The Science Of Lucid Dreaming

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A lot of what our brain does is synthesize a hallucination, a model of the world that we proceed to live in. This is a model reality; the real reality is completely unknowable. – Dennis McKenna

The earliest known descriptions of lucid dreaming come to us from Hindu scriptures dating back over 3,000 years ago, in the Upanishads and the Vigyan Bhairav Tantra, where there are instructions for how to direct one’s consciousness within a dream and during sleep. Other ancient descriptions of lucid-dreaming meditations, from the Tibetan Bön and Vajrayāna Buddhist traditions, are over 1,200 years old.

In the West, the earliest mention of lucid dreaming comes from Aristotle, some 2,000 years ago. In his treatise On Sleep and Dreams, Aristotle says that when we are asleep there is often something in our minds telling us that what we are experiencing is only a dream. However, as we learned in the introduction, the first attempt at a systematic scientific study of lucid dreaming began with the French sinologist Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denys, in the mid-1800s.

In 1867, Saint-Denys’ book Les rêves et les moyens de les diriger (Dreams and How to Guide Them) was published, and this landmark book is the first known record of a systematic exploration of lucid dreaming.

Originally published anonymously, Saint-Denys’ detailed personal reports span a period of thirty-two years. In this remarkable book, the author describes how he became interested in dreams as a young teenager, and how he learned to become lucid in his dreams and partially direct what happened. Saint-Denys coined the term rêve lucide, “lucid dream,” and he performed many experiments in his lucid dreams.

The first scientist in the West to explore lucid dreaming was Dutch physician Frederik van Eeden, a contemporary of Freud’s who corresponded with the psychoanalyst about dreams. Van Eeden’s famous first scientific paper on lucid dreaming, “A Study of Dreams,” was published in 1913. This landmark paper contains the first mention of the term “lucid dream” in the English language.

D. Ouspensky’s essay “On the Study of Dreams and Hypnotism” was published in 1931. Much of it is based on detailed observations of the author’s own accounts of lucid dreaming, which he calls “half-dream states.” Ouspensky, a mathematician, made a number of fascinating observations as well as perhaps generalized assertions based on his own experiences, which may not be as fixed as he believed, but they were an important part of the growing body of knowledge on lucid dreaming that eventually would lead to legitimate scientific study.

In 1965, psychologist Charles Tart wrote a paper for the Psychological Bulletin titled “Towards the Experimental Control of Dreaming,” where the idea of signaling from a dream state was first proposed. He writes, “To what extent could a ‘two-way communication system’ be developed, whereby the experimenter could instruct the subject to do such and such while dreaming, and the subject could report on the events of the dream while they are occurring?”1

Then in 1968, Celia Green, a British writer on philosophical skepticism, twentieth-century thought, and psychology, paved the way for a scientific study of lucid dreams with her seminal book Lucid Dreams. In this book she says, “In view of the fact that subjects very frequently report that the lucid dream arose out of a previous non-lucid dream, we may tentatively expect to find lucid dreams occurring, as do other dreams, during the ‘paradoxical’ phase of sleep characterized by fast low-voltage EEG waves, rapid eye movements and muscular relaxation.”2 It was Green’s book that inspired sleep-laboratory researchers Keith Hearne and Stephen LaBerge to carry out the studies that led to the scientific demonstration that people can make conscious decisions, and carry out instructions, while their bodies are 
fast asleep.

Signals from Another World

While SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence) researchers scan the skies and monitor electromagnetic radiation for signs of transmissions from civilizations on other worlds in vain, the first person in human history to send signals from the outer limits of the dream state to the earthbound waking world was Alan Worsley, a British shopkeeper. Worsley was recruited by Keith Hearne, who in the mid-1970s was a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Hull, in Yorkshire, England, when he conducted this experiment. Hearne had read Celia Green’s book and was keen to demonstrate the reality of lucid dreaming. So after recruiting Worsley, a proficient lucid dreamer, he designed the ingenious experiment that I described in the introduction of this book.

In his book The Dream Machine, Hearne tells us what it was like on that magic morning when the first signals from Worsley arrived in the sleep laboratory:

Suddenly, out of the jumbled senseless tos and fros of the two eye movement recording channels, a regular set of large zigzags 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. The signals were coming from another world—the world of dreams—and they were as exciting as if they were emanating from some other solar system in space. A channel of communication had been established from the inner universe of the mind in dreaming sleep.



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