A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How do you have lucid dreams?

August 5, 2005

Dear Cecil:

I've read about a lot of different methods to increase the number of lucid dreams you have. Most of them require serious commitment, though, and before I take one up I want to know if it actually works. Is there a method that really helps you have lucid dreams?

Like many people, I have dreams nearly every night. Some seem significant, most are probably pointless or silly, but I'd really like to know for sure. How can I remember in the morning what I've dreamed the night before?

Cecil replies:

"Lucid dreams?" said Little Ed, befuddled as usual, on reading Derek's question. "So he can tell when the snakes and cigars are really just snakes and cigars?"

No, dolt. Lucid dreaming is a paradoxical state in which the window of consciousness is seemingly closed to the outside world but open to an inner one. Lucid dreamers know they're dreaming, and if truly adept can return to the same dream night after night and manipulate the content, all without waking up. Sounds like a nifty skill, and life-changing benefits are ascribed to it. But many people, like Anthony, have a more basic concern: far from having enough on the ball to dream-surf, they barely remember their dreams at all.

The best-known guru of lucid dreaming is Stephen LaBerge, author of several books on the subject and founder of the Lucidity Institute in Palo Alto, California. LaBerge's qualifications are twofold: first, he's a PhD in psychophysiology who conducted dream research for many years at Stanford University, and second, he's a veteran lucid dreamer who over a seven-year stretch recorded nearly 900 lucid dreams.

Lucid dreaming — the term was coined by Dutch writer and physician Frederik van Eeden in 1913 — has been known for centuries. But it had been largely forgotten until interest in altered states of consciousness perked up among certain scholars during the 1960s and '70s. LaBerge, for one, decided lucid dreaming offered a route to personal growth, vanquishing inner demons, etc. Here's his report of a lucid encounter with a scary dream genie: "Realizing that my fear had created his terrible appearance, I resolved to embrace what I had been eager to reject, and with open arms and heart I took both his hands in mine. As the dream slowly faded, the genie's power seemed to flow into me, and I awoke filled with vibrant energy."

Whatever. But LaBerge makes a good case that lucid dreaming isn't just aging hippies kidding themselves. The chief proof is his own research involving rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when most dreams occur. Knowing that REMs can indicate where the subject is "looking" in his dream, LaBerge and other lucid dreamers arranged to signal lab technicians that they were in control of their dreams by moving their eyes in a specified way. Sure enough, they were able to do so, even though instruments showed they were still asleep. From what I can tell, sleep scientists now generally accept that you can be aware you're having a dream.

Is lucid dreaming a gateway to a higher state of awareness? I'm skeptical, and when I queried him LaBerge said merely that it can be "one of many pathways to continued development." The simplest explanation for conscious control of dreams is that the dreamer is in fact close to consciousness, and that practitioners have merely mastered the art of dancing on the thin line between wakefulness and sleep. LaBerge doesn't buy this, telling me, "Our research indicates that lucid dreaming takes place during deep, intense REM sleep." We might debate whether higher central nervous system involvement = deep sleep, but let's leave that for later.

More relevant for present purposes is whether lucid dreaming can be learned. LaBerge says yes, but I'm not convinced it's something everyone can do. Even a casual reading of first-person accounts suggests that lucid dreamers have exceptional powers of recollection. One study found they're also more imaginative and inclined to mystical experience. A cynic might interpret that to mean they're more prone to being flakes, but let's be charitable and say they see and remember with a vividness about which the rest of us can, well, only dream.

If you ask me, therefore, the first step in lucid dreaming is deciding whether you're a likely candidate. LaBerge says you need two things: high motivation and good dream recall, not good news for us Anthonys. To improve in the latter department, the Lucidity Institute recommends setting your alarm for some multiple of 90 minutes after bedtime in hopes of waking yourself up during a REM interlude. I don't claim it's pointless to try; on a purely practical level, research indicates lucid dreaming can help control chronic nightmares. I merely suggest that a knack for lucid dreaming seems a lot like perfect pitch — cool if you've got it, but not the end of the world if you don't.

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