The dark side of lucid dreaming and nocturnal escapism
The home invasion was the worst.
Night after night, Casey heard doors slam, saw guns thrust in his face and felt his heart thump in his chest. He’d wake up, feel the relief of reality spread over his body. Then, he’d wake up again.
For Casey, waking wasn’t really waking at all. It was a dream of waking, a struggle to surface as his semiconscious fears tried to pull him further into a nightmare. By the time he awoke — actually awoke — he couldn’t trust his own senses. So he remained in bed, scanning his room for clues that could anchor him to reality, his anxiety flourishing.
“I would wake to the idea that something was wrong. That something was encroaching upon me, just as I felt within my dreams,” he says. “After waking up so many times, with your final wake-up you’re still not entirely certain you’re awake. This time feels different, and you’re pretty sure. But you were pretty sure all the other times, too.”
Casey, a twenty-three-year-old college student and restaurant manager, has been a lucid dreamer for several years. But his experience is the opposite of the proselytizing lucid dreamers who are able to induce and control their dreamscapes with ease. Instead of flying, Casey cowered in bed; instead of asking existential questions, he pondered whether his waking life was affected. Colors seemed off, he says, and the feeling of some kind of creeping threat would linger.
A greater number of people are experimenting with lucid dreaming to heighten their consciousness, unlock new creative potential or find ways to cheat the system. For some, the practice of spelunking into the deeper regions of the subconscious is deeply enlightening. For others, there may be reasons not to uncover what’s normally kept in the dark.
A Brief History of Lucid Dreaming
The term “lucid dreaming” was first used by Dutch psychiatrist Frederick van Eeden in 1911 to describe the sensation of having a dream in which one takes an active role. Crucially, the dreamer possesses self-awareness: He knows he’s not awake, which often allows him to take the wheel and engage in behavior that would be impossible otherwise.
It’s a complex practice, but the results are said to be well worth it. Experiences are often psychedelic, and typically defy the laws of gravity, nature and even morality. Want to sleep with your married office crush? You can. While riding a dolphin. On Mars.
You can also unlock hidden secrets or figure out complex problems. Paul McCartney famously first heard the complex melody of “Yesterday” within a lucid dream, woke up and wrote it down; scientist Niels Bohr arrived at his genre-shifting model of an atom’s structure in one, too.
For most people, lucid dreams arrive naturally. They’re sporadic and unpredictable, and may come once, twice or never in any given lifetime.
But lucid dreaming enthusiasts actively induce them through a number of techniques. For example, some “plug in” to their nocturnal behavior by writing down details of dreams they remember immediately upon waking or stimulate their thoughts through brainwave entertainment. Such tricks improve recognition of recurring elements. (If a pink duck is a frequent visitor, you’ll associate him with a dream.) Once in the dream, practitioners also learn to perform “reality checks” to test whether or not they’re asleep. Pulling a finger, for example. If nothing happens, you’re awake. If it elongates, its a dream. These precautions protect the dreamer from confusing the waking and resting worlds.
It was the work of psychologist Keith Hearne in 1975 that brought lucid dreaming a measure of respectability in academia. Hearne demonstrated that subjects were able to communicate with pre-arranged eye movements during sleep, displaying a sense of control and awareness.
Indeed there is much known about the science behind the practice. It turns out, lucid dreamers are experiencing a hybrid-REM state. They’re not quite in “normal” dream mode and, by virtue of having activated prefrontal areas of the brain, they could technically be considered conscious.
Like any reality-affecting pastime, lucid dreaming has its subculture of practitioners who trade tips on inducement, behavior and analysis. Almost universally, experts endorse it as safe. Their reasoning is sound: Everyone dreams. So what if you’re manipulating them in order to expand your understanding of the world and your place in it?
This assumes that everyone who dreams is of sound mind to begin with. In some cases, however, your Kardashian orgy might be interrupted by an encounter with an uncle who acted out some fantasies of his own. “Lucid dreaming can help you get to the point where you’re standing directly in front of a past trauma,” says Jared Zeizel, a researcher and author of The Field Guide to Lucid Dreaming. “That can be terrifying.”
Therapists, like psychologist J. Timothy Green, have successfully used lucid dreaming to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — a 21st-century version of hypnotherapy. Long-buried memories are brought to the surface for the patient to confront. But facing fears without that kind of professional assistance — a kind of dream Sherpa — can have undesirable psychological consequences.
