Journeys into conscious dreams. How do they work? Are they hard to learn? And what do scientists say?

Journeys into conscious dreams. How do they work? Are they hard to learn? And what do scientists say?

People from all over the world are trying to learn how to manage dreams, using tips from YouTube or social networks. Tonight before I went to bed, I decided to do an experiment, too.

In fact, the idea has been on my mind for a long time. Often when I go to sleep, I think about something at the same time. For example, about work, entertainment, etc.

But this time I decided to turn off my thought processes altogether and turn on awareness as an “observer. That is, I wasn’t thinking, I was observing the thoughts. I did not get involved in them. I’ve done that before, but this time I decided to approach it as effectively as possible and incorporate maximum awareness.

The result:

  1. I fell asleep faster than usual;
  2. I woke up earlier than usual;
  3. I slept better than usual.

My conclusion: After conscious sleep, I seriously thought about the effectiveness of rest. And I realized that I need to be able to switch and unplug. After such a break, a person probably recovers faster and is more enthusiastic about the new work.

What are conscious dreams? And how does it work?

Conscious dreams are a special state of consciousness in which a person understands that he or she is dreaming and is able to influence what happens in the dream. The dreamer can communicate with celebrities, visit places that he or she has long dreamed of visiting, and fully control the plot of the dream, all outside of one’s own physical body!

Journeys into conscious dreams. How do they work? Are they hard to learn? And what do scientists say?

The topic of conscious dreams is often neighboring in conversations with psychic, esoteric, and Dianetics, which gives it an ambiguous reputation. Nevertheless, the existence of this phenomenon has been confirmed by scientists (and some of them are certain that conscious dreaming can be taught to anyone).

The discussion of conscious dreams has also found a home on the Internet, where the topic is discussed on YouTube and in social networking communities.

A scientific approach to lucid dreams: from ancient Greece to modern times

Lucid dreams became especially popular in the scientific literature of the early 20th century, but early references to them were found as early as in ancient Greek texts. For example, the philosopher Aristotle wrote: “Often, when one sleeps, there is something in the mind proclaiming that everything that happens is only a dream.

The phenomenon was also given attention in ancient Rome-the doctor Galen of Pergamum used conscious dreams as part of his medical practice. In addition, in 415 A.D., the philosopher Aurelius Augustine of Hippo described in a letter the conscious dreams of Gennadius, a doctor from Carthage.

Later accounts of the development of conscious dreaming techniques began to appear. For example, Tibetan Buddhists practiced a special kind of yoga to keep awake consciousness in the dream state. The Tibetan teachings were passed down from generation to generation until today, when “Yoga of the Sleep State” – a manuscript on techniques for comprehending conscious dreams, appeared in the West.

The term “conscious dreaming” itself did not appear in scientific terminology until 1913, thanks to the Dutch psychiatrist and writer Frederik van Eden. In an article entitled “A Study of Dreams” he described his dreams recorded between January 20, 1898, and December 26, 1912. The scholar collected about 500 dreams, 352 of which were conscious dreams.

Based on the data he collected, van Eden classified dreams into nine different types: initial dreams, symbolic (moronic), demonic, lively, pathological, ordinary, dreamlike, false awakening, and conscious dreams. He argued that conscious dreams are the most interesting type of dream that deserves the most careful study.

In 1968 the British psychologist Cilia Green published a book called “Lucid Dreams”, combining the results of previous scientific work and her own experiments. She concluded that lucid dreams are peculiar experiences and hallucinations different from ordinary dreams, and that they occur during the phase of rapid eye movement (REM sleep). Green also associated conscious dreams with the phenomenon of false awakenings, thereby challenging Frederick van Eden’s categorization.

In 1985, Steven Laberge, an American psychophysiologist, began studying conscious dreams. The scientist developed a number of techniques (in particular IIOS, which will be discussed below) allowing him and other researchers to enter the state of conscious dreaming, and in 1987 he founded the Institute of Conscious Dreaming.

Journeys into conscious dreams. How do they work? Are they hard to learn? And what do scientists say?

Steven Laberge, leader in the field of conscious dreaming.

In 2000, Steven conducted a pilot study that showed that time perception during lucid dreaming is about the same as during wakefulness.

How did he know this? Participants in the experiment, who had conscious dreams, counted 10 seconds during sleep and were alerted to the beginning and end of the count by a prearranged eye signal measured by an electrooculogram recording. The results of the study confirmed that the breathing, muscular and sexual activity of conscious dreamers in dreams and in reality were also almost identical.

In further research, Steven Laberge compared singing in dreams to math counting in dreams. He found that the right hemisphere of conscious dreamers was more active during singing and the left hemisphere was more active during counting. Similar results were observed during awake subjects.

