What are lucid dreams?
Let’s discuss lucid dreams. The term lucid dreaming refers to dreaming while knowing that you are dreaming. It was coined by the Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden in 1913. It is something of a misnomer since it means something quite different from just clear or vivid dreaming. Nevertheless we are certainly stuck with it. That lucid dreams are different from ordinary dreams is obvious as soon as you have one. The experience is something like waking up in your dreams. It is as though you ‘come to’ and find you are dreaming. This experience generally happens when you realize during the course of a dream that you are dreaming, perhaps because something weird occurs. Most people who remember their dreams have had such an experience at some time, often waking up immediately after the realization. However, it is possible to continue in the dream while remaining fully aware that you are dreaming.
One distinct and confusing form of lucid dreams are false awakenings. You dream of waking up but in fact, of course, are still asleep. Van Eeden [Van13] called these ‘wrong waking up’ and described them as ‘demoniacal, uncanny, and very vivid and bright, with … a strong diabolical light.’ The one positive benefit of false awakenings is that they can sometimes be used to induce OBEs. Indeed, Oliver Fox [Fox62] recommends using false awakenings as a method for achieving the OBE. For many people OBEs and lucid dreams are practically indistinguishable. If you dream of leaving your body, the experience is much the same.
LaBerge’s studies of physiology of the initiation of lucidity in the dream state have revealed that lucid dreams have two ways of starting. In the much more common variety, the ‘dream-initiated lucid dream’ (DILD), the dreamer acquires awareness of being in a dream while fully involved in it. DILDs occur when dreamers are right in the middle of REM sleep, showing lots of the characteristic rapid eye movements. DILDs account for about four out of every five lucid dreams that the dreamers have had in the laboratory. In the other 20 percent, the dreamers report awakening from a dream and then returning to the dream state with unbroken awareness — one moment they are aware that they are awake in bed in the sleep laboratory, and the next moment, they are aware that they have entered a dream and are no longer perceiving the room around them. These are called ‘wake initiated lucid dreams’ (WILDs).
For many people, having lucid dreams is fun, and they want to learn how to have more or to how to induce them at will. One finding from early experimental work was that high levels of physical (and emotional) activity during the day tend to precede lucidity at night. Waking during the night and carrying out some kind of activity before falling asleep again can also encourage a lucid dream during the next REM period and is the basis of some induction techniques. Many methods have been developed and they roughly fall into three categories.
One of the best known techniques for stimulating lucid dreams is LaBerge’s MILD (Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreaming). This technique is practiced on waking in the early morning from a dream. You should wake up fully, engage in some activity like reading or walking about, and then lie down to go to sleep again. Then you must imagine yourself asleep and dreaming, rehearse the dream from which you woke, and remind yourself, ‘Next time I have this dream, I want to remember I’m dreaming.’
A second approach involves constantly reminding yourself to become lucid throughout the day rather than the night. This is based on the idea that we spend most of our time in a kind of waking daze. If we could be more lucid in waking life, perhaps we could be more lucid while dreaming. German psychologist Paul Tholey [Tho83] suggests asking yourself many times every day, ‘Am I dreaming or not?’ This exercise might sound easy, but is not. It takes a lot of determination and persistence not to forget all about it. For those who do forget, French researcher Clerc suggests writing a large ‘C’ on your hand (for ‘conscious’) to remind you [GB89]. This kind of method is similar to the age-old technique for increasing awareness by meditation and mindfulness.
The third and final approach requires a variety of gadgets. The idea is to use some sort of external signal to remind people, while they are actually in REM sleep, that they are dreaming. Hearne first tried spraying water onto sleepers’ faces or hands but found it too unreliable. This sometimes caused them to incorporate water imagery into their dreams, but they rarely became lucid. He eventually decided to use a mild electrical shock to the wrist. His ‘dream machine’ detects changes in breathing rate (which accompany the onset of REM) and then automatically delivers a shock to the wrist [Hea90].
Meanwhile, in California, LaBerge [LaB85] was rejecting taped voices and vibrations and working instead with flashing lights. The original version of a lucid dream-inducing device which he developed was laboratory based and used a personal computer to detect the eye movements of REM sleep and to turn on flashing lights whenever the REMs reached a certain level. Eventually, however, all the circuitry was incorporated into a pair of goggles. The idea is to put the goggles on at night, and the lights will flash only when you are asleep and dreaming. The user can even control the level of eye movements at which the lights begin to flash. The newest version has a chip incorporated into the goggles, which will not only control the lights but will store data on eye-movement density during the night as well as information about when and for how long the lights were flashing, making fine tuning possible.
