“What if you slept, and what if in your sleep you dreamed, and what if in your dream you went to heaven and there you plucked a strange and beautiful flower, and what if when you awoke you had that flower in your hand? Ah, what then?”
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Sometimes I try to push my finger through the palm of my hand. Every time I do this I question the reality of my surroundings, and the answer to that question depends on whether or not my finger passes through my hand. If it doesn’t, it means that I’m bound by laws of physics and biology; that I’m standing in this three-dimensional place that we refer to as “waking life.” But if my finger does pass through, it means that I could float off the earth if I wanted to, and soar over cities and mountains and valleys and among stars. It means that I could walk through walls or teleport to different locations or run at the speed of light. It means that I could compose symphonies, paint photo-realistic portraits straight from my imagination, or change the color of the sky at will. In other words, when I manage to push my finger through my palm and it comes out of the back of my hand, I know that I’m dreaming, and suddenly anything is possible.
The moment you realize that you are dreaming, you are experiencing a lucid dream: “an unusual type of dream in which you become perfectly conscious, with full critical faculties, within the dream state” (The Official Website of Keith Hearne). Provided that you don’t immediately wake up on realizing that you are dreaming, this lucid state can enable you to observe and interact with your dreaming mind. This can simply be a lot of fun because your dreams become your playground. But, on a more profound note, it also allows us to really scrutinize and potentially resolve inner conflict.
Lucid dream expert Tim Post explains that lucid dreaming can enable us to “consciously and reflectively enhance […] psychological development and use the flexibility of the lucid dream to experiment with improved behavior in the lucid dream.” Think, for example, about nightmare treatment: “[L]ucid dreams can be used to treat […] nightmares and to complement […] daytime therapies by training […] a patient to become lucid in his nightmare, and to resolve and rescript the nightmare while he is having it, rather than only in a retrospective way the next day, and just talking about it” (Post). But before we can begin our discussion about lucid dreams, it is necessary to get a common misconception out of the way, which is in fact related to nightmares.
Every once in a while I find myself talking to someone about lucid dreaming. Sometimes I’m talking to someone who is an experienced lucid dreamer as well, sometimes it’s someone who’s never heard of the phenomenon before, and sometimes the person has heard of the phenomenon but their knowledge on the subject is limited. I find it quite striking how many people in the latter category got lucid dreaming mixed up with sleep paralysis. While the two phenomena both occur during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, they are absolutely not the same.
Sleep paralysis is often associated with scary hallucinations as well as the sense that you’re unable to breathe, as if a weight is pressing down on your chest. What could happen is that you wake up in the middle of the night and you discover that you can’t move. You can sense a menacing presence in the corner of your room. As this menacing presence draws near, fear gets a hold of you. Finally this presence comes into view, but because of its shadowy form it’s hard to make out what it is, and you might convince yourself that it’s a demon that’s trying to possess you. Of course this is just an example of what you could experience during a sleep paralysis episode and this is by no means a universal description, but the elements that I’ve described here seem to be fairly common regardless.
Yet, as scary as these experiences can be, they have nothing to do with demonic possessions or alien abductions. On the contrary, there is a perfectly logical explanation for why this happens. Sleep paralysis is a biological mechanism that paralyzes our bodies when we’re asleep to ensure that we can’t get up to act out our dreams. So, sleep paralysis actually exists to keep us safe from harm. However, there is a chance “that the mind awakens, but the body remains in the paralysis state of REM sleep” (LaBerge and Rheingold 144). The dream-state and waking life overlap at this point and “[a]t first, the dreamer actually perceives the environment around him, but as the REM process takes over again, strange things begin to occur” (LaBerge and Rheingold 144). Additionally, “[a]nxiety seems to be a natural concomitant of this physiological condition, and it is worsened by the dreamer’s feeling that he is awake, his belief that these peculiar things are really happening, and the sensation of being unable to move” (LaBerge and Rheingold 144). Furthermore, “[i]f the dreamer goes more completely into REM sleep, he loses the awareness of his body, which causes him to feel paralyzed” (LaBerge and Rheingold 144). If you try to fight this experience and convince yourself that what you see is real, chances are that you will “only [make] matters worse […], since it increases [your] feelings of anxiety” (LaBerge and Rheingold 144). The key is to “remember it is a dream and therefore harmless, and [to] relax, and go with the experience” (LaBerge and Rheingold 144). If you are able to become aware of what sleep paralysis is while experiencing it, you can even use sleep paralysis as a window into a lucid dream.
So, once more, sleep paralysis is not lucid dreaming, and lucid dreaming is not inherently demonic and terrifying. In fact, the opposite is true: lucid dreaming is among the most fun, creative, exciting, psychedelic and profound experiences that I can think of.
