasional reports in which dreamers claimed to have been fully aware that they were dreaming while they were dreaming, and recently the orthodox view in sleep and dream research assumed that anecdotal accounts of lucid dreams must be somehow spurious.So the question was raised: Under what presumably abnormal or at least exceptional physiological conditions do reports of lucid dreams occur? In the absence of empirical evidence bearing on the question, conjecture largely favored two answers: either wakefulness or NREM sleep. Most sleep researchers apparently agreed with Hartmann’s “impression” that lucid dreams were “not typical parts of dreaming thought, but rather brief arousals” (Hartmann, 1975).
Schwartz and Lefebvre (1973) noted that frequent transitory arousals were common during REM sleep and proposed these “micro-awakenings” as the physiological basis for lucid dream reports. Although no evidence for this mechanism had been presented, it seems to have been the received opinion until the last few years. A similar view was put forward by Antrobus and Fisher (1965), who predicted that recognition by the dreamer of the fact that he or she is dreaming would either immediately terminate the dream or continue in NREM sleep. Likewise, Hall (1977) speculated that lucid dreams may represent “a transition from Stage-1 REM to Stage-4 mentation” (p.
312). Only Green (1968) seems to have correctly reasoned that since lucid dreams usually arise from nonlucid dreams, “we may tentatively expect to find lucid dreams occurring, as do other dreams, during the ‘paradoxical’ phase of sleep” (p. 128).Empirical evidence began to appear in the late 1970s supporting Green’s speculation that lucid dreams occur during REM sleep.
Based on standard sleep recordings of two subjects who reported a total of three lucid dreams upon awakening from REM periods, Ogilvie, Hunt, Sawicki, and McGowan (1978) cautiously concluded that “it may be that lucid dreams begin in REM” (p. 165). However, no proof was given that the reported lucid dreams had in fact occurred during the REM sleep immediately preceding the awakenings and reports. Indeed, the subjects themselves were uncertain about when their lucid dreams had taken place.
What was needed to determine unambiguously the physiological status of lucid dreams was some sort of behavioral response by the lucid dreamer signaling to the experimenter that the lucid dream was taking place, along the lines pioneered by Antrobus, et al. (1965), who had asked four subjects to signal when they were asleep and dreaming by pressing a microswitch. Although the subjects were able to signal from all stages of sleep, unfortunately they were not awakened after signals and dream reports were only collected at the end of the night. Some of these signals may have been from lucid dreams, but the subjects were not asked whether they were aware of signaling or of dreaming.
The experience of dreaming lucidly, that is, awareness of dreaming while dreaming, has been suggested by Hunt (1989) to be a form of meditation in sleep. He identifies this dream state as “involving the attainment and maintenance of an attitude identical to that sought within the insight or mindfulness meditative traditions” (Hunt & McLeod, 1984, p. 3). Although empirical evidence in support of this view is briefly reviewed here, the focus of this work is a potential neurocognitive model for dream lucidity.
In the meditation research literature, Alexander and Orme-Johnson (1985) considered three major hypotheses:1. REM sleep shows a close coordination of the electrical manifestations of activity of the two hemispheres, higher EEG coherence, for selected frequencies.2. As a result of increases in alpha/theta interhemispheric EEG coherence during the practice of meditation, which is not the same as Stage 1 sleep, there is less need to experience as much REM sleep.
3. The emergence of consciousness in sleep (lucidity) is enhanced by the practice of meditation and is most likely to occur during the stage of sleep that shows interhemispheric balance in the alpha/theta range, REM. Further, lucidity is likely to be accompanied by additional increases in interhemispheric coherence over normal REM levels similar to those reported during key points in meditation.Previous models of exclusive hemispheric specialization of the brain have given way more recently to models of its interactiveness.
Levy (1985) points out that “the two-brain myth was founded on an erroneous premise: that since each hemisphere was specialized each must function as an independent brain. But in fact, just the opposite is true” (p. 43). She goes on to point out that although each hemisphere may be specialized for function, all activitiesrequire input from both hemispheres.