There are two reasons for associating lucid dreams with OBEs. First, recent research suggests that the same people tend to have both lucid dreams and OBEs [Bla88, Irw88]. Second, as Green pointed out [Gre68b] it is hard to know where to draw the line between an OBE and a lucid dream. In both, the person seems to be perceiving a consistent world. Also the subject, unlike in an ordinary dream, is well aware that he is in some altered state and is able to comment on and even control the experience. Green refers to all such states as ‘metachoric experiences.’ It is possible to draw a line between these two experiences, but the important point to realize is that that line is not clear, and the two have much in common.
But there is an important difference between lucid dreams and the other states. In the lucid dream one has insight into the state (in fact that fact defines the state). In false awakening, one does not have such insight (again by definition). In typical OBEs, people feel that they have really left their bodies. Those experiencing NDEs may have a sense of rushing down a long tunnel, which some perceive as being an entryway into a world beyond death. It is only in the lucid dream that one realizes it is a dream.
Just as in the case of OBEs, surveys can tell us how common lucid dreams are and who has them. Blackmore estimates that about 50 percent of people have had at least one lucid dream in their lives [Bla91]. Green [Gre66] found that 73% of student sample answered ‘yes’ to the question, ‘Have you ever had a dream in which you were aware that you were dreaming?.’ Palmer found that 56% of the townspeople and 71% of the students in his sample reported that they had had lucid dreams and many of these claimed to have them regularly [Pal79b]. Blackmore found that 79% of the Surrey students she interviewed had them [Bla82]. Beyond producing these kinds of results, it does not seem that surveys can find out much. There are no very consistent differences between lucid dreamers and others in terms of age, sex, education, and so on [GL88]. All these surveys seem to agree quite closely, showing that the lucid dream is a rather common experience — far more common than the OBE.
What is the physiology of dreams and lucid dreams?
The electrical activity of the brain has been observed and classified with EEG (electroencephalograph) equipment; signals are picked up from the scalp by electrodes, then filtered and amplified to drive a graph recorder. Brain activity has been found to produce specific ranges for certain basic states of consciousness, as indicated in ‘Hz’ (Hertz, or cycles/vibrations per second):
delta — 0.2 to 3.5 Hz (deep sleep, trance state) theta — 3.5 to 7.5 Hz (day dreaming, memory) alpha — 7.5 to 13 Hz (tranquility, heightened awareness, meditation) beta — 13 to 28 Hz (tension, ‘normal’ consciousness)
In the drowsy state before falling asleep, the EEG is characterized by many alpha waves while the muscles start to relax. Gradually this state gives way to Stage 1 sleep. Three more stages follow, each having different EEG patterns and marked by successively deeper states of relaxation. By Stage 4 the sleeper is very relaxed, his breathing is slower, and skin resistance high. He is very hard to wake up. If the dreamer is awakened, he may say that he was thinking about something or he may describe some vague imagery, but he will rarely recount anything which sounds like a typical dream.
But this is not all there is to sleep — increasing oblivion. In a normal night’s sleep, a distinct change takes place an hour or two after the onset of sleep. Although the muscles are still relaxed, the sleeper may move, and from the EEG it appears that he is going to wake up and he returns to something resembling Stage 1 sleep. Yet he will still be very hard to wake up, and in this sense is fast asleep. The most distinctive feature, however, is the rapid eye movements, or REMs and the stage is also called REM-sleep. In earlier stages the eyes may roll about slowly, now, however, they dart about as though watching something. If woken up now the sleeper will usually report that he was dreaming.
Lucid dreams implied that there could be consciousness during sleep, a claim many psychologists denied for more than 50 years. Orthodox sleep researchers argued that lucid dreams could not possibly be real dreams. If the accounts were valid, then the experiences must have occurred during brief moments of wakefulness or in the transition between waking and sleeping, not in the kind of deep sleep in which REMs and ordinary dreams usually occur. In other words, they could not really be dreams at all.
This contention presented a challenge to lucid dreamers who wanted to convince people that they really were awake in their dreams. But of course when you are deep asleep and dreaming you cannot shout, ‘Hey! Listen to me. I’m dreaming right now.’ During REM sleep, the muscles of the body, excluding the eye muscles and those responsible for circulation and respiration, are immobilized by orders from a nerve center in the lower brain. This fact prevents us from acting out our dreams. Occasionally, this paralysis turns on or remains active while the person’s mind is fully awake and aware of the world.
