Lucid Dreaming and the Self

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Biology 202

2006 Third Web Paper

On Serendip

Lucid Dreaming and the Self


When someone remembers a dream, the next day he or she is quick to share with friends. If the story is particularly strange, the dreamer is likely to be bewildered yet delighted to recount his or her strange adventures. A particular person may have made an unexpected appearance, or perhaps more seriously, a loved one may have died. For some, dreams are an entertaining coincidence. Others seek meaning in dream dictionaries. No matter what the initial reaction, it is difficult to know what to make of dreams. Although the information in dream analysis books may not provide the dreamer with any insight about his or herself, dreams stimulate introspection. Specifically, consciousness in dreams, presents humans with an opportunity to explore their minds and gain a better understanding of the self.

The average dreamer may be startled by the level of reality that he or she experiences while maintaining the notion that a state of sleep requires a lack of mobility and consciousness. As widely conceived as this is, it is proven that a person can carry out complex processes while remaining asleep. "Sleepwalkers" can walk and talk while technically sleeping. One young woman climbed to the top of a 130 ft tall crane and there have been homicide cases in which the defendant claimed to have been sleepwalking while committing the crime (1), (2). Situations like these show that the sleep-state can quickly turn from a place to have creative adventures to a potential for danger. For some, it might be fun and interesting to lay back and let dreams occur only to possibly remember them in the morning. For others, the lack of control that many people experience while asleep can lead to unpleasant nightmares or in the case of people with sleep disorders, embarrassing behavior.

Some people however, do not experience dreams as uncontrollable or mysterious occurrences. Lucid dreamers have the ability to recognize that they are currently dreaming and are sometimes even able to control what they do in their dreams. Today, scientists are exploring the characteristics of lucid dreams and developing techniques for people to use to create them.

Situations like these show that the sleep-state can quickly turn from a place to have creative adventures to a potential for danger. For some, it might be fun and interesting to lay back and let dreams occur only to possibly remember them in the morning. For others, the lack of control that many people experience while asleep can lead to unpleasant nightmares or in the case of people with sleep disorders, embarrassing behavior.

For people who have never experienced a lucid dream, the prospect of creating a complex adventure with no consequences in reality is fascinating. "The Lucidity Institute" organizes vacation trips in Hawaii to provide the curious with techniques and the proper setting to become lucid dreamers (3). However, lucid dreaming is not something in which only well-off tourists dabble. The section of the widely successful public-access encyclopedia website Wikipedia called "Wikibooks" features a volunteer-written guide to lucid dreaming. The Lucid Dreaming book was voted the Book of the Month in February 2005 (4). It is clear that there is a public interest in learning about dreams and attaining consciousness while not having to be confronted by reality.

Some of the techniques being developed today to bring about lucidity may seem like science fiction. For example, Stephen LaBerge of the Lucidity Institute created the NovaDreamer, a sleep mask fully equipped with lights, speakers, and a device to track eye motion. The lights and sounds serve as "dream cues." Eye movement during REM sleep has been proven to be indicative of lucidity because lucid dreamers can perform certain predetermined eye movements while dreaming. By measuring eye movement, the NovaDreamer can detect the point a which a dreamer gains control of the dream. Eye movement measurements also allow the NovaDreamer to time cues to occur during REM sleep. Sometimes, the cues will be incorporated into the dream. For example, a flashing light might become a part of a dream story. If the dreamer becomes lucid, he or she will remember that the lights are part of the NovaDreamer and the dream state will be interrupted. Another function of the NovaDreamer is a button that the subject will press if he or she wakes up to delay the stimuli while he or she falls back asleep. The button will make a beeping noise when pressed. Because of this, the NovaDreamer can provide another dream cue. Some people will dream about waking up and pressing the button, and when there is no beep, it is a sign that the person is dreaming (5). Recognizing the dream state is the first step to maintaining consciousness throughout the dream, and controlling the events that take place during the dream.

Although the practice of conditioning the brain to increase the chance of lucidity while may seem like a new if unbelievable phenomenon, it has been a spiritual tool for more than a thousand years (6). Through lucid dreaming, Buddhists have sought enlightenment. The philosophy of Buddhism is that suffering is existence (7). First accepting that life leads to suffering and that enlightenment is possible, one must follow the Eightfold Path in order to escape from suffering. One step of the Eightfold Path is "Right Mindfulness", in which a person sustains awareness the surroundings and the way the self fabricates a story from them. The Buddha outlined Right Mindfulness as consisting of four concepts-- contemplation of the body, contemplation of feeling, contemplation of the state of mind, and contemplation of the phenomena (7). Since the Buddhist philosophy maintains that "reality" as we see it is not truly reality because it is obscured by our perceptions of it, Buddhists have long sought to find a clearer reality in the sleep state. To them, dreaming is not an oddity nor is lucid dreaming a lark. Through "dream yoga," individuals can maintain consciousness while asleep and seek a better understanding of the self.

The techniques of dream yoga are ancient and extensive. For example, as one is falling asleep, he or she is directed to "Sleep on the right side as the lion doth. With the thumb and ring finger of the right hand press the pulsation of the throat-arteries; stop the nostrils with the fingers [of the left hand]; and let the saliva collect in the throat."(6) However, despite the fact that such instructions seem foreign in our Western world, they may in fact cause REM sleep to occur faster by lowering heart rate and also create a generally increased state of consciousness as the subject falls asleep (6) . The concept of mindfulness is essential in dream yoga, for the subject must maintain the same way of thinking all day long as when sleeping. In contrast to Western strategies today, in which individuals ask themselves "Am I awake?" (3) , dream yoga suggests that the person be constantly remind himself that he is dreaming (6).

Certainly centuries old spiritual dream practices will differ from developing scientific findings in the Western world. However, it is telling that people from such different walks of life seek refuge in the dream the world. Perhaps most Americans would not see dreams as a source of salvation. Still, the fact that people have an interest in controlling their dreams suggests that they have an interest in learning about consciousness and the way the brain works. Human curiosity about dreams inspires us to confront issues of reality and fabrications of the mind. Even an individual may not explore lucid dreaming through a spiritual lens like in Buddhism, it inevitably is a way for individuals to escape from reality as they perceive it and explore themselves without any outside stimulation.

WWW Resources:

1) Teen 'sleepwalks to top of crane', BBC article

2) 'Sleepwalker' accused of murder, BBC article

3) "Inward Bound", New York Times article

4) "Lucid Dreaming", open-content textbook

5) Lucid Dreaming FAQ by The Lucidity Institute

6) Wallace, B. Alan (Ed.). (2003). Buddhism and Science. New York, New York: Columbia University Press. See especially Stephen LaBerge's "Lucid Dreaming and the Yoga of the Dream State: A Psychophysiological Perspective" pp 233-255.

7) "About Buddhism"

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