Lucid dreaming for the layman


When I was in high school, I remember dreaming of a fluorescent lit school hallway. I can recall promenading against a current of faceless students as I made my way to a class I knew I would be late for. All of a sudden, the scenery changed and I was in the Middle East marching with a battalion of soldiers. I was the active medic. An explosion and chaos ensued as a hail of bullets came my way. I scurried for cover behind a Humvee, peering underneath to see who was heading my way but saw nothing. As I turned around to see who was wounded and needed help, a gun appeared to be pointing at me point blank. I heard a shot and woke up.

More often than not, people don’t remember dreams, or they feel powerless to the will of their subconscious while dreaming. Some people are able to recall every detail of a dream, but to influence a dream can prove difficult without guidance. To those who can achieve it, the practice is referred to as lucid dreaming.

To lucid dream is to be consciously aware of the fact that you’re dreaming. Think the movie “Inception,” except instead of being a non-Oscar-winning protagonist, you’re experiencing a hybrid form of consciousness. The act is a phenomenon that most people have experienced at least once, but it’s also a skill that can be learned and applied to waking life.

When does lucid dreaming happen?

In the past, scientists believed that when asleep, the brain would power down and rest. But with the advent of the electroencephalograph, also known as EEG, in the early 20th century, scientists were able to measure brainwave activity during sleep.

Since then, scientists have discovered that the brain emits different wave patterns in four stages during sleep. The first three stages are known as NREM, or non-Rapid Eye Movement sleep.

NREM 1 is the transitory stage between wakefulness and sleep. The body produces theta waves which are high amplitude and slow moving brain waves, usually lasting 5-10 minutes. Next, body temperature and heart rate decrease during NREM 2, which lasts approximately 20 minutes and produces rapid bursts of waves, commonly referred to as sleep spindles. By then the body is closer to deep sleep.

Finally, before becoming completely enthralled in deep sleep, the second to last stage is NREM 3. A person is less likely to wake up and produces delta waves before entering deep sleep and the final stage REM or Rapid Eye Movement.

According to Crash Course Psychology, an academic series on YouTube that partners with PBS, REM sleep is perplexing in its functionality because our motor cortex is abuzz with activity while our brainstem blocks the signals to our bodies. This renders the body essentially paralyzed with the exception of our eyes, which as the name suggests move under our eyelids, rapidly.

The paralysis is meant to prevent us from physically acting out what we do in our dreams, with the exception of the poor souls who suffer from sleepwalking.

It’s at this point that vivid dreams usually occur.


Why do we dream?

Many theories have purported to answer the question, from the Physiological Function theory, which has proposed that the brain repairs itself, or the Information Consolidation theory, which processes events of the day and sorts out which selective memories to keep. One of the more interesting ideas surrounds evolution and predation.

The Threat Simulation theory, from Finnish philosopher and teacher Antti Revonsuo, has proposed that dreams are a biological utility to simulate extraordinary circumstance. This is to train us to avoid real danger when we’re awake. This theory provides a reasonable explanation for making a connection between outlandish nightmare scenarios and real life stress.

For example, imagine fighting a seven headed dragon while only being armed with a mint-flavored toothpick. This situation will almost certainly not happen while awake, but the subconscious may manifest stress from waking life to take this daunting form in your dream.

The dragon can be a representation of many things, like a relationship with a boss at work or a term paper you haven’t finished. A person may feel that the aforementioned scenarios would be much easier to deal with than actually fighting a scaly fictional beast, and when the dreamer awakens, the term paper or boss doesn’t seem as troublesome in the grand scheme of things.

This lends some credibility to the Threat Simulation Theory.

The proficient lucid dreamer can overcome the threat and do with it what they please, perhaps turning it into a cute little lizard to keep as a harmless pet.

According to Charlie Morley, a lucid dreaming teacher and student of Tibetan Buddhism, nightmarish elements are referred to as shadow aspects. In a TED Talks presentation in San Diego in 2011, Morley said, “Within the lucid dream you can intentionally engage the source of your nightmares.”

Morley went on to say that the shadow aspect was originally an idea birthed by psychologist Carl Jung and reflects the negative aspects of ourselves. Although according to Morley, once a person becomes aware, lucid dreaming can help to overcome and give control back to the dreamer.