Using polysomnographic measurements, the scientist found that conscious dreams have higher levels of beta-I frequency band activity (13-19 Hz). This indicates increased activity in the parietal lobe of the brain and makes dreams a conscious process. According to the study, the highest activity occurred in the left parietal lobe, which is responsible for semantic understanding and human self-awareness.

Laberge subsequently studied the prevalence of the ability to control the plot of conscious dreams and revealed that while control and dream awareness are interrelated, neither requires the other. For example, the dreamer is aware that he or she can influence what is happening, but deliberately remains in the role of observer.

The American psychiatrist and somnologist Allan Hobson picked up Laberge’s research interest and developed it in terms of neurobiology. The scientist hypothesized the work that the human brain does during a conscious dream. The first step is the recognition of the dream itself.

Hobson noted that conscious dream recognition occurs in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (one of the few areas normally deactivated during the REM phase). This means that a person, while dreaming, remains partially conscious. Moreover, the more vivid and conscious the dream, the more active the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is.

Once this area is activated and a person is aware of being in a dream, he or she needs to maintain a balance – the dreamer should allow the dream to continue, but not lose the awareness that he or she is in the dream. In this case, the amygdala and parahippocampal cortex help to distinguish the dream from reality, and the varus pontus and parietal lobe help to maintain the intensity of dream hallucinations.

Journeys into conscious dreams. How do they work? Are they hard to learn? And what do scientists say?

Allan Hobson, psychiatrist and dream researcher.

Paul Toli, a German Gestalt psychologist and professor of sports physiology, also contributed to the study of conscious dreaming. In his study, Tolie instructed subjects to constantly suspect that life while awake was a dream, so that the habit would be developed while asleep as well.

Toli called the technique of inducing conscious dreams the reflexion technique (German: Reflexionstechnik). In this way, the participants learned to dream conscious dreams – they remembered their contents and recounted them shortly after awakening.

Paul Toli also investigated the cognitive abilities of dreamers. In one study, trained subjects performed various arithmetic and verbal tasks during a conscious dream. As a result, the experiment participants did much better on the verbal tasks.

In 2011, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Munich and Leipzig used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) machines to study the content of conscious dreams and communication with sleepers. Before the test began, participants were given the task of alternately clenching their fists (first the right, then the left) after they became conscious in their dreams.

Journeys into conscious dreams. How do they work? Are they hard to learn? And what do scientists say?

An MRI scan of the brain. Source: Archives of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics.

The researchers found that after entering a controlled sleep state, the participants’ motor cortex, an area of the brain that regulates movements such as fist clenching, became more active. Using near-infrared light, they also found that the area of the brain responsible for movement planning also became more active during the experiment.

Our dreams are not “movies”, where we simply passively observe events as they happen. They involve the activity of areas of the brain that influence the content of the dream.

“Life is a Dream”: Lucid Dreams through the eyes of Esotericists

Conscious dreams are of great interest not only to scientists, but also to representatives of various occult and esoteric schools. Among esotericists this phenomenon is sometimes found under the terms “spontaneous astral projection”, “dream phase”, “out-of-body experience” and so on.

There is no single esoteric approach to lucid dreaming – there are many schools and currents that differ in their ideas. The dreamer must be able to see that he or she is not in the phase, but he or she must be able to see that the dreamer is not in the phase.

One of the most famous esotericists and mystics in this field is Carlos Castaneda, an American writer and doctor of philosophy. In 1993 he published the book “The Art of Dreaming”, which describes a set of practices to perform while dreaming in order to fully control it. In the book, Castaneda also spoke of his mentor Don Juan, a magician from the Yaqui Indian tribe of Mexico, who taught the writer about conscious dreaming.

Carlos Castaneda said:

First of all, in order to enter a dream, one must become aware of the moment of falling asleep. Before falling asleep, say to yourself: “I am a dreamer”. This is the wording of your intention.

Don’t wonder if this wording corresponds to reality-the mind doesn’t feel the difference anyway. This is not self-deception. In a linear world, we think it’s a lie. But there’s nothing new here-we deceive ourselves all the time anyway.

In the book he describes several stages in the practice of conscious dreaming. The first of these is stabilization of the dream picture. The simplest method is to selectively stabilize a simple object, such as one’s own hands. In this case, after a few seconds of staring, they begin to blur and lose their shape, after which the conscious dream ceases. With constant repetition of practice, one learns to keep the object in focus for a long time, and it will not disappear from view or lose its shape.

The second stage is contemplation of several arbitrary objects and shifting attention between them. If one loses sleep stability, it is necessary to focus back on the dreaming hands. Once the hands are stabilized, one can focus on the other objects again. At this stage, the line between dreaming and dreaming is gradually erased – the dreamer may stay in a conscious dream for hours, looking at objects and performing various actions.

