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Biology 103
2001 Third Web Report
On Serendip

Is this a dream?

Christy Cox

Austin based filmmaker Richard Linklater recently released a movie that is a dream. By that I mean both that it is about a dream, and that it is dreamlike. "Waking Life" received mixed reviews, but it also sparked new interest in an idea that has actually been around a long time: lucid dreaming. In this paper I intend to explore the concept of lucidity in dreams, and to concentrate on the research of Stanford University's Stephen LaBerge, who has used lucid dreaming as a tool to better understand the biological phenomena of sleep and dreams.

Basically, "lucid dreaming" is being aware that you are dreaming(1). In the late 19th century, Frederik van Eeden published his observations about his own lucid dreams. He reported the sensation of "being able to freely remember the circumstances of waking life, to think clearly, and to act deliberately upon reflection, all while experiencing a dream world that seems vividly real(2) (3)." Lucid dreams are not reported often, although a 1988 study by Snyder and Gackenbach indicated that as many as 58 % of people report having had at least one lucid dream in their life time, with 21 % having them as regularly as once a month(2). LaBerge was the among first scientists to provide scientific evidence supporting the phenomena in the early 1980s(4). His research has shown several techniques to be successful tools to help an individual learn how to become lucid in a dream.

Lucid Dreaming: Fact or Fiction?

Scientific debate regarding the validity of lucid dreams has existed for some time. Some believed that so-called lucid dreams were not dreams at all, but brief arousals from the sleeping state analogous to day dreaming. As recently as 1985 David Foulkes of the Georgia Mental Health Institute of Atlanta claimed that, "a necessary part of the experience we call 'sleep' that we lose a directive and reflective self. You can't fall asleep, or be asleep, if your waking self is still regulating and reflecting upon your conscious mental state." La Berge claims that the existence of lucid dreamers disproves that statement(2) (5).

Scientists in the 1970's cited the "frequent transitory arousals" common during REM sleep as important to the occurrence of lucid dreams, either because they were the lucid dreams themselves (and thus not really dreams at all) or because they initiated them. Around this time some scientists began to alter their thinking concerning the validity of lucid dreams. Researchers looked for a way to identify in a laboratory the physiological patterns associated with lucid dreams. The idea was that subjects should signal the beginning of lucid dreams by performing a 'dream action,' such as eye movements or fist clenching, that would show up on a polygraph. In 1981 scientists experimented with this and were able to demonstrate the occurrence of lucid dreaming for five different volunteer test subjects. Because they were observing the subjects' sleep patterns, there was little question of whether the dreamers were actually asleep during the lucid dreams. As La Berge points (presumably in response to assertions by Foulkes and other similarly thinking scientists), "it is embarrassingly awkward to assert (as some critics have done) that subjects who reported being certain that they were asleep while showing physiological indications of unequivocal sleep were actually awake(2)."

Studies such as the one mentioned above have done more than just prove the validity of lucid dreams, they have greatly expanded scientific understanding of the phenomena itself. For example, lucid dreams have been observed to occur most often during REM sleep. There are two phases associated with REM sleep: the phasic, which is characterized by lots of "muscular twitching," including rapid eye movements, and the tonic phase, which is less active. A 1986 study by Stanford scientists on 76 dreams of 13 subjects linked lucid dreams with increased phasic activity. Ninety-two percent of the 76 dreams initiated during unequivocal REM, an observation supported by many other similar studies(2).

It has also been shown that lucid dreams require an unusually high level of central nervous system activity. There are serotonergic neurons that normally act to inhibit hallucinations, but they are inhibited during REM sleep. This is why dreams are able to appear real while one is dreaming them. Also during REM, sensory input is suppressed, so that the entire perception of 'reality' to a dreamer is derived from their dream world. LaBerge phrases it better: "To the functional systems of neuronal activity that construct our experiential world (model), dreaming of perceiving or doing something is equivalent to actually perceiving or doing it(2)."

So you wanna be a lucid dreamer...

LaBerge's research has indicated that there are two ways to initiate a lucid dream. In the first, an 'impossible' occurrence during a dream causes the dreamer to realize that she must be dreaming, and thus achieve lucidity. The second, less frequent, method happens after a brief awakening from a nonlucid dream, when the dreamer falls back into the dream, this time aware that they are dreaming. LaBerge's work has also demonstrated that lucid dreaming is a learnable skill. He experimented with several means of reminding dreamers that they are asleep without waking them including tape recordings ("this is a dream.. this is a dream..), conditioned tactile stimuli, olfactory stimule, and light. Apparently, the light experiments proved most successful, and there are even light apparatuses available for purchase by people wanting to learn to lucid dream(2).

There are also multiple sites online promoting cheaper methods of achieving lucidity. These stress the importance of dream journals, and offer various helpful "tips and tricks," ranging from what foods to eat and ways to alter your sleep patterns. There are certain "dream signals" people can learn to recognize, such as the inability to adjust light levels and the inconstancy of fine print(6). These methods may require a little more effort on the part of the lucid dreamer-to-be, however if the strong web presence is an indication, they seem to have been successful for many people.

So you don't know WHY you wanna be a lucid dreamer...

There are many reasons people give for wanting to learn to lucid dream. Some people hope to overcome nightmares, and lucid dreaming has proven to be a useful technique for achieving this. However, the most common motivation to learn to lucid dream appears to be the fun one can have while dreaming. Many people hope that through increased control over their dreams, they can do all of the things they wish they could do in 'real life.' For example, this description is from the Lucid Dreaming 4 All website: "When you become lucid in a dream, you can have an interview with your pink monster, transform yourself into an animal, become invisible, fly away through a window, materialize a Ferrari in mid-air, step through a mirror or change your mother-in-law into a teddy bear. In short: you can do anything you imagine(1)." The ability to fly in dreams is often cited as especially appealing.

Another interesting online site is the Lucid Guild, which aims to help handicapped people achieve lucidity. The operators of this site are especially strong advocates of lucid dreaming, saying "when lucidity occurs, most people are overwhelmed with a rush of freedom, happiness, and wonder(1) (7)."

So, in summary, dream lucidity appears to be a valid phenomena and one many people hope to achieve for themselves. Whatever your interest in the topic, you are sure to find an outlet for it in the plethora of internet resources available on the topic.

WWW Sources

1)Lucidity For All

2)The Lucidity Institute Site: "Lucid Dreaming: Psychophysiological Studies of Consciousness during REM Sleep, by Stephen LaBerge, Ph. D.

3) The Lucidity Institute: "A Study of Dreams" , by Frederik van Eeden

4) "Waking the Dreamer", Levity.com

5) "Dreaming: Lucid and Non Lucid" , by David Foulkes

6) The Lucid Dreaming Guild




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