Preparation before attempt

One of the first steps is to start a dream journal and become aware of when you’re dreaming. Write everything you remember in great detail and be sure to look for recurring themes. Common motifs can help identify when you’re dreaming so that the following night you become more aware of the dreamscape.

Next, is getting into the habit of doing “reality checks” while awake. The most common practice is counting your fingers or checking a clock for the time, which when applied in dreams may differ from reality. Your fingers may look awkward and disproportional, or the clock may have strange characters in place of numbers.

Now we’re ready to start lucid dreaming.

Common lucid dreaming techniques

Mnemonically Induced Lucid Dreaming,or MILD, is a technique that involves recalling a recent dream right before falling asleep and visualizing yourself there while repeating a mantra. Prior to dozing off, chanting, “I will lucid dream tonight” can aid in the process, according to Morley.

The highest rates of success for this method involves waking up in the middle of the night and staying up for 30 minutes, chanting the mantra again to reinforce the intention before falling back asleep.

A more advanced technique is known as Wake Induced Lucid Dreaming, or WILD. As the name suggests, this type of lucid dream can also be employed during waking hours, like visions, and produce the most vivid dreams while asleep. Consequently, it’s also the most difficult to achieve.

Here are some steps to the WILD technique, according to Morley.

First, fall asleep for around four to five hours and set an alarm to wake up. After waking up and having already gone through a few REM cycles, the mind and body are more chemically inclined to achieve WILD. Next, lie back in bed and focus on relaxing and clearing any excess thoughts.

At this stage, the body will go into the hypnagogic state which is the feeling between sleep and wakefulness. If done right, the next step is sleep paralysis, which sounds terrifying, but is perfectly normal. Remember, it’s so we don’t stab our roommates thinking they’re that pesky dragon we talked about earlier, even if they deserve it.

During the paralysis, the experience may differ from person to person. Some may experience strong visuals, physical sensation, noise or a mixture of all before entering a dream. A helpful tip is to visualize the entrance to a dream by concentrating on a strong force, pulling towards a place, perhaps like a high-speed train or a private jet approaching a destination of choice.

It’s a strenuous process that takes a couple of attempts and dedicated practice to actually reach a level of mastery.

For those less inclined to try this, fear not, there is a 21st century method that might also work, known as binaural beats, which can be found on YouTube. The short explanation is that by putting on headphones and listening to similar auditory frequencies that vary slightly, neural activity can be influenced.

For example, a frequency of 100 hertz is played in one ear, while 107 hertz is played in the other. This forces the brain to compensate for the difference of 7 hertz, and as a result, the brainwaves increase 7 hertz as well.

The practice was developed by the Virginia based Monroe Institute by using Hemi-Sync technology. It was originally developed by Robert Monroe, a radio station director and businessman.

His intent was to study the effects of sound patterns on consciousness and learning while asleep, according to the institute’s  website. Many binaural beats exist over the interweb and some are specifically tailored for a purpose, like relaxation, creativity and memory retention.

Whichever technique is used, success is not always guaranteed.

Dream a little dream

Lucid dreaming takes practice and patience. Try not to be too discouraged if it doesn’t happen right away. People can go years without having any success, but some argue that the results are well worth it for the therapeutic benefits. Dreams can prepare us for the dangers of the waking world and provides endless possibilities and different narratives that a mind can create.

“If you can learn to dream lucidly and it is a learnable skill, you can begin to integrate your shadow and finally reclaim, as [Carl] Jung said, the ‘seat of human creativity.’ So learn how to lucid dream,” Morley said in his 2011 TED Talk.

And why not?  Many of the world’s greatest minds and achievements have been a direct result of lucid dreams. Albert Einstein, John Lennon, Salvador Dali and Edgar Allen Poe are just a few examples of notable people whose works have been directly influenced by dreams.

With enough practice and dedication, the next breakthrough in art, science or technology may very well come from your dream. If you need any more help falling asleep just give this article another read.

Barajas has always had an interest in consciousness and perception, as he believes it shapes an individual’s reality.

Aztec Press photo illustration by Alex Fruechtenicht
Aztec Press photo illustration by Alex Fruechtenicht

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