That said, this essay will not include tips and tricks on how to induce dream lucidity. The reason for this is twofold. First, there are already countless articles on the internet and various informative books that explain how to do this. I’ll reference some of these in the further reading section at the end of this essay. Second, I don’t necessarily recommend lucid dreaming to anyone but those who are genuinely interested in having these experiences. Whereas it’s completely harmless, I firmly believe that the choice to explore one’s mind must be one’s own and not blindly following a recommendation from someone else.
On April 12, 1975, English psychologist Dr. Keith Hearne “discovered […] a way of enabling lucid-dream subjects in the sleep-lab to signal out from within the dream by making coded eye-movements—so circumventing the profound bodily paralysis of dreaming (REM) sleep, which had previously prevented such communication” (The Official Website of Keith Hearne). Hearne elaborates on this discovery in his book Dream Machine:
After an all-night vigil by the recording apparatus, […] I sat […] watching the ink traces on chart paper being churned out at 1.5 cm per second. The male subject had been in a dreaming period for nearly half an hour. Before going to sleep, the subject had been instructed to make a series of eye-movements to left and right should he realize at any point that he was actually dreaming. […] Suddenly […] a regular set of large zig-zags appeared on the chart. Instantly, I was alert and felt the greatest exhilaration on realizing that I was observing the first ever deliberate signals sent from within a dream to the outside. […] [A]n intelligent message was being writ large via these ocular excursions. They were proclaiming: “I have become aware that I am asleep and dreaming. I am in a dream environment, but I know that my body is wired up in the sleep-lab and that you are in the control room waiting for these signals.” (Hearne 11-12)
These signals are possible because, as Post explains, “Our dream eye movements are reflected by our actual eye movements behind closed eyelids when we are in bed dreaming. So, for example, when you would be in a dream or lucid dream you could look to the left, right, left, right, left, and our actual eye movements behind closed eyelids in bed would also show the same kind of left, right, left, right movement.”
This signaling technique was subsequently used by Dr. Stephen LaBerge in his research, when he personally experienced lucid dreams in his own sleep lab: “During the night I [LaBerge] had a lucid dream in which I moved my eyes left-right-left-right. The next morning, when we looked through the polygraph record, we found the eye movement signals in the middle of a REM period” (LaBerge and Rheingold 15). Additionally, LaBerge and Rheingold state that “[t]he method of having lucid dreamers signal from the dream world by means of eye movements has demonstrated a strong relationship between the gazes of dreamers in the dream and their actual eye movements under closed lids. […] The implication of the strong tie between the movements of the dream eyes and the movements of the actual eyes is that we use the same visual system to look around in the dream world as we do to see the waking world.” (15-16).
On this note LaBerge and Rheingold conclude that “[t]he experiments […] supported the conclusion that the events you experience while asleep and dreaming produce effects on your brain (and, to a lesser extent, your body) much the same as if you were to experience the corresponding events while awake” (16). The authors support this conclusion with the following examples from additional studies: “When lucid dreamers hold their breaths or breathe fast in a dream, they really do hold their breaths or pant. Furthermore, the differences in brain activity caused by singing versus counting in the waking state (singing tends to engage the right hemisphere and counting, the left) are nearly duplicated in the lucid dream” (16-17). Lastly, LaBerge and Rheingold hammer home that “[i]n short, to our brains, dreaming of doing something is equivalent to actually doing it. This finding explains why dreams seem so real. To the brain, they are real” (17).
What’s more, Hearne also writes about the “realness” of dreams, but where LaBerge and Rheingold speak from a neurological perspective, Hearne references the experience of lucidity itself to illustrate his point:
It is more than just a vivid dream—it is like being awake but knowing full well that you are in a dream-scape. Normally in dreams comprehension is limited; we accept nonsensical situations without question, and the dream is considered retrospectively on waking. In lucid dreams, however, full critical awareness can arise. At the moment that the period of dream lucidity (which can last several minutes) starts, a transformation takes place; it is as if consciousness has been suddenly switched on. You are aware of who you are, your personal history, and that your body is really home in bed. You can pick up objects and inspect them minutely, and even question persons around you. Rather than being swept along by the dream, you observe what is happening with cool insight and intelligence. The artificiality of the dream surroundings is realized, but the “realness” is so striking that the whole experience can be one of sheer wonderment! (Hearne 12)
Speaking from my own experience, lucid dreaming is profoundly psychedelic and, in a way, the experience can indeed seem more real than real. Of course, when you see an upside-down house balancing on its roof, or when you find yourself in the middle of a desert playing monopoly with gnomes, or when you witness the sky turning pink, these things don’t exactly reflect waking life reality. But despite the strangeness of dream scenarios, it remains true that, compared to waking life, our vision is sharper; food tastes richer; smells are stronger; bodily sensations are more intense; frequencies beyond our biological limitations can be heard; colors that we don’t have names for can be seen: in short, our perception is greatly enhanced, almost to an impossible degree (except that anything is possible in dreams). For me, it’s as if I only truly wake up when I have a lucid dream, because my perception during waking life periods is so muddy and troubled compared to the high-definition, ultra-realistic qualities of dream lucidity.
