We humans can’t fly. The laws of physics don’t allow it. We can’t travel to other galaxies. Our technology is too primitive. We can’t indulge in food and sex beyond a point. Biological limitations and social norms forbid it. We can’t be permanently blissful. Our brains are not wired for it.
Reality is harsh.
Which explains the eternal quest for an altered state of consciousness. Mystics seek it using prayer, meditation, and austerities. The less spiritually inclined use drugs for a brief respite from reality. Future generations might use technology as their escape vehicle.
But there is an easier way, says psychologist Keith Hearne, and it is as simple as falling asleep. If you manage to remain conscious, or “lucid,” while dreaming, you could control your dreams to get any experience you seek. Without the normal constraints of waking reality, limitless possibilities open up. “I’ve played golf like Tiger Woods. I’ve been Spiderman, swinging around buildings. I’ve met Abraham Lincoln,” says lucid dreamer Josh Manuel, 21, of Austin, Texas. “After an experience like that, my day becomes almost ecstatic.”
Some researchers report that as many as 85 percent of the people in their surveys said they had experienced lucid dreaming at least once. Most of the people surveyed experienced it on rare occasions, but thousands of enthusiasts claim they experience it frequently. Many of them view it as escapist recreation — flying and sex are popular — while others say it helps with problem solving, creativity and self-healing. Some mystical disciplines have used it for centuries as a tool for gaining enlightenment. Whereas spiritual practices such as meditation call for stillness and surrender, lucid dreaming lets the practitioner craft the altered reality.
Does all this sound too good to be true? Some prominent neuroscientists call lucid dreaming unscientific and untestable, even verging on outright fraud. But Hearne, who invented the world’s first dream machine, doesn’t think so. “In 20 years, everyone will be lucid dreaming,” he says. “We are the last experiencers of ordinary reality.”
Signals from another world
In lucid dreaming, a term coined by Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden in 1913, the dreamer’s awareness — not the clarity of the dream — is the distinguishing characteristic. (“Conscious dreaming” would be more apt.) Some Eastern cultures have long known about this dream-awareness. But three decades ago, pioneering work by Hearne, then a graduate student in psychology at Hull University in England, brought it within the realm of science.
Luck often precedes scientific discovery. For Hearne, the luck was having access to his university’s sleep lab and meeting Alan Worsley, a regular lucid dreamer. Although Hearne had never experienced a lucid dream, he was intrigued. If a lucid dreamer was indeed conscious that he was dreaming, could he somehow communicate with the waking world?
It was a wild idea. Neuroscientists believed that sleep extinguished higher cognitive functions like body image and access to memory. Consciousness was out of the question. Hearne says his colleagues tried to dissuade him, but his independent streak led him to continue. With Worsley as his willing subject, Hearne launched a series of experiments in 1975 to see whether a dreamer could communicate with him. It seemed an impossible task. Dreams tend to occur in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when intense neural activity jolts the brain but paralyzes most muscles, leaving only the eyes free to move. Lucid dreams almost exclusively happen in REM sleep, precluding even the slight finger motion required to press a button. Then Hearne had an inspiration.
“It occurred to me one day in a blinding flash: wait a minute, the eye muscles are not paralyzed.”
Hearne immediately put his idea to practice. He instructed Worsley to move his eyes in a predetermined pattern — left to right eight times — upon entering a lucid dream. Electrodes placed on his eyelids would record the movements on a polygraph. The first attempt failed; Hearne had disconnected the electrodes at 8 a.m., minutes before Worsley had a lucid dream. It was a week before Worsley had another. But this time Hearne was prepared and alert. And right there, before his eyes, the polygraph broadcast a signal from the sleeping Worsley: left, right, left, right, eight times. Here was someone deep in slumber, yet fully conscious in a dream world, signaling to Hearne’s reality. It was a stunning moment.
“It was like getting signals from another world,” Hearne says. “Philosophically, scientifically, it was simply mind-blowing.”
Excited by his discovery, Hearne wondered whether a signal could work in reverse: Could non-lucid dreamers be made lucid without waking them up? Dreams are full of strange objects, events and emotions. For instance, flipping a light switch in a dream rarely has the desired effect. Situations like this would seem bizarre in the waking world, but a dreamer accepts them without question. “With women, they often find themselves wearing a dress they wouldn’t be seen dead in,” Hearne chuckles. “The only explanation is that they are dreaming.”
