“That which the dream shows is the shadow of such wisdom as exists in man, even if during his waking state he may know nothing about it… We do not know it because we are fooling away our time with outward and perishing things, and are asleep in regard to that which is real within our self.”
Countless minds, throughout all of history and spanning innumerable cultures, have sought to understand the biological necessity of dreaming.
Of the many hypotheses that seek to decipher this enigmatic mental process, the leading theories revolve around the idea that the brain performs something of a reality-contextualization while we sleep, grounding our subconscious mind.
From here, explanations further bifurcate: dreaming helps us make sense of our reality; it helps the mind rationalize things it has consumed throughout the day; it allows us to resolve deeper issues; it prompts the brain to perform a cleaning function; or that it’s simply the brain having its recreational time.
But as we saunter along on our journey towards uncovering this seemingly unknowable mental process, we’re also dealing with a rather powerful variable that can prove itself to be a catalyst towards the ultimate answer — that being the practice of lucid dreaming: the second-tier awareness that a dreamer experiences while dreaming.
Something of an art, lucid dreaming can often be developed and trained, prompting us to consider how far we can really take things when it comes to utilizing this ability towards some greater end.
So I sought to get a more immersive understanding of where we currently stand in trying to exploit this peculiar variable, and of how such an understanding can illuminate more with regards to the link between the conscious and the unconscious — because it’s atop this precarious rope bridge that I predict we will find the most comprehensive answer regarding our waking life and our subconscious mind.
David Saunders, psychologist and researcher at the University of Northampton’s Exceptional Experiences and Consciousness Studies Group, has spent an ample amount of time studying the function of dreams from a neuro-cognitive perspective.
In 2017, he and his team published the results of a 12 week study on the topic of lucid dreaming, concluding that the experiences within a dream state may have considerable effects on waking cognition.
Below is the elaboration of his findings from a brief interview.
Q: With respect to your article: “Exploring the role of need for cognition, field independence and locus of control on the incidence of lucid dreams during a 12-Week induction study”, you had concluded that experiences within a lucid dream state can have appreciable effects on waking cognition.
Can we really effectuate positive changes in our waking life by way of lucid dreaming? If so, how?
D.S.: Yes, it is entirely possible; any experience we have can inspire and affect change, particularly if those experiences are profound. For many lucid dreamers, “profound” is a term frequently used to describe the experience, and it is understandable why.
In a lucid dream, the individual finds themselves in a compelling sensory-perceptual world, one in which the usual laws of physics do not apply. In this way, Lucid dreams can be viewed as a sort of biologically generated (and I use the term very cautiously) virtual reality. The vast majority of people who experience them at first tend to utilise lucid dreams to engage in activities or explore personal desires that are impossible in the waking state.
For example, flying is the most frequently reported activity people to engage in when first having a lucid dream. Being able to do something impossible, but that largely feels real, coupled with the improved memory people have for their lucid dreams when compared to conventional dream experiences, it is very plausible to think that an individual can wake up feeling invigorated and approach their day with a greater sense of potential.
There are also anecdotal accounts of people going beyond this indulgence of impossible feats and positively impacting their daily lives by exploring particular scenarios in a lucid dream experience. For example, a musician claims he was able to remove the effects of stage fright in his waking life by lucidly dreaming themselves performing on stage alone to a packed auditorium and feeling no fear within the dream, which, they claim, transferred over into their waking life.
Furthermore, there is a growing body of evidence that practising physical activities that an individual is already familiar with in their waking life within a lucid dream can increase the accuracy and performance of that action in waking life. It is not so strange when you consider motor imagery to be very effective in supplementing physical training for musicians and athletes. Lucid dreams are far more compelling and immersive than picturing performing a task in your minds-eye. As far as the brain is concerned, actions performed within a dream are real actions. Those suffering from REM sleep behaviour disorder act out their REM dream experiences as if they were happening to their physical body. Thus practising a familiar action within a lucid dream could lead to changes in motor programmes associated with that activity, leading to measurable improvements in waking life.
Lucid dreams have also been demonstrated to be an effective treatment for helping with recurrent nightmares, such as those who have PTSD. Providing the individual with the ability to become lucid gives them a larger degree of control over their dream ego and the narrative of the nightmare; patients are encouraged to use lucid dreaming to effectively negate whatever it is within their nightmare that causes them distress. A slightly different approach promoted by the German Psychologist Paul Tholey encouraged the patient to become lucid and converse with whatever caused them distress within their nightmare to determine what it represented. His accounts are anecdotal, but he reported great success using lucid dreams as a psychotherapeutic tool to help individuals resolve conflicts within their unconscious and described dramatic positive changes to his patients’ waking lives.
