We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, The Tempest
“The dream is the small hidden door in the deepest and most intimate sanctum of the soul, which opens to that primeval cosmic night that was soul long before there was conscious ego and will be soul far beyond what a conscious ego could ever reach.”
CARL JUNG, The Meaning of Psychology for Modern Man
“Dreams make all men authors.”
EDWARD COUNSEL, Maxims
“I have dreamed a dream, but now that dream is gone from me.”
King Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel II (Hebrew Bible)
We humans have been obsessed with the dream world since, it seems, the beginning of time. The above quotes from all manner of literature illustrate that not only are we a culture built on dreams, but that the entire notion of living an alternate life in a fantastical world of magic and latent psychology is romanticized and existential of our collective memory.
We do it every night, all of us. Animals do it too. Though they may have a better time remembering them than we do. The common statistic given is that 95% of all dreams are not remembered, and when you consider that the average person will spend upwards of six years of their lifespan in dreamland, that means that all that fervor is based on only 5% of that world.
Our interest in dreams has spawned whole cannons of philosophical and scientific work. Some of the greatest minds in psycho-philosophy have been virtually obsessed with the mechanics of it, the meaning behind it and the potential it holds for explaining the fundamentals of the human psyche. From that effort has come the current scientific era of dream study, called oneirology, which is primarily concerned with understanding how dreams work physiologically, rather than dream analysis, which concerns itself with interpreting meaning behind the imagery and the psychology of dreams.
There are no less than a dozen competing scientific theories on dreams, covering everything from neurobiology to evolutionary biology, but one area of dream study that continues to elude adequate explanation is Lucid Dreaming.
You may already be familiar with the concept, which is that the dreamer, through whatever means, becomes aware that they are dreaming within the dream. That’s really all there is to it, but there are details and variations that need to be explained.
It’s not really as simple as said above, but the main aspect of the phenomenon is that the dreamer be aware of the dream. Once that is achieved the dreamer might then either wake up, voluntarily or not, or begin to exert some level of control over the progress of the dream from that point. It’s not necessary that they start making sweeping changes to the landscape of performing aerobatic feats that would make circus performers green with envy, some would simply continue to observe as things play out naturally, so to speak, while understanding that the events were not real. Most who think about lucid dreaming do aspire to a high degree of manipulation and freedom in the dream-state, and much of the current research has focused on that goal.
There are two types of lucid dream, or rather, two methods of induction. DILD or dream-induced lucid dreaming, and WILD or wake-initiated lucid dreaming. The difference is simply that DILD occurs when the dreamer initiates lucidity during the dream, WILD is a state of lucid dreaming initiated from a waking state.
The earliest known mention of lucid dreaming in a scientific writing is believed to be French sinologist and oneirologist Hervey de Saint-Denys’ 1867 Les rêves et les moyens de les diriger; observations pratiques (Translation: Dreams and the Ways to Direct Them: Practical Observations), wherein he coined the term lucid dreaming or le rêve lucide (there is some argument over this point, as some claim that Dutch author and psychiatrist Frederick van Eeden did so in 1913). Denys was one of the earliest oneirologists and as a result of his own fascination with dreams, he undertook to document his dreams every night from the age of 13 years. He was the first to propose methods for learning how to dream lucidly or to take control of one’s own dreams.
Likely people have being doing this for many centuries, or perhaps thousands of years on an accidental basis, though undoubtedly some had figured out ways to induce it in themselves voluntarily. The ancient concept of Yoga nidra is closely related to lucid dreaming and is the pursuit of honing the ability to remain conscious of one’s external environment during meditation. Yoga nidra techniques are often touted as methods of inducing lucid dreaming, which differs only slightly in practise. The concept is also known in early Buddhist teachings and Vedic traditions. These days there are many books and even classes one can take to learn these methods and embark on their own self-directed study of dreams.
There are some basic techniques one can undertake to begin the process:
- Active visualizations while awake: spending time actively thinking about dreams that you remember, visualising the imagery and exploring the dream consciously, while occasional and deliberately asking one’s self “am I dreaming”, is apparently a good method for preparing one’s mind for the experience of becoming aware within the dream-state. Ostensibly, the idea is that such visualizations allow you to practise the act of taking control over the dream.
- Dream Journaling: in support of the above, dream journaling – which is to document your dreams every morning, as soon after waking as possible – will foster or make easier the task of visualizing past dreams in order to practise becoming aware.
- Maintain a consistent and healthy sleep schedule: obviously, sleeping regularly is of paramount importance to mastering lucid dreaming. In addition, since dreams most readily happen during the REM sleep cycle, it’s important to maintain a consistent schedule in order to ensure that you’re able to reach REM sleep consistently around the same time of night.
There are also some technological toys that can aid in achieving a lucid state while dreaming. So-called brainwave generators or brainwave entrainers, which manipulate brain activity through periodic stimulus, whether aural or electromagnetic, are said to be effective at assisting lucid dreaming. There are also several smartphone apps that can assist with documenting/analysing sleep patterns and facilitating the MILD and WBTB methods by automating the wake-up process.
Beyond the above, there are more complicated techniques and schools of thought, such as Stephen LaBerge’s mnemonic induction technique (known as MILD). Which is essentially deliberately waking yourself from a dream-state by alarm clock, then focusing on the dream you were having, and then attempting to fall asleep again to re-enter the same dream while retaining an element of control over it.
There’s also the WBTB (or wake back to bed) technique, which is sometimes touted as one of the more successful options. It’s essentially the same as MILD, except you’re directed to focus specifically on lucidity or control over dreaming (whatever dream you focus on is unimportant), and then again falling asleep with remaining in control at the forefront of your consciousness.
Beyond that, general meditation, mindfulness and an awareness of your own emotional state and psyche are given as important parts of the process, and a mastery of these things will bring you to a point, mentally, where you are more open to the end result.
It should be noted that skeptics of some renown find the entire concept of lucid dreaming to be simply ridiculous. Some, such as philosopher Norman Malcolm suggest that the element of control in the dream is an illusion. Famously quoted as:
“I dreamt that I realised I was dreaming, dreamt that I was affecting the course of my dream, and then dreamt that I woke myself up by telling myself to wake up.”
The idea being that whatever control one feels they have in a dream, the dream remains only a dream.
Other skeptics claim that the anecdotal nature of all reports of lucid dreaming mean that they can’t be taken as truth; that the dreamer is either wrong, deluded or lying.
Hollow as this criticism might seem, there is some merit to it, but this should hardly stop anyone from trying and/or studying the concept.
“We are asleep. Our life is a dream. But we wake up, sometimes, just enough to know that we are dreaming.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
 Frederik van Eeden (1913). “A study of Dreams”. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research
 LaBerge, Stephen (2004). Lucid Dreaming: A Concise Guide to Awakening in Your Dreams and in Your Life. ISBN 1-59179-150-2