New York times, 16.09.07
THE kiss you share with the exquisite stranger is electric, deep and seemingly endless — that is until you open an eye and see drool on your pillow.
If only you could have slept long enough to consummate the seduction. Then again, you had no idea you were dreaming. Besides, you cannot control the nightly ride on the wings of your subconscious. Or can you?
Maybe, if you learn to practice “lucid dreaming,” a state in which a sleeping person becomes aware he or she is dreaming and may even be able to direct the action. Those who regularly experience the phenomenon say that like the physics-defying characters in “The Matrix,” they are able to generate or manipulate the fantastical events that unfold. They can fly without wings, play instruments they never learned, go bowling with T. S. Eliot — and, yes, indulge sexual fantasies.
It is likely some people have always had such dreams, said Jayne Gackenbach, a professor of psychology at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton, Alberta, who conducts research into lucid dreaming. But the esoteric practice, which has been acknowledged in the West since at least 1867, seems on the verge of becoming much better known.
A film exploring its allure, “The Good Night,” written and directed by Jake Paltrow and starring his sister, Gwyneth, Penélope Cruz and Martin Freeman, is opening Oct. 5. Depressed by his waking life, the film’s main character is determined to master the art of lucid dreaming to escape to an inspiring, sensual unreality with a lacquer-lipped knockout. “What I find myself most attracted to are things that can actually occur,” Mr. Paltrow said in an interview. “There’s really nothing in this movie that couldn’t happen.”
For those wishing to become lucid dreamers, a nine-and-a-half-day instructional retreat, “Dreaming and Awakening: Lucid Dreaming, Consciousness and Dream Yoga,” is scheduled to begin Oct. 1 in Hawaii. Don’t want to pay the airfare? On Oct. 3, an online chat about lucid dreaming takes place, part of the PsiberDreaming conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. There are new and soon-to-be published books, like “Lucid Dreaming for Beginners: Simple Techniques for Creating Interactive Dreams” (Llewellyn Publications) and “Between the Gates: Lucid Dreaming, Astral Projection and the Body of Light in Western Esotericism” (Weiser Books).
“It has gone from this very obscure type of dream to being discussed at the various dream and consciousness conferences,” Dr. Gackenbach said.
But it is not only dream experts discussing the topic. Two filmmakers described their lucid dreaming earlier this year. Michel Gondry, who directed “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” described for The Guardian lucid dreams in which “I generally end up having sex with the first girl I can find.” Guillermo del Toro, the director of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” mentioned his lucid dreaming on the National Public Radio program “Fresh Air.” “Pan’s Labyrinth” brings to life a twiggy mythological creature (a faun) he encountered in lucid dreams as a boy; the film won an Oscar this year for its surrealistic makeup.
Other films, including “Waking Life” and “Vanilla Sky,” have woven lucid dreaming into their plots. So have television series like “Alias,” “Star Trek” and “Ed” (Daryl Hall and John Oates make an appearance in Ed’s dream). Novelists including Stephen King, William Boyd and Graham Joyce have written about lucid dreaming, and the Verve, a British rock band, sang about it in “Catching the Butterfly.”
“Lucid dream” is the name of pop and jazz CDs, small businesses, modern artworks, even a sex toy.
Still, many people have never heard of it. Established sleep researchers say lucid dreaming is occasionally reported by subjects, though it is difficult to validate scientifically. “Yes, lucid dreaming exists,” said Dr. Rodney Radtke, the medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Duke University. “Yes, people certainly can, within their dream, realize ‘this is just a dream’ and continue to participate.”
“Do I believe that someone could potentially alter or interact with their dreams in such a way that they could change the dream? Yes,” he said. “Do I think that you could essentially design a dream — ‘Oh, I want to go to Honolulu and have this big hunk hit on me’? It’s a bit of a stretch. But I can’t say it can’t happen.”
He added: “Only in New York or California do they worry about this stuff.”
Stephen LaBerge, a psychophysiologist and the founder of the Lucidity Institute (lucidity.com), conducts lucid dream research and teaches people to do it.
“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible,” Dr. LaBerge said. “Fly. Dream sex. That’s what everybody likes to do. There’s also the possibility of creative problem-solving, overcoming nightmares and anxieties, learning more about yourself.”