For instance, when a person reads a story using the language-based left hemisphere, “the right hemisphere may play a special role in decoding visual information, maintaining an integrated story structure, appreciating humor and emotional content, deriving meaning from past associations and understanding metaphor”(p. 43). Further Levy notes, “there is no evidence that either creativity or intuition is an exclusive property of the right hemisphere” (p. 44).
Sleep and dream researchers paralleled other behavioral scientists in focusing on an asymmetrical model of hemispheric specialization as a function of stage of sleep (Broughton, 1975). Also paralleling research in the waking states, these models, which enjoyed support (Goldstein, Staltzfus, & Gardocki, 1972), failed to stand up to rigorous scientific examination (Antrobus, 1987). More recent work on the relative role of each hemisphere in sleep continues to parallel that in waking. Relative hemispheric synchronization is seen as changing as a function of stage of sleep.
Several EEG measures potentially reflect this integrative view of brain functioning. Of concern here are: EEG Coherence (COH), which is broadly defined as “a statistical estimate of the correlation between pairs of signals as a function of frequency . . .
and is mathematically independent of signal amplitude” (French & Beaumont 241), and interhemispheric EEG differences (DIFF), which is the “absolute difference in period analyzed EEG between homologous electrode sites” (Armitage, Hoffman, Loewy, &Moffitt, 1988). Although these measures are methodologically different in their derivation, they are conceptually similar in that they have both been said to reflect interhemispheric synchronization. It should be noted, however, that COH is more commonly used as an indication of the degree to which the hemispheres are working in concert. COH validity was determined by Boivin, Cote, Lapiene, and Montplaisir (1987), who examined interhemispheric COH in sleep before and after an anterior colostomy.
Although there are differences in computational methods for COH, in a review of the literature, French and Beaumont ( 1984) point out that they could not discern any pattern relating differences in findings to mathematical derivation differences. This is not to say that there are not methodological concerns in the COH literature. Banquet (1972) points to the importance of separating frequency from phase synchronization, while French and Beaumont (1984) and Koles and Flor-Henry (1987) argue that the major problems in the literature are because of the use of an active common reference for the recording of the EEG. In sum, although no onehas directly looked at the relationship of COH to DIFF, both have been used in sleep research to determine relative hemispheric specialization as a function of stage of sleep.
Both measures, but especially COH, can be conceptualized as measuring the degree to which selected components of the brain are working in unison, or as indications of neural connectivity.The pioneer in lucid dreams is Stephen LaBerge, whose book Lucid Dreaming (1985) explains his psychophysiological research on lucid dreams to a mass-market audience. LaBerge had experienced lucid dreams from the age of five, and as he grew up he became increasingly fascinated by the phenomenon. In 1977 he first read the book Lucid Dreams (1968) by British parapsychologist Celia Green.
Green’s work further stimulated LaBerge’s interest, and he began keeping a journal that after seven years contained almost nine hundred lucid dream reports. The more he studied his own lucid dream experiences, the more he wanted to try to “communicate from the lucid dream to the outside world, while the dream was happening” (68). He entered a doctoral program in psychophysiology at Stanford University’s sleep laboratory with the express intent of using sleep lab technology to achieve his goal of scientifically proving that lucid dreams really occur.As LaBerge pursued his research he found that despite the historical testimony ofpeople like Aristotle and despite the contemporary reports of Celia Green, Ann Faraday, Patricia Garfield, and others, most sleep and dream researchers did not accept that lucid dreams were really dreams.
In large part this resistance was due to an essentially philosophical belief that a person simply could not be asleep and conscious at the same time: to be asleep is, by definition, not to be conscious. For many mainstream dream researchers, the very concept of “”lucid dreaming” seemed to be a contradiction in terms.To refute this skeptical argument, LaBerge devised an experiment. The standard tool of measurement in a sleep lab is the EEG machine, which measures eye movements during the various stages of sleep.
LaBerge says:I knew that lucid dreamers could freely look in any direction they wished while in a lucid dream, because I had done this myself. It occurred to me that by moving my (dream) eyes in a recognizable pattern, I might be able to send a signal to the outside world when I was having a lucid dream. (68)After a number of failed attempts, LaBerge finally succeeded in becoming lucid while dreaming in Stanford’s sleep laboratory. Within his dream he opened his eyes, held his finger in front of him, and moved it in a vertical line, following it carefully with his eyes.