Journeys into conscious dreams. How do they work? Are they hard to learn? And what do scientists say?

Carlos Castaneda.

The third stage is synchronization of the time of sleep and wakefulness. At this stage, it is important to achieve correspondence between the time of day in dreams and when falling asleep – if sleep begins in the morning hours, it should be dawn in a dream, and vice versa. In this way, the dream becomes a part of reality, and it, in turn, acquires the qualities of a dream. Castaneda believes that it is at this stage that the final fusion of the waking and dreaming world takes place.

This is how Castaneda described this phenomenon:

This circumstance completely transforms the human psyche, granting incredible psychological freedom, which cannot be objectively described and can only be dryly noted about the acquisition of a quality of absolute control over available reactions, emotions, attention, and body.

The situation as a whole is tantamount to Buddhist enlightenment, as an empirical awareness of the simple fact that life is a dream becomes perceptible.

The fourth stage is the transition from the state of ordinary conscious dreams to the phase of nested dreams. Such dreams are an attempt to generate an additional conscious dream within the main dream. The main feature of nested dreams is repeatedly increasing awareness.

Nested dreams are very similar to reality, which makes them dangerous in the initial stages of practice, when one may lose the line between dream and reality. Therefore, first of all, the dreamer needs to develop time stabilization and synchronization skills in the earlier stages.

The final stage of practice is the dual position, and it is only available if one has serious dreaming experience. When falling asleep within a dream, one must assume a posture that corresponds to the posture of the physical body. Castaneda states that this will allow the dreamer to experience not only mental but also bodily sensations. The dual pose is by far the highest possible stage of dream practice, and has been confirmed experimentally.

Despite his interest in lucid dreams, Castaneda actively avoided the very term “conscious dreaming” in his writings. The writer criticized it in every possible way, calling the phenomenon phantasmagoria. He argued that dreams in general are a special process of perception of the world that goes beyond the imaginary, and his set of practices are not just dream illusions, but an attempt to get to the etheric body.

The reason why Castaneda despised the scientific understanding of conscious dreams is worth considering only in the context of the mystical and occult mythology of the writer’s books. His main goal, like that of other esoteric magicians, is to comprehend absolute freedom both while awake and while dreaming, while maintaining consciousness. This approach is relevant to the whole complex of religious mysticism and occultism, but cannot challenge scientific theories.

Carlos Castaneda’s teachings have been accompanied by both support and serious criticism. He has been accused of describing psychedelic plants, sexual promiscuity, and spitting on his followers. There were occasions when Castaneda’s followers would come to his lectures and seminars without his teacher even showing up.

The disciples subsequently became angry with Carlos and retained a grudge against him for many years, despite his explanation that a disciple should not depend on a teacher. Some critical readers also regarded Castaneda’s books as fiction and the existence of the magician Don Juan as a fantasy.

How to learn to dream consciously? Home practices and techniques

Carlos Castaneda was right about at least one thing – conscious dreams can indeed be learned. There are many methods of conscious dream immersion, but not all of them are truly effective.

Many modern scientists aim to develop qualitative ways of inducing conscious dreams. One of them is Denholm Aspy, a doctor in the School of Psychology at the University of Adelaide. The results of his work, published in the journal Dreaming, proved that if certain recommendations are followed, people can increase the frequency and duration of conscious dreams.

Aspye’s study included 169 volunteers between the ages of 18 and 75 and analyzed the effectiveness of three different methods of inducing conscious dreams:

  • The reality test. According to the method, a person needs to check his surroundings several times a day to make sure that everything around him is real. Such a technique helps to develop a habit, which is subsequently transferred to sleep;
  • Fractional sleep. The technique states that a person should wake up five hours after falling asleep, stay awake for a short period of time, and then go back to bed. Thereafter, the body often enters a rapid sleep phase (RAP) in which conscious dreams occur;
  • MILD (mnemonic induction of lucid dreams). The person first wakes up five hours after going to bed and tries to remember what he or she dreamt. Before diving into the dream again, it is necessary to tune in to the fact that the next dream will be a conscious dream. It is recommended to mentally repeat the phrase, “Next time I dream, I will know that I am dreaming”, while imagining yourself in the dream.

Experience has shown that all of these methods are equally effective. More than half of the participants who performed these exercises saw at least one conscious dream in the first week of the experiment, which equaled a 17% success rate. This result was significantly higher compared to the baseline week, when none of the techniques were practiced.

Among participants who could fall asleep within the first five minutes of the MILD technique, the success rate of conscious dreaming was even higher-it was seen in almost 46% of attempts. Moreover, it was not the number of repetitions of the “mantra” that mattered, but the speed of falling asleep after it-the faster, the more effective.

