Here are 10 things you (probably) didn't know about the wonderful phenomenon of lucid dreaming - the ability to have conscious awareness during your dreams.
The Egyptians were an advanced civilization which coalesced more than 5,000 years ago. According to Jeremy Naydler, author of Temple of the Cosmos: The Ancient Egyptian Experience of the Sacred, they believed in three bodies: Shat (the corpse body), Ka (the living physical body) and Ba (the soul).
Ba was often represented in hieroglyphics as a human-headed bird floating above the sleeping body or corpse. Naydler notes that "...the Ba is the person but in another form. The Ba could be defined as an individual in an out-of-body state." Was the Ba actually the lucid dreaming consciousness?
Robert Waggoner, editor of The Lucid Dreaming Experience, believes so: "...I was struck by the concept of the Ba being the part of one that flies during sleep, trance and after-death states... Many of us have had that experience, whether we call it an OOBE or a lucid dream, of flying around our sleeping body.
"For lucid dreamers, trance journeyers and OOBE-ers, the Ba may represent in a historic sense, the first depiction of a 'mobile awareness' separated from the physical host. Interestingly, this mobile awareness, this Ba, seems naturally connected to flying - a common and seemingly universal part of lucid dreaming. Though thousands of years separate us from the Ancient Egyptians, perhaps some of their ancient knowledge remains in our collective unconscious..."
In 1988, Snyder & Gackenback conducted a scientific survey which found that 20% of people claimed to lucid dream frequently (every month) while 50% of people had done it at least once in their lives. So lucidity is not so rare, even if most people don't know the technical name or induce such dreams deliberately. It actually seems quite normal to have spontaneous dream control - especially as children.
One possible reason for this is that children are more prone to nightmares which can be highly vivid and emotionally intense. This awakens the part of the brain responsible for self-awareness, and gives the young dreamer a moment of clarity to realize "hey - I must be dreaming!" Some children use this knowledge to wake themselves up, while others transform the nightmare into a pleasant guided dream.
When I first discovered lucid dreaming in my teens, I was excited to tell my friend about it. "I've been doing that for years," she told me: for as long as she could remember, she would use her imagination as she went to sleep to visualize whatever dreamscape she wanted. Then she would just pop into her dream and experience dream control perfectly naturally. Though she didn't know what it was called, she'd been lucid dreaming intuitively.
It may be surprising how many people you know are already lucid dreamers - you just never happened to ask them about it. Since I launched this website six years ago and made lucid dreaming my career, a number of friends have come out of the woodwork to announce they have the occasional guided dream. It's a coincidence that my partner Pete has controlled his dreams since he was a child too - another natural lucid dreamer.
At the other end of the spectrum, a handful of people have written to me saying that ALL their dreams are lucid, every single night since childhood and they sleep very poorly as a result, feeling like their brain never properly shuts down. This is a rare condition, as most people find inducing lucid dreams is a deliberate act or a welcome accident, but never a burden. As with all aspects of sleep, it's possible that things can go wrong and specialist help is needed. So if you find it impossible to have non-lucid dreams and this disrupts your everyday life, then do see a specialist doctor.
When I was younger I used close my eyes to escape from nightmares. When I was frozen with terror it occurred to me that none of it was real, and I had a moment to squeeze my eyes shut tightly and shout "WAKE UP!"
Now I never end a lucid dream prematurely if I can help it. But that doesn't stop me from accidentally closing my eyes in the dream (out of force of habit, not because they're dry or I need to blink...) This almost always causes me to return to my physical waking body. Apparently, this is not true for everyone, but it sure is for some.
Luckily, if you do wake up by accident, there is a way to resume the dream from where you left off. As long as you keep your body still (so as not to disturb the sleep paralysis mechanism) and close your eyes immediately, you should find yourself back in the dream and fully lucid. I would liken it to changing channels on the TV: for a few seconds, both realities exist and you are free to flick between them.
In 1975, the British psychologist Keith Hearne achieved a world first: he recorded the eye movements of Alan Worsley as he slept and engaged in a lucid dream in the lab. Crucially, the two men had agreed upon a pattern set of eye movement signals beforehand. By moving his eyes inside the lucid dream, Worsley was able to communicate with Hearne in the outside world, while he was dreaming.
This remarkable experiment proved, for the first time ever, that consciousness in dreams was indeed real. Later, EEG readings were able to record a high frequency GAMMA brainwave state in lucid dreamers, which provided further evidence of this unique state of conscious awareness. However, it was the basis of Hearne's experiment, which was more famously replicated by Dr Stephen LaBerge at Stanford University a few years later, that showed us it really is possible for a dreamer to "talk" with a waking person in the outside world.
But what about the other way around? Can we send messages to a dreamer while they sleep? Could a two-way conversation be achieved?
Actually, yes - to a degree. When we sleep, our brains are largely ignorant to most of what's happening in the outside world. However, for survival reasons, we do have the ability to retain some awareness and be responsive so some types of external stimulus. So, if someone gently prods you in the rib while you sleep, you will sometimes feel the prod in the dream, albeit under a different interpretation.