On this note Hearne has the following to say: “Alarmingly, or excitingly (depending on one’s viewpoint), the highly anomalous condition of lucid dreaming has thrown into question our current ideas of consciousness and reality. The possibility exists that even waking life is, in actuality, just a well-structured dream-type experience!” (9).
Of course this is a radical statement and by no means do I intend to make any truth claims about the nature of reality. Not only is such a discussion well beyond the scope of this essay, but this also boils down to a question that I won’t pretend to have answers to. The main reason why I include this information about the intensity of lucid dreams is to give you at least an inkling of how incredible a lucid dream experience could be. That said, an inkling doesn’t compare to actually experiencing it for yourself. In any case, just consider this food for thought.
With all this information in the back of our minds, I’ll close this essay with two excerpts from my dream journal. The reason I’m including my own journal entries is because I can only speak with full authority about my own experiences; quoting someone else’s would be insufficient due to dreams’ inherent subjective nature. Lastly, I am not presenting these passages as evidence for the phenomenon’s existence. While I have proven to myself that it’s real by achieving dream lucidity and researchers such as Hearne and LaBerge have found compelling empirical evidence, the only way—for now—to discover for yourself whether it’s real or not is by taking the plunge into your own mind. It’s up to you.
Excerpt 1: “My First Lucid Dream”
My first lucid dream was hectic. I remember standing in my grandmother’s kitchen, looking out the window. Outside there was a forest (of course my grandmother doesn’t live in a forest in waking life), and up ahead there was a gigantic steel platform on four pillars. On top of the platform several cars were parked, including my dad’s. He was standing next to me and was aiming a remote control at his car and activated its stereo. For some reason the music came from a speaker hanging on the kitchen wall.
But then a woman got into my dad’s car and was getting ready to drive. There was a truck behind her and apparently the truck’s driver was getting impatient because he ended up pushing dad’s car off the platform. I remember my dad saying something to the effect of, “Well, that probably leaves a scratch or two.”
Next, the kitchen transformed into the inside of a car and I realized that we were on the platform as well. I raised my middle finger at the trucker and the following moment the trucker stepped on the gas pedal and blasted off. My dad and I gave chase like Batman and Robin in the batmobile.
Suddenly we were in a city environment. The truck had morphed into a van and we were zigzagging through busy city traffic. A cop car raced past us with blaring sirens, except it was going in the opposite direction, so my dad and I decided to take the law into our own hands and catch that sonuvabitch. When dad started driving more hazardously, drifting around corners, zipping between cars right on time, he called at me to brace myself. To which I replied, “But dad, it’s only a dream!”
I hadn’t even said it consciously. The words simply came out of my mouth, and it was only after uttering them that I realized what I had said, and once I realized that—boom! Clarity!
The car, the city, the traffic, everything looked so real that it was nearly indistinguishable from waking life, save for the fact that it looked even more real. Like switching from 240p to full-blown 4k HD, except 4K doesn’t even hold a candle to an actual lucid dream experience.
I remember I started laughing uncontrollably. I grabbed my dad’s shoulders and cheered, “Yeah! I did it! I’m having a lucid dream!” And that’s when I realized that I could do whatever I wanted. I jumped out of the car, through the door, and was about to take to the skies when the excitement became too much and I woke up laughing in my bed. I had never before started laughing in a dream, continued laughing while waking up, and then found myself still laughing after waking. The actual lucidity didn’t last long then, but it was a sign that I could do it.
Excerpt 2: “I’ve Been Here Before”
This is perhaps one of my favorite dreams. The previous excerpt describes my first lucid dream experience, but this one is much more recent. By this point I already had quite a few lucid dreams under my belt, but somehow—to this day—my dreaming mind keeps finding ways to fool me. It’s pretty hilarious, honestly.
On an evening during waking life I was hanging out at my friend’s place, and some of our mutual friends had come over as well, and at some point we ended up watching a few cartoons. Around 3 am I decided that I was tired, so I got up, put on my shoes, told everyone good night, walked home, fell asleep in my bed, and dreamed.