This gave Hearne an idea. If he could somehow introduce an incongruity into a subject’s dream, could the person understand it as a signal to become lucid? To test this possibility, he tried “all sorts of mad experiments.” He repeated the words “this is a dream” in his subjects’ ears. It woke them up. He sprinkled water on them. They dreamt it was raining, but remained blissfully non-lucid. He applied exotic fragrances under their noses. It didn’t work. Worse, he had to catch the bus in the morning, reeking of perfume. “I was in the port city of Liverpool, which is full of sailors, with all kinds of scents on me,” he laughs. “It was very dangerous research.”
By trial and error, he finally found a method that worked: mild electric shocks to the wrist, delivered when the sleeper was in REM. Some subjects incorporated the signal into their dreams — as a dog bite, for instance — but in others, it triggered lucidity. It was tedious, however, to observe a sleeping subject for hours, waiting for REM to occur. After some experimentation, Hearne devised a way to automate this by monitoring the subject’s breathing, which is faster, shallower, and jerkier in REM than in non-REM sleep. With this step, Hearne had created a device to detect the onset of a dream, and then signal the sleeper into lucidity. “That’s how I got the world’s first patent for a dream machine,” he says.
Hearne’s invention gave mixed results, but it made him famous. The dream machine prototype and his chart of the first recorded signals from Worsley’s dream are now on permanent display at the Science Museum in London.
Strange text and weird clocks
Hearne moved on to other fields. Meanwhile, psychologist Stephen LaBerge, then a student of renowned sleep researcher William Dement at Stanford University, was working on similar lines. After independently replicating Hearne’s eye-signal experiment in 1977, LaBerge went on to develop techniques people could use to get more lucid dreams. In one of them, the aspiring lucid dreamer wakes up from a dream and visualizes returning to it with lucidity. In another, by remaining aware and conscious during hypnagogia (the period between wakefulness and sleep), the subject tries to go directly into a lucid dream.
LaBerge proposed a set of “reality checks,” similar to Hearne’s light switch, to test whether one is dreaming. He noted that clocks and text behave strangely in dreams. For instance, if one glances at a clock, looks away and glances at it again, it often shows a completely different time. Text of any kind is equally fickle. With practice, LaBerge says, one can learn to observe these cues in a dream and then become lucid.
In 1987, LaBerge started the Lucidity Institute, a company based in Sacramento, Calif., where he invented a “dream machine” similar in concept to Hearne’s, but with a sleeker design that helped make it a commercial success. Called DreamLight, this electronic gadget tracks eye movements to detect the onset of REM sleep, then signals the sleeper with beeps and light flashes; the dreamer perceives a visual or auditory cue that could trigger lucidity. LaBerge also wrote a series of popular books that brought lucid dreaming to the public eye. He is now testing nutritional supplements that could make lucid dreaming easier.
Myth or reality?
To its proponents, lucid dreaming falls into the category of “settled science.” Lab experiments have validated the phenomenon, according to them, so there is nothing left to prove.
Many scientists beg to differ. Veteran sleep researcher Ralph Berger, professor emeritus of biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was an early critic. The fundamental problem, he says, is that dreams are not amenable to scientific investigation. A researcher can’t see into the inner reality of a subject’s dream, so he has to rely on the subject’s verbal reports to understand what is happening. “So from the word go, all the so-called scientific studies of dreams have no empirical data,” Berger says. “It is a hopeless issue.”
Berger questions the validity of LaBerge’s experiments with predetermined eye signals from lucid dreams. In these experiments, LaBerge used a polygraph, which included an electroencephalogram (EEG) to record brain signals, an electromyogram (EMG) to measure chin muscle tension, and an electrooculogram (EOG) to trace eye movements. In his thesis, LaBerge indicated a set of spikes in the EOG reading during periods of low EMG as proof that his subjects were making predetermined eye signals from lucid dreams.
Berger has a simpler explanation for the signals: the sleeper woke up, and then signaled. “It is unclear to me how they can be cognitively discriminating between their dream and wakefulness, and signal to a so-called separate world,” Berger says. “The very fact of their being aware of a separate world would indicate they are awake.” In theory, the low EMG reading would indicate that the subjects were in REM sleep during the eye movements — which is the basis for LaBerge’s claim — but Berger feels the reading was low simply because the instrument’s setting was not sensitive enough to pick up the subjects’ waking movements. Based on the polygraph readings, “it is unconvincing that these subjects were physiologically asleep,” Berger says.
LaBerge refused comment for this story. But his assistant at the Lucidity Institute, Dominick Attisani, pointed out that other labs have duplicated LaBerge’s eye-signal experiments. Attisani, a longtime lucid dreamer himself, says the phenomenon is something one must experience to understand. “Naïve” dreamers, as he calls people who have never had a lucid dream, will remain puzzled. “Berger is an early sleep expert in the generic sense, but he wasn’t involved in the lucid dreaming work or experimentation,” Attisani said in an e-mail. “So I don’t consider his critique particularly well-informed.”
