Lucid dreaming is back on the map

by phil on Sunday Aug 15, 2010 2:44 AM

Lucid dreams, which are dreams you can control, can be repeated with enough practice. The core tenet, according to lucid dream experts, is to write down your dreams every morning. Surprisingly, we have something on the order of fifty dreams every night, and it's just that when we wake up, we don't remember any of them. In the ten or so seconds after you wake up, there's little scrubbers in your brain that just erase every memory of all those dreams. These are just some of the neat little details you learn when studying lucid dreaming techniques.

I credit Inception for getting me back into lucid dreaming. I had a lucid dream just yesterday, where I asked the characters in it, "What are you made of?" One of the characters replied, "We're just machines in your head, and you're just a machine in God's head." I then posted this on Facebook along with the word "inception" spelled like this: I N C E P T I O N. I did this to make my "deep" dream notes seem like they were written in jest. I also did this because Inception has become a meme. You invoke Inception whenever you want to call someone or something out for being stoner-deep. There's even a website with a button you can press that plays the "kick" music from Inception, which is supposed to be the sound you hear over your dream-world PA system to let you know that you're dreaming.

The concept of a "kick" may seem like a clever invention, but this is actually a legitimate reference to the lucid dreaming technique of dream triggers. There are often recurring motifs in our dreams, and to trigger lucid dreaming more often, you have to recognize those motifs, and ask yourself whether you're dreaming or not. These triggers are so important to achieving lucid dreams regularly, that some practitioners inevitably get into a state of mind where they're constantly on-call for those "kicks." For example, my trigger is blue birds, which commonly occur in my dreams. And so, whenever I see one, I'm supposed to ask myself, "Am I dreaming?" If I see one, there's a 50-50 chance that I am. One time I was riding my bike, spotted a blue bird, and asked myself if I was dreaming. I realized I was and then gleefully took off ET-style, riding up into the atmosphere. But then another time, I asked myself the same question, and was excited by the prospect of spacing out of my reality. I kind of stood up on my bike, hoping to take off again, only to be disappointed that everything was real.

Getting deep into lucid dreaming leads to some intense side effects. I have literally had sexual relations with famous actresses. Some of my dreams have been so vivid, that I remember little details, like the goose bumps on Scarlett Johansson's thighs bristling against my legs. Our brains do reality-checks on our memories to make sure that they are real, and I believe it's vivid details like these that put a little checkbox in the column that says, "this memory is real." I feel 98% certain I've slept with Scarlett Johansson. Which is close enough.

Understanding the way dreams work tells you a lot about the way consciousness works. Dennett's Consciousness Explained (which is a mind-bender of a book) emphasizes how our brains constantly fill-in-the-blanks to create coherent narratives. Consciousness is simply an awareness of the self, and awareness is a lie told to us by our minds in bits-and-pieces. For example, look at your room, and be aware of yourself thinking about the objects in the room. You do not actually have a total visual inventory of all the objects in the room at-once, but rather you have a belief that you do. And the way that belief is constructed, is that all your doubts are filled one-by-one. For example, you can tell yourself, "Well, I'm aware that there's a lamp there, and that there's speakers right here, and my headphones are lying on my table, etc." And so you think that you are actually possessing a complete snapshot in your head at this moment. The truth is, that you only become aware of that lamp, or speakers, or headphones, at the moment you do that inventory, and your brain synthesizes a complete picture of all the objects at once, when really, you are only aware of one thing at a time.

We think that we see the world in high-def with a lot of pixels in our images (and our eyes do actually receive all that light input), but our brain processes that input like a flashlight. So when the flashlight is shining, on, let's say, only the upper-left-hand corner, how come we don't freak out and say, "What happened to my eyes, I can only see a small spot in the upper-left-hand corner!"? It's because at the precise moment we contemplate whether we see the bottom-right-hand corner, our flashlight moves right to that spot. And when I ask what else I see, the flashlight moves right to it. And after a few of those, I extrapolate and think, "Hmm, I think I see the whole picture at once."

We often don't realize we're dreaming (despite seeing things that contradict reality), because for every doubting thought, our brain swoops right-in and fills-in-the-blanks. If I see someone who has been long dead appear in my dream, I'll naturally wonder, "Wait, I thought he was dead?" But then my brain will invent a memory of having seen him the day before. If I doubt that too, there will be another series of memories that will fill in all the logic holes. And because there's a certain myopia in dreaming, you stop questioning and just accept. When I was having sex with Scarlett Johansson, the flashlight of my mind was asking my brain to invent details to make it real. My brain invented her goose bumps to make the events convincing.

It's like when you're dreaming, the best story-teller in the world comes out of the woodwork. A poorly written story doesn't feel real because the details aren't convincing or certain plot points don't add up. In dream narratives, if you have a question on any plot point, your brain will immediately fill in the hole. And if that contradicts something else, it'll fill another hole. And you won't see those holes being filled, but rather your memory of having recognized the contradiction will be replaced with acceptance.