It was Keith Hearne [Hea78], of the University of Hull, who first exploited the fact that not all the muscles are paralyzed. In REM sleep the eyes move. So perhaps a lucid dreamer could signal by moving the eyes in a predetermined pattern. Lucid dreamer Alan Worsley first managed to do this in Hearne’s laboratory. He decided to move his eyes left and right eight times in succession whenever he became lucid. Using a polygraph, Hearne could watch the eye movements for sign of the special signal. The answer was unambiguous. All the lucid dreams occurred in definite REM sleep. In other words they were, in this sense, true dreams.
A typical lucid dream lasted between two and five minutes, occurred at about 6.30 a.m., about 24 minutes into a REM period and towards the end of a 22-second REM burst. The nights on which lucid dreams occurred did not show a different sleep pattern from other nights, although they did tend to follow days of above average stimulation.
It is sometimes said that discoveries in science happen when the time is right for them. It was one of those odd things that at just the same time, but unbeknownst to Hearne, Stephen LaBerge, at Stanford University in California, was trying the same experiment. He too succeeded, but resistance to the idea was very strong. In 1980, both Science and Nature rejected his first paper on the discovery [LaB85]. It was only later that it became clear just how important this discovery had been.
Some conclusions can be drawn from this information. In both OBEs and lucid dreams, the person seems to have his waking consciousness, or something close to it. He is able to see clearly, but what he sees is not quite like the physical and it appears to have many of the properties of a dream world or imaginary world. But there are differences as well: the lucid dream starts more often when the subject is asleep, and the dream world is less distinct and real than the OB ‘world,’ allowing less control and freedom of movement; in addition, the person who has an OBE starting from the waking state never actually thinks he is dreaming. Most lucid dreams involve only the subject, but there are cases on record of ‘meetings’ in lucid dreams. The important question is whether the OBEer is observing the same world as the lucid dreamer. Are the two experiences essentially aspects of the same phenomenon?
According to Stephen LaBerge it seems possible that at least some OBEs arise from the same conditions as sleep paralysis, and that these two terms may actually be naming two aspects of the same phenomenon [LL91]. In his opinion the survey evidence favors this theory. There is also considerable evidence that people who tend to have OBEs also tend to have lucid dreams, flying and falling dreams, and the ability to control their dreams [Bla84, Gli89, Irw88]. Because of the strong connection between OBEs and lucid dreaming, some researchers in the area have suggested that OBEs are a type of lucid dream [Far76, Hon79, Sal82].
One problem with this argument is that although people who have OBEs are also likely to have lucid dreams, OBEs are far less frequent, and can happen to people who have never had lucid dreams. Furthermore, OBEs are quite plainly different from lucid dreams in that during a typical OBE the experient is convinced that the OBE is a real event happening in the physical world and not a dream, unlike a lucid dream, in which by definition the dreamer is certain that the event is a dream. There is an exception that connects the two experiences — when we feel ourselves leaving the body, but also know that we are dreaming.
LaBerge organized a study which consisted of analysis of the data of 107 lucid dreams from a total of 14 different people. The physiological information that was collected included brain waves, eye-movements and chin muscle activity. In all cases, the dreamer signaled the beginning of the lucid dream by making a distinct pattern of eye movements. After verifying that all the lucid dreams had eye signals showing that they had happened in REM sleep, they were classified into DILDs and WILDs, based on how long the dreamers had been in REM sleep without awakening before becoming lucid, and on their report of either having realized they were dreaming while involved in a dream (DILD) or having entered the dream directly from waking while retaining lucidity (WILD). Alongside the physiological analysis each dream report was scored for the presence of various events that are typical of OBEs, such as feelings of body distortion (including paralysis and vibrations), floating or flying, references to being aware of being in bed, being asleep or lying down, and the sensation of leaving the body.
Ten of the 107 lucid dreams qualified as OBEs, because the dreamers reported feeling as if they had left their bodies in the dream. Twenty of the lucid dreams were WILDs, and 87 were DILDs. Five of the OBEs were WILDs (28%) and five were DILDs (6%). Thus, OBEs were more than four times more likely in WILDs than in DILDs. The three OBE-related events which were looked for also all occurred more often in WILDs than in DILDs. Almost one third of WILDs contained body distortions, and over a half of them included floating or flying or awareness of being in bed. This is in comparison to DILDs, of which less than one fifth involved body distortions, only one third included floating or flying, and one fifth contained awareness of bed.