A student at Stanford University, where Dr. LaBerge conducted much of his research, wrote in The Stanford Daily: “In one of my earliest experiences with lucidity, I announced to an auditorium full of people that I was their god (wasn’t I?). When they did not respond deferentially, I used telekinesis to send one of them flying across the room.”
It can be particularly appealing to those who have nightmares, as it allows them to realize while still asleep that they are just dreaming.
Interest in these potential real-world benefits and the otherworldly freedoms of lucid dreaming — as well as the questions it provokes about the precarious nature of reality — has spurred the invention and evolution of seemingly wacky dream aids. There are masks with lights and sounds; Orwellian devices that announce THIS IS A DREAM! in the middle of the night; and pills.
At the Hawaii gathering next month, attendees will be able to check out Dr. LaBerge’s NovaDreamer, a mask meant to light up during REM sleep and cue the person entangled in the sheets that he or she is dreaming. It is based on the notion that people can make a plan while awake and then execute it in their dreams. A light or sound is meant to remind them of their goal of lucid dreaming without actually waking them up. Participants may also take part in experiments with an herbal version of a drug that impacts acetylcholine, a neurotransmitting compound that affects memory.
As bizarre as these things may sound, there is a scientific rationale for cueing users during REM sleep. “REM-sleep dreams are much more visual,” said Matthew P. Walker, the director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former assistant professor of psychology at the Harvard Medical School. “They have a strong narrative that runs through them. They’re hallucinogenic.”
There are several reasons for this, including that the lateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain involved in logical reasoning and working memory, becomes more inactive during REM sleep, while other areas of the brain, like the visual and emotional centers, rev up.
Scientists, however, are still trying to discover the difference between the dreaming brain and the lucid-dreaming brain. The leading candidate, Dr. Walker said, is the lateral prefrontal cortex. He thinks that during REM sleep, the activity level of this logic-oriented part of the brain begins to rise back to waking levels, and when it does, an invisible switch is flipped and the sleeper gains lucidity. “In the next five years, I think somebody will demonstrate that,” he said.
Lucid-dream researchers say there are myriad mental exercises a person can do during waking hours to try to become cognizant while dreaming. One technique involves performing various reality checks many times a day — such as looking at the numbers on a watch, looking away, and then looking at them again to make sure that night has not suddenly become day. The theory is that if a person does this regularly while awake, he or she will likely repeat it while dreaming and will recognize inconsistencies — if, say, the watch is melting in a Dali-esque way. Then the sleeper will think: “This looks surreal. I must be dreaming.”
In “The Good Night,” the would-be lucid dreamer performs a series of reality checks: he flips a light switch on and off (light in dreams is not usually nuanced); looks in a mirror (reflections in dreams are often obscured); and stares at his hands (in dreams one’s hands may be elongated or have fewer fingers).
Keeping a dream journal is also said to promote better recall and to train people to identify signs that indicate they are dreaming — chatting with the deceased, floating cars, talking skeletons. Again, the idea is that when people are sleeping, they will recognize these things as signs they are dreaming and they will become lucid.
Waking up half an hour earlier than usual, staying awake for 30 to 60 minutes and then going back to sleep may also induce lucid dreams, Dr. LaBerge has found. Dr. LaBerge honed his own lucid-dreaming abilities by writing his dreams down immediately after waking and telling himself he intended to remember and recognize his dreams.
Psychologists who study lucid dreaming do not know why some people need more help triggering full lucidity than others, though they agree that adept lucid dreamers are excellent at remembering dreams. Dr. Gackenbach said they tend to have strong visualization and spatial skills. They can look at a machine and envision how the parts work inside, she said, or sew a dress from scratch and know exactly what the finished frock will look like. Many practice meditation.
Of course some professionals, particularly psychoanalysts, think orchestrating one’s dreams is not a critical goal.
“We distinguish between the manifest content of the dream — the dream as you remember it — and the latent content of it,” said Dr. Edward Nersessian, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and a training and supervising psychoanalyst at the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. “Whatever you manage or do not manage to do with the manifest content isn’t really that relevant. That’s like a screen behind which lies all sorts of answers which you have to go digging for.”
When then asked if lucid dreaming was a dangerous enterprise, he chuckled gently and said: “If people who do it think it calms their anxiety, I’m all for it.”