This story-teller probably only comes out in dreams because it doesn't have external stimulus to deal with. If I'm awake, and have the image of a dead person in front of me, it would immediately be replaced by visual input from the world of no one standing there. In the dream world, with no new data to compete with, your dream-teller can take you on incredible journeys. I imagine that great fiction writers are almost tapping into that same instinct. They simply posit some strange premise, and keep just filling in the blanks and holes as they go along to shape a convincing suspension of disbelief.

If art imitates life, does the popularity of films like The Matrix and Inception indicate that we are all collectively losing a sense of reality? Physicist and sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke once said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." In a way, surfing cyberspace does feel like you have superpowers, as you teleport from virtual reality to virtual reality. The Onion had a great article recently, "Man Lives In Futuristic Sci-Fi World Where All His Interactions Take Place In Cyberspace." Does the strangeness of this cyber-reality make us question fundamental tenets of human existence?

When I asked the characters in my dream what they were, I was actually trying to grope at the ethics of the dream world. In my dreams, is it unethical for me to kill whoever I encounter? The answer is no, because they are not real. But assume for a second that you don't know whether they're real or not (which is often the uncertainty you live under in dreams), then under that cloud of ignorance, it isn't okay to commit murder in dreams. I spend most of my dream time unaware that I'm dreaming, and so I try to lead an ethical life. I obey the Ten Commandments and am generally polite to the monsters and angels I meet. I see all sorts of villainous idiots flopping around, and I don't stab or shoot them because I haven't realized yet that they're not real. But when I do recognize I'm dreaming, I become a total nihilist and sociopath. Which is really fun.

That is the scary implication of movies like Inception. If you get people to believe that nothing around them is real, then why not jump whole-hog into nihilism? I wonder if lucid dreaming will reach a moral-panic stage, with newspaper headlines like, "Kansas authorities warn that kids are getting high off 'lucid dreaming.'" The article would talk about listless teenagers who sleep all the time so that they can get high off actuating their ultimate fantasies. The teenagers get so into it that they disregard the real world, doubting whether the adults in their house are their real parents, and disobeying all authority and rules. This epidemic was kicked off by the film Inception, which fetishized criminals who stole secrets in dreams. Writer/director Christopher Nolan claims that he was simply trying to reflect the beauty of dreams, but didn't know his film would be a danger to society. And of course Sarah Palin and the Tea Party would come out and decry lucid dreaming, urging lawmakers to ban it.

Either way, I'm really glad Inception put lucid dreaming back on the map. According to Google Trends, you can see that searches for the term "lucid dreaming" skyrocketed after Inception hit theaters. Maybe if people got more into lucid dreaming, we'd realize just how much we go to crazy lengths for cheap thrills, when really the wildest stories and adventures are available to us, for free, everyday in our sleep.

Photo credit: Gavin Todes


Roger Von Oech said on August 15, 2010 10:30 AM:

Thoughful post, Phil.

I knew Steve LaBerge at Stanford back in the mid and late 70s. He's one of the early pioneers of lucid dreaming.

More at:

Obbop said on August 17, 2010 10:25 PM:

"Lucid" dreams.

Have had a few so extremely realistic yet some were so impactful I recall them extremely well, even decades later.

These tended to be in full color with sound.

One was so intense the emotions I felt during the dream have rivaled ANY emotion felt in real life... even when real life placed me in extreme life-threatening positions.

It was a "religious" dream, subdued in a way with minimal vocals but the emotions within were incredibly strong.

I can still see and hear the dream in my mind and it's been around 38 years since I dreamed it.


How about the recurring dream? After several viewings of events I had no control over I was able to interact with the "final" viewing and affect the dreams' outcome. End of that dream.

Interestingly, once the teen years were left behind it was the end of occasional nightmares.

I was able to confront all foes and adversity and stand my ground with no fear, even when death was the result.

The vividly realistic dream where I suddenly was upon the fog-shrouded battleground with the noise of battle all around but nothing visible but me, dressed in Roman Empire battle attire, shield and short sword and the knowledge I had never used those weapons before and I had better learn quickly.

Suddenly, out of the fog, coming right at me a warrior with a long spear. I took my battle stance and prepared for battle.

Whoops. I was unable to deflect the spear shoved forward by my foe and I felt the point hit my lower abdomen hit then penetrate.

Excruciating pain, agony, as I dropped sword and shield and clenched the entrance spot as the spear was withdrawn and my foe ran off.

I fell to the ground, waves of agony engulfing me as I awoke to the realization it was merely an extremely realistic dream and almost immediately the pain began to disappear and was totally gone in seconds.

No fear. Just so realistic it was scary in a way yet interesting.

As I laid there thinking about what had just happened I became aware of my hands firmly clenched at the impact/entrance point of the "spear" and I eased then let go. No pain.

"Wow," I thought.

Sure glad I never had to fight with sharp pointy objects in real life!!!!!

Never been a "religious" guy but a very few of those dreams sure made me wonder.

Especially the religion-based one where the only words spoken were "You may stay" by the entity garbed in blazing white garb.

That one really made me think.

But, my logical mind tells me my brain was/is capable of creating that event within itself.

But, part of me admits that a possibility exists that, perhaps, an outside force of some type may have communicated with me.

Zeb said on August 29, 2010 11:02 AM:

It'd be awesome if in that picture you were connected to your iPad with electrodes :D

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