The reports from the five DILDs that were classified as OBEs were actually much like those from the WILD-OBEs. In both the dreamers felt themselves lying in bed and experiencing strange sensations including paralysis and floating out-of-body. Although these lucid dreams sound like WILDs, they were classified as DILDs because the physiological records showed no awakenings preceding lucidity. However, it is possible that these people could have momentarily become aware of their environments (and hence been ‘awake’) while continuing to show the brainwaves normally associated with REM sleep.
The laboratory studies show that when OBEs happen in lucid dreams they happen either when a person re-enters REM sleep right after an awakening, or right after having become aware of being in bed. Could this relationship apply to OBEs and lucid dreams that people experience at home, in the ‘real world’?
Not being able to take the sleep lab to the homes of hundreds of people LaBerge conducted a survey about OBEs and other dream-related experiences. The difference between his survey and previous ones is that in addition to asking if people had had OBEs, he asked specifically about certain events that are known to be associated with WILDs, namely, lucid dreaming, returning directly to a dream after awakening from it, and sleep paralysis.
A total of 572 people filled out the questionnaire. About a third of the group reported having had at least one OBE. Just over 80 percent had had lucid dreams. Sleep paralysis was reported by 37 percent and 85 percent had been able to return to a dream after awakening. People who reported more dream-related experiences also reported more OBEs. For example, of the 452 people claiming to have had lucid dreams, 39 percent also reported OBEs, whereas only 15 percent of those who did not claim lucid dreams said they had had OBEs. The group with the most people reporting OBEs (51%) were those who said they had experienced lucid dreams, dream return, and sleep paralysis.
In this survey, people reporting frequent dream return also tended to report frequent lucid dreams. Thus, LaBerge believes that the fact that dream return frequency is linked with OBE frequency in this study gives further support to the laboratory research finding that WILDs were associated with OBEs. On the other hand he stresses that the proof that some or even most OBEs are dreams is not enough to allow us to say that a genuine OBE is impossible. However, he suggests that if you have an OBE, why not test to see if the OBE-world passes the reality test. Is the room you are in the one you are actually sleeping in? If you have left your body, where is it? Do things change when you are not looking at them (or when you are)? Can you read something twice and have it remain the same on both readings? LaBerge asks ‘If any of your questions and investigations leave you doubting that you are in the physical world, is it not logical to believe you are dreaming?’ [LL91].
What is the physiology of OBEs?
Clearly there are similarities between OBEs and dreams. In both we experience a world in which imagination plays a great part and we can perform feats not possible in everyday life. But the OBE differs in many important and obvious ways from what we have called an ordinary dream. For a start, it usually occurs when the subject is awake, or at least if drowsy or drugged, not sleeping.
Second, the imagery and activities of an OBE are usually much less bizarre and more coherent than those of an ordinary dream, and most often the scenery is something from the normal environment rather than the peculiar setting of dreams. Third, OBEers are often adamant that their experience was nothing like a dream. Finally, there is the great difference in the state of consciousness.
Ordinary dreams are characterized by very cloudly consciousness at best, and are only recognized as dreams on waking up. But these differences are not enough. You may argue that in a lucid dream both the imagery and the state of consciousness are much more like those in an OBE. So perhaps the OBE is a kind of lucid dream occurring in the midst of waking life. One way to find out might be to determine the physiological state in which the OBE takes place. Such a finding can only be made by means of laboratory experiment; but first we need to catch an OBE in the laboratory.
Observing an OBE in the laboratory setting is not easy. Most people who have an OBE have only one, or at most few, in a lifetime. Capturing an OBE requires a special kind of subject, one who is both able to induce an OBE at will, and willing to be subjected to the stress of being tested. Fortunately there are such subjects.
One of the first to be tested was a young girl called Miss Z., by Charles Tart who studied her OBEs [Tar68]. Her OBEs all occurred at night. She used to wake up in the night and find herself floating near the ceiling. With Miss Z. as subject Tart initially wanted to test two aspects of the OBE: first, whether ESP could occur during an OBE, and second what physiological state was associated with the experience. Altogether, Miss Z. spent four non-consecutive nights sleeping at the lab.
During her first night Miss Z. had no OBEs. During the second night she woke twice and reported that she had been floating above her body. During the first experience Miss Z. had not yet fallen asleep when the OBE occurred, and the EEG showed a drowsy waking pattern followed by waking when she told Tart about the experience. All the time the heart rate had been steady and there were no REMs. Then at 3.15 a.m. Miss Z. woke up and called out ‘write down 3.13.’ Apparently she had left her body and lifted up high enough to see the clock on the wall. At that time the EEG showed various patterns but predominantly theta and alphoid activity. There were few sleep spindles (a feature of the EEG pattern in certain stages of sleep), no REMs, no GSRs (galvanic skin response) and a steady heartbeat.