“People have every right to go it alone if they want to,” Green says. “Some people want to be in therapy. Others wouldn’t go if their life depended on it.” In the case of a lucid dreamer, however, it may not be their choice. “You could call hundreds of therapists and you might find only one who knows anything about it.”
Too Many Dreams
Even if dreams aren’t peeling away protective layers, they can still introduce concepts or ideas that can be provocative to the dreamer. For some lucid dreamers, these experiences can bottleneck, requiring even more mental and emotional energy to manage.
“During the day, I thought about what I had dreamed about the night before,” says Aaron Santos, who took up lucid dreaming when he was in college. “You know the feeling of having an intense dream that just sort of sticks with you throughout the day? Imagine having a few of those. It’s sort of like living a double life. Except you can’t really talk about it. People don’t really want to hear about someone’s five dreams they had last night, so it all gets pent up inside.”
Then there’s the phenomenon of the false awakening, and the stress this can cause. For Casey, who suffered nightmares of home invasion, the anxiety was enough to end his lucid dreaming altogether. Nightmares can be like nesting dolls: Open one and another is revealed. The dreamer believes they’re awake until they experience a melting hand or other signal they’re still mired in a hybrid consciousness.
Robert Waggoner, a lecturer and author of Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self who has logged more than 1,000 lucid dreams since beginning the practice in 1975, believes false awakenings may be the dreamer’s most unsettling experience.
“You feel the dream getting ready to collapse, you expect to wake up, you found yourself in bed, you look in your dream journal, and someone else has written down the dream,” he says. “You realize you’re still dreaming, wake up, and it starts up again. You get out of bed and there’s pink tile in the bathroom. You’re still dreaming.”
Once, after experiencing seven false awakenings in a row, Waggoner stopped lucid dreaming for an entire year.
But does this dreamed stress take a toll on the physical body? Research suggests that our brains have trouble distinguishing what’s imagined from what’s real. Famously, a 1996 University of Chicago study had two subject groups practice basketball free throws — one on a real court, and one only in their mind. Afterward, real-life accuracy levels went up almost evenly for both test groups. By that thinking, if Casey repeatedly dreams of a home invasion — and experiences all of the associated terrors — isn’t that the same as having lived through it?
“I think there can be physiological response,” Zeizel says. “From my own experience, when I get stressed out, I get indigestion. When I get stressed from a dream, I get the same thing. The stomach kicks in a bit.”
Green agrees: “If you’re having stressful dreams, it can raise heart rate, blood pressure, all the physiological effects you get during waking.”
By its very nature, lucidity signals self-awareness. It’s a vigilant state of sobriety in which not even sleep can dull the senses. But for some, there’s a blurry line between the waking world and one where fantasies can be fulfilled without consequences. For healthy minds, lucid dreaming can be beneficial. For those plagued by illness, it can be devastating.
Dangling Between Worlds
No one believes lucid dreaming compelled Jared Loughner to open fire in a Tucson Safeway in 2011, killing six and wounding several others including then-Representative Gabrielle Giffords. But the discovery of several of Loughner’s dream journals prompted the media to ask if his obsession with the practice somehow led to a dissociative waking world in which he perceived the lives he took as unreal.
Kent Slinker, who once taught Loughner in a philosophy class, told Slate he observed his student to be “mentally checked out” and that “he was looking away, not out the window, but like someone watching a scene play out in his mind.”
Loughner’s own notes reveal a strong compulsion to dream — and also show his frustration when he can’t. In 2009, he wrote, “8 so far what a terrible month… I have [sic] been dreaming… I am sad.”
Loughner was, to put it indelicately, out of his mind. No dream hygiene of any sort was going to change that. But lucid dreaming may have provided a kind of escapism, one in which the dreaming world is preferable to the mundane events of real life.
While it’s not addictive in any biochemical sense, some lucid dreamers look to the practice to seek out the limitless canvas of their dreams more and more often; they can feel restless or annoyed when they don’t experience more of it. Of course, this happens with any immersive world — in 2010, there were reports of moviegoers experiencing depression after watching Avatar and realizing the real world wasn’t so sensorial.