New techniques in brain imaging, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), could provide more insight. Lucid dreams might display a different pattern of brain activation compared to regular dreams. Such studies, however, would be expensive, because a subject might need several nights of monitoring before getting a lucid dream lasting a few minutes. Further, the emphasis in sleep research has shifted to sleep disorders such as narcolepsy, sleep apnea, and insomnia — topics of interest to the drug companies that now provide most funding. Dreaming no longer attracts sleep researchers.
As a result, lucid dreaming research has moved out of the scientific mainstream. It is now conducted informally, mostly through surveys and self-evaluations. LaBerge is perhaps the only well-known researcher left in the field, but his focus has shifted from physiological studies of dreams to subjective evaluations based on verbal reports. Further, he conducts his research through his company, Lucidity Institute, partially funded by seminars and sales of electronic gadgets.
This unconventional approach to research disturbs many scientists. Bill Domhoff, professor emeritus in sociology at UC, Santa Cruz, and author of The Scientific Study of Dreams, says lucid dreaming has degenerated into a cult. “That’s the problem with lucidity research,” says Domhoff. “It started in this mystical world and it’s really gone back to that world.”
Science meets mysticism
Domhoff’s comments echo the reservations that mainstream scientists have about the emerging — and controversial — use of scientific methods to study mystical phenomena. Possibly Hearne’s biggest achievement was to show that at least one such phenomenon was “testable.” Lucid dreaming research has ebbed, but other efforts to demystify the mystical are emerging. What was hitherto the exclusive domain of the shaman is becoming fair game for the scientist. Surprisingly, many spiritual leaders welcome this trend. Prominent among them is the Dalai Lama, who pleaded for collaboration between modern science and Buddhism in a keynote address to the annual conference of the Society of Neuroscience in January 2006.
But among scientists, reactions are mixed. Science relies on what the Dalai Lama refers to as “third person,” or external, observations. To many scientists, mysticism, which is based purely on “first person” experience, is synonymous with superstition and pseudoscience. Indeed, many neuroscientists were unhappy with their colleague Richard Davidson for inviting the Dalai Lama to speak at their conference. On the flip side, scientists who study mystics sometimes fall prey to the charisma of their subjects, and fail to maintain the objectivity essential to hard science. For instance, Davidson refers to the Dalai Lama as “His Holiness” — a deference that does little to reassure skeptics. The conference showed that researchers tend to reject mysticism outright or embrace it unquestioningly. Open-minded skeptics are rare.
Despite these challenges, the marriage of science and mysticism seems inevitable. As the Dalai Lama eloquently argues, both perspectives may be needed to unravel what is arguably the biggest mystery of neuroscience: consciousness. Although scientists may soon map every neuron, synapse, and signal in the brain, the mind’s workings — thought, awareness, and emotion — remain mysterious. Contemplative traditions like Buddhism with their rich panoply of mind-altering practices may help bridge this gap. The mystic driven by the quest for altered realities and the scientist lured by the thrill of discovery could thus find common ground. Mystical experiences that could previously be attained only after years of practices may then be within easy reach of everyone. For those seeking instant altered realities, this would be a dream come true.
ABOUT THE WRITER
B.Tech (electronics), Regional Engineering College
M.E. (computer science), Indian Institute of Science
Ph.D. (electrical engineering), University of Southern California
Internship: The Scientist
I love science. I would love to be a writer. Science writing is obviously the career for me, but it took me nearly two decades as a scientist to realize this. Even after realizing it, I wasn’t sure how to go about it. I was also nervous about changing careers this late in life. (I’m in my 40s.) However, one look at UC Santa Cruz’s Science Writing web page, and I hesitated no longer. Here I am, a student again after a long time. For the first time in my life, I am sure of my path, and doing what I love. It feels wonderful.
ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR
Daniela Naomi Molnar
B.A. (environmental studies & art), Evergreen State College, Olympia, Wash.
Daniela Naomi Molnar is enduringly entranced by the staggering beauty of life in all its forms. She is confident that by offering representations of nature that portray its intricate splendor as well as its function and necessity, Science Illustration can play an important role in opening the public’s eyes to the significance of scientific research and advancement. She will be heading back to her native New York for two exciting opportunities: an art direction and illustration internship at Scientific American magazine, and an illustration and design internship at Cornell’s Boyce Thompson Plant Research Lab. Visit her website at http://www.artdaniela.com/.