I once dreamed of a rat biting me in the ribs then woke up and found I was actually pinching myself! Another example is auditory stimulus: heavy rain in the waking world has transferred to my dream - and once it began raining heavily inside my house. Like many a surreal trigger, this caused me to become lucid.
The neuroscientist, J Allan Hobson, has theorized about what happens in the brain when a dreamer becomes lucid. First, we recognize that we're dreaming, and this stimulates the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain which is responsible for self-awareness and working memory. This area is usually deactivated during REM sleep - which explains why it is not typical to realize that we're dreaming or remember all of the detail without serious effort.
Interestingly, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is uniquely associated with the subjective experience of deciding when and how to act. In Susan Blackmore's wonderful pocketbook, Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction, she explains how this region is directly connected to free will - and how this may be an illusion created by our own complex brain processes. She also discusses self awareness and the contentious problem we have when we try to pinpoint the location of our conscious inner self.
Susan Blackmore's work highlights another important feature of lucidity: that it may be a special state of consciousness distinct from any other. Can these individual states be mapped? Some scientists believe so.
Here is a diagram based on Blackmore's conclusions and the existing theories of human consciousness. Although it is extremely difficult to know the relevant dimensions, it is possible to visualize how these conscious states might be mapped in a vast multidimensional space. This aims to illustrate how some states are commonly experienced and easy to reach (being wide awake, false awakenings and dreaming) while others are rarer and tread the far reaches of the human experience (deep sleep, sleep paralysis and mystical experiences).
Vitamin B6 (also known as Pyridoxine) plays a key role in brain and nerve function. Healthy adults need just 1.3 mg of Vitamin B6 each day and this can be acquired through foods like bananas, carrots, oranges, spinach, fish, chicken, liver, beans, eggs and nuts. However, to achieve the dose necessary for greater dream intensity, take a 100 mg supplement such as Nature Made Vitamin B6.
So, what happens in your body when you take this supplement? Vitamin B6 converts Tryptophan into Serotonin, which produces much more vivid dreams. You may wonder why you can't just take a Serotonin supplement. Unfortunately, the blood brain barrier wont let it in directly; the conversion has to take place in the body.
To boost your chances further, eat foods containing Tryptophan around the same time you take your B6 pill, a few hours before bed. Tryptophan-rich foods include cheddar cheese, chicken, salmon, lamb, eggs, white rice, flour and milk. So, there really is something to be said about cheese dreams.
Scientists have found that lucid orgasms can sometimes be accompanied by a real physical response, including increased heart rate, changes in vascular tissue and other muscular reactions. Sometimes, however, it's purely in the mind - although this doesn't make it any less real to the dreamer in their super-sensory dream environment. There is also heaps of anecdotal evidence to show that men who experience a lucid dream orgasm also ejaculate in real life.
The problem many people find is that it's difficult to hold onto conscious lucidity until the critical moment. Lucid dream sex is highly arousing and beginner oneironauts will most likely wake up before the experience has even got going. In this way, sexual lucid dreams aren't ideal for beginners, yet they're usually the ones most motivated to seek them out for the novelty value.
There is a proven scientific link between meditation and lucid dreams. I find that the more frequent and deep meditation I can accommodate into my lifestyle, the more easily I can recognize when I'm dreaming. For all it's apparent simplicity, meditation can ahve prfound meaning and impact on your life, helping you reach blissful states of relaxation and insight. It also helps to enter altered states of consciousness at will (great practice for Wake Induced Lucid Dreams) as well as increase self-awareness (powerful for Dream Induced Lucid Dreams.)
One thing I frequently rave about on this site is brainwave entrainment for meditation. This was the key in my learning how to meditate. First in the form of binaural beats, later in the form of isochronic tones, brainwave entrainment is a proven way of guiding your internal brainwave frequencies to produce relaxed, altered states of consciousness on demand. My favorite brainwave entrainment audios are listed here.
The most notorious application for these audio entrainment products is meditation - and this delivers us very close to the lucid dreaming state. I highly recommend beginners invest in a good entrainment audio to kickstart their internal voyages in meditation.
Tibetan Dream Yoga is the original form of lucid dreaming. It is a philosophical practice created in Tibetan Buddhism at least 1,000 years ago.
Just like lucid dreams, the aim of Dream Yoga is to awaken the conscious self from within the dream state, which they call "apprehending the dream".
However, Buddhist monks have more esoteric goals in mind. Their aim is to harness the power of the conscious dream state and then complete a number of set tasks to take them to the next level, including:
The ultimate goal in Tibetan dream yoga is to apprehend the dream, then dissolve it completely. Deprived of physical stimulus via the sleeping body, and conceptual stimulus via the dreaming mind, they can observe the purest form of conscious awareness through profound meditation in a lucid dream.
Your journey to lucidity is only just beginning. To discover more hidden insights as well as step-by-step tutorials on lucid dream inducation and exploration, check out The Lucid Dreaming Fast Track, my definitive digital course for beginners and beyond.