“It goes back to why you’re doing it in the first place,” Zeizel says. “You need to consider your goals. If your dreams are about fantasy and not self-discovery, and your life is mundane in some sense, along with depression, it all can influence you.”
After the dream journal was released, speculation gave way to Loughner stumbling around in a dreamlike trance. Whether he was is unknown. But trouble distinguishing between the real and dream worlds isn’t strictly the purview of the criminally insane.
“Vesper,” a 23-year-old audio engineer and onetime lucid dreamer in Seattle, began practicing after hearing about how people used it as a form of escape. A few months after starting, she began to have difficulty separating a dream memory from a real one.
“I remember going to a store and talking to the staff there but this never actually occurred,” she says. “At this point in my life, I was very introverted, so I often confused my dreams with real life because my dreams were better. I remembered them as fact.”
Other times, Vesper would be socializing and behave irrationally. Her conscious mind was telling her she was in a dream and could behave without a filter. When situations grew uncomfortable, she’d try to wake herself up — only to realize she was already awake.
“One of the concerns I had about pushing lucid dreaming is with regard to people with thin boundaries,” saysJayne Gackenbach, Ph.D., a psychologist who has written several research papers on lucid dreaming. “People need to have a firm sense of their own reality. Children can do lucid dreaming, and do it well, but their reality is still an emerging thing. It’s similar.”
Gackenbach is well known for studying the escapism of video games on the psyche. She’s seen a close cousin phenomenon in her research: a “transfer effect” where realities begin to blur.
Vesper didn’t seek professional help; she simply stopped trying to lucid dream. When she did, her symptoms disappeared.
In many cases involving depersonalization, dreamers have some kind of existing modality. Lucid dreaming doesn’t conjure disorders, but it’s possible it can exacerbate them. “I tell people that if they can’t handle waking physical life, don’t seek out lucid dreaming,” Waggoner says. “You can’t, or shouldn’t, learn how to manipulate an alternate reality when you can’t focus on this one.”
Healthy or unhealthy, the dreaming mind is performing a relatively untapped, poorly understood exercise. Some combination of nature, genetics and design wants our brain’s prefrontal and parietal lobes suppressed; lucid dreamers are lighting them up.
But are we gaining consciousness, or starving it by refusing to let it rest?
“Anyone who is creative or fantasy-prone, to push them into altered states, whether it’s a drug base, or lucid dreaming, false awakenings — it’s risky,” Gackenbach says. “People think it’s a safe high. No high is safe.”
Control Is an Illusion
Some lucid dreamers have no choice in the matter — they experience vivid dreams naturally, with no further desire to seek enlightenment. Others take a natural path, using journals to recall dreams and pre-bed suggestions to “train” the brain to welcome them. The drugs galantamine and melatonin can also induce dreams, though some practitioners frown upon what amounts to sleep steroids. Tolerance or dependency, Zeizel says, can be built quickly.
However a dreamer invites nocturnal escapism, there’s a risk of burnout. Santos went from having one or two each night to having five, giving him the feeling of uninterrupted stimulation.
“The strange thing is that I don’t recall sleeping any more or less than normal,” he says, “but when I woke up after a full night’s worth of dreams, in my thoughts I felt the opposite of refreshed. I felt drained, like I had finished up a long day at the office. I was physically full of energy, but mentally I was checked out.”
When he feared the fatigue would affect his schoolwork or relationships, Santos stopped journaling. The dreams subsided.
“[I] went back to normal dreaming in a few days,” he says. “I can’t see someone going farther than that with lucid dreaming. There are physical and mental limitations to how much someone can lucid dream and I believe I met those limits.”
For the majority of dreamers, Waggoner says, having four to eight lucid dreams a month is the best dosage. “You can’t get so involved, so singularly focused with it, that you lose perspective,” he says. Once, Waggoner posed a question to his deeper consciousness in a dream: What’s the secret of good health? A voice, he says, told him “all things in moderation.”
The experienced lucid dreamer — one of relatively sound mind and body — must exercise the same responsibility as moderate drinkers and weekend pizza gluttons. And they must be mindful of the risks. Even during lucidity, the dreamer’s control may be illusory.
“You can influence dreams, manipulate them to a degree,” Waggoner says. “But you can’t ever completely control them. You still need to deal with waves, currents, and winds. The metaphor I use is that, like the sailor does not control the sea, so the dreamer does not control the dream.”