On the third night Miss Z. had a dramatic OBE. She seemed to be flying, and found herself at her home in Southern California, with her sister. Her sister got up from the rocking chair where she had been sitting and the two of them communicated without speaking. After a while they both walked into the bedroom and saw the sister’s body lying in bed asleep. Almost as soon as she realized that it was time to go, the OBE was over and Miss Z. found herself back in the laboratory.
Tart was not able to contact the sister to check whether she had been aware of the visit, but the physiological record showed that there was mostly alphoid activity with no REMs and only a couple of minutes of Stage 1, dreaming sleep, with REMs. The last night was in some ways the most exciting, for on that occasion the subject was able to see an ESP target provided; but the EEG record was obscured by a lot of interference.
Tart described it as somewhat like Stage 1 with REMs, but he added that he could not be sure whether it was a Stage1 or a waking pattern. Amongst all these confusing and changeable patterns, some certainty does emerge. In general the EEG showed a pattern most like poorly developed Stage 1 mixed with brief periods of wakefulness. For this subject at least OBEs do not occur in the same state as dreaming.
Tart would have liked to have continued working with Miss Z. but this proved impossible as she had to return to Southern California. However, Tart [Tar67] was able to work with another subject, Robert Monroe, well known from his books. Monroe was monitored for nine sessions with EEG and other devices. In this environment Monroe had difficulty inducing an OBE. Electrodes were clipped to his ear, and he found them very uncomfortable. During all the time that he was trying to have an OBE his EEG showed a strange mixture of patterns. There was unusually varied alpha rhythm, variable sleep spindles, and high voltage theta waves. On the whole Tart concluded that Monroe was in Stages 1 and 2 and was relaxed and drowsy, falling in and out of sleep. His sleep pattern was quite normal and he had normal dream periods and sleep cycle.
During the penultimate session Monroe managed to have an OBE. Tart concluded that Monroe’s OBEs occurred in the dreaming state; but this idea presented him with a problem. Monroe claims that for him, dreaming and OBEs are entirely different. Tart finally concluded that perhaps the OBEs were a mixture of dreams and ‘something else.’ This ‘something else’ might, he thought, be ESP.
One of the next subjects to be tested in this way was Ingo Swann. In several experiments at the ASPR [OM77] Swann was attached to the EEG equipment while he sat in a darkened room and tried to exteriorise, in his own time, and to travel to a distant room where ESP targets were set up. He did not fall asleep and was thus able to make comments about how he was getting on. After some months of this type of experiment Swann suggested that he might be able to leave his body on command and so he was arranged to receive an audible signal to tell him when to go, and when to return.
Apparently he succeeded in this effort, which meant that OBE and other times could easily be determined and compared. During the OBE periods, the EEG was markedly flattened and there were frequency changes, with a decrease in alpha and increase in beta activity. While these changes took place, the heart rate stayed normal. These findings are rather different from those with previous subjects in that Swann seemed to be more alert during his OBEs. Perhaps this just confirms what was learned from case studies, that the OBE can occur in a variety of states. But perhaps most important is that in no case so far did there seem to be a discrete state in which the OBE took place.
There were no sudden changes in either EEG or autonomic functions to mark the beginning or end of the OBE. Any changes were gradual; unlike dreaming, the OBE does not seem to be associated with a discrete physiological state. The one other subject who has taken part in a large number of OBE experiments is Keith (‘Blue’) Harary. The experiments in which his physiological state was measured were carried out at the Physical Research Foundation [Mor73, HJH74, JHHLM74, MHJHR78]. The findings were different again from those of previous studies. Here there were no changes in EEG. The amount and frequency of alpha were the same in OBE and ‘cool down’ periods and there were only slightly fewer eye movements in the OBE phases. These measurements alone show that Harary was awake and that his OBEs did not occur in a sleeping, dreaming or borderline state. Other measures did show a change. Skin potential fell, indicating greater relaxation, and it was this measure which provided the best indicator that an OBE had begun. Both heart rate and respiration increased.
These changes are surprising because they imply a greater degree of arousal; the opposite of the finding from skin potential. So in some ways Harary was more relaxed, but he was also more alert. Great differences between subjects tend to obscure any clear pattern in the states, but in all this confusion it is clear that the start of an OBE does not coincide with any abrupt physiological change.
There is no discrete OBE state. The OBE does not, at least for these subjects, and under these conditions, occur in a state resembling dreaming. The subjects were relaxed, and even drowsy or lightly asleep, but they were not dreaming when they had their OBEs.