Ultimately a considerable amount of research still needs to be done; in many ways, we are only at the beginning of exploring some of these questions. However, I think the evidence broadly supports the notion that lucid dreams can be an effective tool for self-growth and positive change. Something that many of the ancient eastern treatises on lucid dreaming, it is worth noting, were primarily focused on. How best one may actualise that, at present, I wouldn’t like to say. I think im many ways it is down to the individual themselves to consider the effective change they would like to see, and then to take the time in their lucid dreams to explore how best that could be achieved.
Q: How can the findings of your study translate into a better understanding of the concept of lucid dreaming and any potential it may have on our day-to-day life?
D.S.: Our conclusion that lucid dreaming can have appreciative effects on waking cognition was taken from our findings showing psychological differentiation (a variable measured on a scale of ‘field-independent’ to ‘field-dependent’) changed in participants who successfully lucid dreamed. Field dependent and field independent distinguish between the distinctive ways an individual perceives their visual field, either globally or analytically. This cognitive style refers to how the framework of an environment and surrounding visual field influences a person’s perception of the items within it and how the organisation of the visual field determines the perception of its components.
Field independents impose their internal frame of reference on the visual field and can separate details from the surrounding context efficiently. Field dependents, by contrast, are focused on the context and thus are less able to identify individual details in their visual field and rely on an external frame of reference. I tend to very simplistically describe this as: ‘independents’ cannot see the wood for the trees, and ‘dependents’ cannot see the trees for the wood.
It has been proposed that those with higher field independence may be predisposed to experience lucid dreams, as they are more able to identify and distinguish between individual details in their visual field, for example, noticing an oddity within a dream narrative that allows them to ask the critical question “am I dreaming?”. Indeed, psychological differentiation has been shown to be different between lucid dreamers and non-lucid dreamers, with the trend that the more frequently an individual has lucid dreams, the more field independent they tend to be.
Our study worked with a sample of non-lucid dreamers who engaged in a 12-week induction study. Participants who successfully induced a lucid dream demonstrated a shift in their psychological differentiation toward greater field independence between baseline and post-assessments. Participants who were unsuccessful at experiencing a lucid dream showed no such shift, and no significant differences were observed in psychological differentiation between both groups at the baseline level. Therefore, rather than being a predispositional characteristic, our findings imply that experiencing lucid dreams may be responsible for this shift and influence how individuals perceive their visual field when awake. This finding is in line with the assumptions of the continuity hypothesis of dreaming, which in very simple terms proposes a continuity between waking and dreaming cognition and proposes that experiences in our dreams can influence and impact our waking experiences as easily as waking experiences, memories, concerns etc. can impact our dream narratives.
Interestingly, this finding for field independence is analogous to the effects observed with meditative practice, and some characteristics (detached receptivity, metacognitive awareness, etc.) are shared by meditation and lucid dreaming.
I think we will get to have a better understanding long term of the potential benefits of lucid dreaming, but we are still a way away from making firm conclusions about that.
Most importantly, the findings help us fill a piece of the puzzle, a step towards addressing the biggest challenge facing lucid dreaming research: developing a reliable induction protocol. There are a range of cognitive, mnemonic, and artificial induction approaches, but we don’t have a universally effective one that presents consistently high success rates. Developing a greater understanding of what may act as predispositional factors for lucid dreams can aid in identifying individuals naturally predisposed to lucid dreaming onset. In time this may aid in matching individuals with particular characteristics to particular lucid dreaming induction strategies to increase their efficacy. Over time we can hope to develop a profile of what may constitute a likely lucid dreamer and identify which conditions are most appropriate to incubate a lucid dream.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” ― Carl Jung
It’s all analogous to life, really. The more awareness we employ (especially when it comes to our subconscious mind) , the more we can get out of it. It’s the reason we buy into the law of attraction and why motivation is such a powerful constant in our day to day life; the workings of our subconscious mind are a catalyst, one that converts our thoughts into action on levels so deep that we often don’t even realize. So how much more can we gain from manipulating our dream states? And is it wise to even undertake such an ambition, or is it perhaps playing with a kind of fire that can burn us in ways we don’t fully understand? One thing’s for sure — our culture remains obsessively fixated with optimization and efficiency, even when it comes to mental output, and so I don’t foresee that it’ll be too long before we stumble onto some kind of answer.