When he awoke he and his colleagues checked the data from the EEG monitor that had been attached to LaBerge while he slept: “[W]e observed two large eye movements on the polygraph record just before I awakened from a thirteen-minute REM period. Here, finally, was objective evidence that at least one lucid dream had taken place during what was clearly REM sleep!”(70) LaBerge and others soon replicated this experiment, demonstrating that withinREM sleep a person can become conscious and make prearranged eye signals through an EEG monitor to outside observers.LaBerge also suggests that lucid dreaming can offer people a means of spiritual growth and discovery. He describes traditional yogic practices of Tibetan Buddhists that concentrate on developing a “comprehension” of the illusory nature of the dream state; this comprehension is then generalized to the waking state, revealing the truth that all of reality is ultimately illusory.
For modern Westerners, LaBerge says that lucid dreaming can lead to the same basic spiritual insights as those of Tibetan Buddhism:Lucid dreaming can be a point of departure from which to understand how we might not be fully awake – for as ordinary dreaming is to lucid dreaming, so the ordinary waking state might be to the fully awakened state. This capacity of lucid dreams, to prepare us for a fuller awakening, may prove to be lucid dreaming’s most significant potential for helping us become more alive in our lives. (279)The emergence of consciousness in sleep is enhanced by the practice of meditation and is most likely to occur during the stage of sleep, which shows interhemispheric balance in the alpha/theta range, REM. Further, lucidity is likely to be accompanied by additional increases in interhemispheric coherence over normal REM levels similar to those reported during key points in meditation.
Consciousness of oneself dreaming is extremely rare (although cognitive training does increase self-reflectiveness during dreams). Recognition of dreaming (lucidity) generally leads to spontaneously awakening upon awareness of the dream state. LaBerge (1985) hasalso pointed to the difficulty of maintaining a sense of conscious awareness during the dream state even among those who practice lucid dreaming. Laberge has pointed out that the lack of intentionality during ordinary dreams is also manifested in lucid dreaming.
Rather than intention determining lucid-dream outcomes, it is the power of expectation.This sense that ordinary dreams have of occurring to us in an automatic fashion is quite different from what typically occurs during waking consciousness. Dreams’ single-mindedness or mindless action is intensified as a consequence of isolation from the sensorydata and social relationships that sustain waking consciousness. The altered sense of self also reflects the lack of frontally based systems reference from which one ordinarily obtains an additional perspective from which to think reflexively about oneself, creating self-consciousness.
Since 1953, many investigators have tried to find physiological correlates of dream content. One aspect of dream content is lucidity, or the realization that one is dreaming in themidst of the dream without awakening. It has been found that lucidity occurs most frequently within the REM stage and is not related to awakening from sleep. Tyson, Ogilvie, and Hunt tested the suggestion of an association between lucid dreams and high amplitude EEG alpha during REM sleep.
They reported that lucid dreams had high alpha early in the REM period followed by a distinct lowering of REM alpha. In contrast, consistently high REM alpha was associated with prelucid dreams having bizarre, emotional dream content. They hypothesized that lucid content sometimes emerges from prelucid experiences, a suggestion that calls for further investigation of the REM alpha and lucidity relationship. Lucid dreams differ from ordinary dreams in the dreamer’s conscious awareness of the ongoing dream.
Qualitative differences in lucid dreams include possession of waking faculties, such as reason, memory, reflection, and volition. The experiences of lucid dreams are subject to deliberate cultivation, as is evidenced in the reports of yogic traditions. Hunt (1989) provided an overview of lucid dreams and related phenomena that showed that the physiological, phenomenological, and cognitive aspects confirm their nature as spontaneous meditative states. Similarities between dreams and meditative states are also found in common EEG and autonomic changes; in increased incidence of lucid dreams among long-term meditators; and in physical detachment, inactive conditions, social withdrawal, and enforced motionlessness.
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