In the dream I was back at my friend’s place, and our mutual friends were also there, and we were watching cartoons, just like we had actually done several hours earlier. Somehow I was convinced that this was waking life, but not in the sense that we can sort of get carried along by the dream without having access to our critical faculties to question our surroundings. This was the opposite. I was fully aware of myself in that moment, but because my friend’s living room was an exact replica of his actual living room in waking life, and the conversations I was having with the dream versions of my friends were so normal and typical, I simply had no reason to question the reality of my environment. The entire scene was so mundane that it may well have played out in waking life.
At some point during the dream I looked at the time and saw that it was about 5 am. I got up from the couch and told my friends that I was going home and that we would continue our get-together in the near future, as always. I walked into the hall and put on my shoes, just like I had done when I was awake. And that’s when it happened. Because it’s a habit of mine to try and push my finger through my hand I ended up doing exactly that in the dream. My finger passed through my palm and instantly my vision became enhanced and my dream body started buzzing. For a moment I was perplexed and almost couldn’t believe that I hadn’t realized that I was in a dream before. Then I started laughing.
I turned around and told my friends that this was just a dream and they were all aspects of my mind. They didn’t seem to understand what I was saying and gave each other confused looks. We stepped outside through the front door and instead of seeing my hometown, I found myself in a weird psychedelic wonderland where the sky was magenta and multi-colored torrents of thought energy surged overhead. In the distance I saw a funfair lit by bright neon lights and I could hear music coming from the fair.
One of my friends started cracking jokes about how I was not dreaming and that I was out of my mind and bullshitting them. The trippy dream-scape didn’t seem to change his mind; it was amusing considering he was not really my friend, but instead an aspect of my mind appearing in the form of my friend. I just laughed and stepped into the air to float around him, and he looked at me and said, “Oh yeah, you’re right. It is a dream!”
Then we went to the fair and we rode a rollercoaster before venturing into a starlit maze of my imagination where I ran into another friend of mine. We talked and laughed, and finally I woke up. As I lay in bed I remained as still as possible, knowing that if I would move, the dream would likely disappear, but I was enjoying the dream so much that I wanted to go back to it. So I kept my eyes closed and recalled the dream and retained consciousness as I went back to sleep. Sure enough, I found myself in the same lucid dream again; it picked up right where it had left off. It was the first time I managed to do that. It was incredible.
A special thanks to Ana Flores for allowing me to use her beautiful illustration, which is aptly titled Lucid Dreams.
For more information
I’d like to recommend the following works if you want to learn more about lucid dreaming.
- Dream Machine (1990). This is Dr. Hearne’s book about lucid dreaming, which I used for this essay. It’s incredibly informative and very readable. You can download this for free from Hearne’s official website.
- Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming (1990). This is Dr. LaBerge and Rheingold’s book which I used for this essay. It’s filled with exercises designed to teach you how to induce lucid dreams, and also very readable.
- Lucid Dreams: An Electro-Physiological and Psychological Study (Ph.D. Thesis, 1978). This is Dr. Hearne’s Ph.D. Thesis which he wrote at the University of Liverpool. You can download this for free from Hearne’s official website.
- Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics: Though fiction, Gaiman actually shows many aspects of dreams in these stories. The series is about Morpheus, who is the living embodiment of dreams. This is a great series to read as you start exploring dream lucidity.
- Tim Post’s Tedx lecture: I quoted from this lecture in this essay. Post efficiently summarizes some of LaBerge’s main points and talks about his personal experiences as well.
- Waking Life (2001). A film directed by Richard Linklater. The entire film is set in the dreaming mind of the unnamed protagonist. Over the course of the film, characters engage in philosophical debates about various topics, and eventually the protagonist turns lucid. This is a film that makes you think.
- World of Lucid Dreaming. I first discovered the concept of lucid dreaming when I stumbled upon this website. This site has a ton of content about various aspects of dreaming and lucid dreaming, as well as many tips and tricks for inducing dream lucidity. (Some of these are based on Dr. LaBerge’s and Rheingold’s exercises.)
Hearne, Keith. Dream Machine. Wellingsborough, The Aquarian Press, 1990.
LaBerge, Stephen and Howard Rheingold. Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming. New York City, Ballantine Books, 1990.
Post, Tim. “Lucid Dreaming: Tim Post at TedxTwenteU.” YouTube, uploaded by TEDx Talks, 5 Nov 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OK3SfNxbK3Y&t=138s.
The Official Website of Keith Hearne, www.keithhearne.com, Accessed 27 Dec. 2018.