If everything you see, hear and feel in lucid dreams is the same as when you're awake, how do you know you're dreaming? Can you confuse lucid dreams with reality? What is the objective difference?
Rebecca says: Great question. This is a common misapprehension about lucid dreaming and I'm more than happy to set the record straight.
In my experience (and, I'm sure, the experience of many lucid dreamers) it is not possible to confuse lucid dreams with reality. With the power of conscious thought behind you, knowing you're dreaming is as intuitive as knowing you're awake.
Any deviation from that truth would be an indication of psychosis, and I see no evidence whatsoever to tar lucid dreamers with that brush!
In fact, this myth of confusing dreams with reality stems from a common misunderstanding that lucid dreams can "feel" exactly like waking life. People think that if this is so, then the two states must be indistinguishable.
While conscious dreams can FEEL real, there are other factors, such as memory and logical thought processes, which clearly distinguish these states.
To illustrate this I have mapped out three separate states of awareness - waking reality, lucid dreams and normal dreams - as I experience them:
So while lucid dreaming is a conscious experience, it's a completely different state from being consciously awake, and it is easy to distinguish so.
How Do I Know This Isn't Real?
Philosophical arguments aside (what if reality is a dream itself?) here's a more specific example from last night's lucid dream and why I couldn't possibly confuse it with reality. There's nothing special about this example and I believe you could apply all the same rules of logic to any other lucid dream.
In my dream, I was standing on a mountain over a forest. The desire to fly made me realize I was dreaming. I became lucid and the scenery shot into focus - suddenly I could see thousands of pine trees as vividly as real life. I got a sense of how high up I was, and now, when I looked into the distance, I could see the shiny silvery sea. If it looked so real, how could I be sure I wasn't awake?
But, you might argue, this scene was too fantastical to confuse with reality. So what if I dreamed lucidly of a very boring and lifelike scenario...?
Lucid Dream vs Reality
My experience of being in my living room in a lucid dream is not the same as my experience of being in my living room in reality.
The lucid dream version is self-contained. I can only hear things in the immediate vicinity or whatever my consciousness is focused on.
I don't necessarily know what day it is, nor what time of day.
The world beyond the living room doesn't exist yet until I go there. As a result, I tend to perceive only my localized bubble of awareness and there can be little room for separate lines of thought that don't directly manipulate my dream reality.
And of course, the big giveaway is, in a lucid dream I can do impossible things like push my own fingers through my hand (see: reality check). However, this is typically used to distinguish a dream from reality, and not the other way around.
Indeed, 95% of the population goes to sleep every night and fully accepts their dreams as reality. It's only when they wake up they realize it wasn't real.
In this sense, you can confuse normal dreams with reality, can you not?
But there is no concern for a sane mind to become locked in the belief that they are lucid dreaming, when in fact they are awake.
A final word on false awakenings - aka dreaming of waking up.
These can be exceptionally realistic dreams, like the most vivid kind of lucid dream, and yet you still don't know you're dreaming. Because you dreamed of waking up, you naturally assume you are now awake. Confusing, much?
A false awakening has all the characteristics of a lucid dream (vivid, intense, self-awareness) without realizing you're dreaming or taking conscious control. It is a good example of a scenario where you can confuse a dream with reality based on it's tangible and realistic nature.
The worst case scenario in a false awakening is you get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, head out the door for work... only to wake up, back in bed again. This next awakening can be a false awakening, too. And so it can be a frustrating cycle.
The answer is to perform a reality check when you wake up. Often this transforms a false awakening into a lucid dream!
And while for some people the experience may frustrating as it plays out, I don't believe there is really any doubt of reality when you finally do wake up for real. Objective thought will reveal whether you are dreaming or not... and the only reason a false awakening persists in the first place is because dreams lack objective thought.
This is the key to distinguishing your reality for what it is - and it's automatically provided by a healthy human consciousness.
What do blind people dream about? Can they "see" in their dreams? Take a look at scientific studies into the dreams of the blind, colorblind, and black-and-white dreamers. In 1999, dream researchers at the University of Hartford analyzed 372 dreams of 15 blind people. They found that both the congenitally blind and those who went blind before five years old did not have any visual dreams at all. That's because our dreams are made up of real world experiences and our innermost thoughts, anxieties and desires. So for someone who has never perceived images or light (or can't remember any) their dreams simply can't manifest visually.
Not long ago, scientists at Frankfurt University discovered how to produce lucid dreams with electronic stimulation. It was a world first. And - astonishingly - it worked in non-lucid dreamers 77% of the time. Now you can buy the same technology for yourself. The foc.us V2 - which delivers the proven optimum 40 Hz transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) - was originally developed to increase working memory in video gamers and improve sleep.
As technology continues to move us towards more immersive dreamlike experiences, one can only wonder what digital wonders lay just beyond the horizon of tomorrow. We may also question just how the future of virtual reality will impact the study and practice of lucid dreaming. Are we, perhaps, the last generation to whom lucid dreaming will maintain an appeal?
Jeremiah Morelli is a whimsical fantasy artist and visual storyteller. He places conceptual fairytale creatures in vivid dreamscapes to capture the imagination. He's also a school teacher, and amazingly finds the time and motivation to create this huge gallery of artwork. Such light and dark fairytale paintings make beautiful places to visit in your lucid dreams.
Inspired and named for the notion of Flatland, artist and photographer Aydin Buyuktas has created a series of works where "a space of surprises creates a space that creates surprises." Based on photos of Istanbul, Buyuktas explains: "We live in places that most of the times don't draw our attention, places that transform our memories, places that the artist gives another dimension; where the perceptions that generally crosses our minds will be demolished and new ones will arise. These works aim to leave the viewer alone with a surprising visuality, ironic as well as a multidimensional romantic point of view."
Experts agree that everyone is capable of having lucid dreams. Dreaming itself is a normal function of the mind. We all dream every night, even if we don't remember. And we all achieve conscious awareness while awake every single day. So what does it mean to combine these states? Why, the amazing ability to have conscious - or lucid - dreams. Sounds simple, doesn't it? So why do I keep hearing from people who say they can't achieve their first lucid dream?