Here is what the famous psychologist Denholm Aspy noted:

The MILD method works with what we call “prospective memory”, that is, your ability to remember what you will do in the future. By repeating the phrase that you will remember that you are in a dream, you create an intention in your head to actually remember. And this leads to the formation of a conscious dream.

The scientist also noted that the participants who reported the effectiveness of the MILD method did not experience any sleep disturbances during the experiment. This, in turn, points to the safety of the technique and the absence of negative effects. According to Aspy, mastering this technique is useful (especially for those who suffer from nightmares).

Journeys into conscious dreams. How do they work? Are they hard to learn? And what do scientists say?

Denholm Aspy, psychologist and dream researcher. Source: TedxTalks.

It is also possible to achieve conscious dreaming by technical means. In 2014, neuroscientist Allan Hobson conducted a study on 27 volunteers and found that brain activity waves during sleep can be altered by electromagnetic stimulation. The test subjects were stimulated during the rapid sleep phase of their brains at frequencies of 25-40 Hz in the lower gamma range corresponding to wakefulness. As a result of the stimulation, the participants of the experiment had conscious dreams.

There are other technical methods available not only in laboratories, but also for ordinary users. For example, the Institute of Conscious Dreaming recommends a number of devices, such as the NovaDreamer and DreamLight masks equipped with LEDs and eye movement sensors. When the device notices eye movement, it emits light signals to help the person know they are in a dream. The main idea of the devices is to indicate that a person is asleep and to help bring sleep into a conscious state.

Despite the fact that Steven Laberge actively recommends such masks, there were also opponents of such devices. For example, philosopher Thomas Metzinger was dissatisfied with the use of NovaDreamer technology. According to the cognitive scientist, the device’s signals did not help him realize that he was asleep, on the contrary, they failed to fit into the dream narrative. Red diode flashes led to a nightmare in which he was an astronaut whose emergency lights went off in the shuttle. In another dream he was chased by American police with red flashers.

Therapy or pathology: the benefits and harms of conscious dreaming

Conscious dreams are an ambiguous phenomenon that can do both good and harm. For example, Dr. Denholm Aspy believes that conscious dreams not only help to combat nightmares, but also compensate for the lack of live communication.

Here’s how he explains this point:

One of the uses of a conscious dream is the ability to have a vivid, realistic and fulfilling experience that, for some reason, is not possible in reality.

Russian psychologist Alexander Mironov also advocates the practice of lucid dreaming. He believes that in a conscious dream the brain works in much the same way as in waking life, which allows you to “see the workings of consciousness from the other side”. Mironov notes that learning to dream in this way is contraindicated for people with cardiovascular diseases, but will be useful for those who are haunted by neuroses and phobias.

Here is an example of how this technique works, which Mironov describes:

I have had a great fear of spiders since childhood. Eventually I got tired of it, and in a conscious dream, I created a room full of creepy spiders. I was very scared, but since I realized that I was faking this picture myself, I managed to disidentify with this fear. Now I could pick up any spider without much emotion.

Many Oneironauts also believe that conscious dreams have certain practical benefits. On various resources and forums they note such benefits as the ability to influence the body’s physiology, simulate encounters with “desired but inaccessible or difficult to reach people” (e.g., deceased relatives), practice sports skills, training, and even dieting.

In conscious dreams, we feel everything just as we do in real life: the weight of the body, the sense of smell, the sense of touch, the taste of food, and it tastes so much better. It will be the most delicious food you’ve ever eaten in your life.

Despite positive feedback from some scientists and practitioners, it is still too early to talk about the therapeutic effects of lucid dreaming. Steven Laberge points out that when studying mental images, hallucinations and dreams, researchers often find that the data are difficult to verify.

Other psychotherapists are also rather reticent about the “healing power” of conscious dreams. In their opinion, the practice of guided dreaming can facilitate contact with detached parts of the psyche, but further the material obtained must be worked through with a psychotherapist or it will gradually become distorted and forgotten.

This is one opinion:

There is reason to doubt that these practices have a real transformative effect. As a rule, psychological defenses are reactivated upon awakening and cancel out the result. And even in the dream itself, although their effect weakens, it does not completely cease. And for good reason, because in order to integrate the detached parts of the psyche a certain transitional space, a container, another – someone who will help to digest and realize this experience is needed. Without this space, the psyche is simply not ready for the cognitive-affective “hail” that floods it.

As for the dangers of lucid dreams, Steven Laberge is very optimistic about the phenomenon, arguing that the most important thing is the personal responsibility of the dreamer. According to the scientist, most conscious dreams have a positive coloring, unlike simple dreams and nightmares.

Here’s what Steven Laberge has to say about it:

We are absolutely certain that, for people of normal mental disposition, conscious dreams are completely harmless. Different people use lucid dreaming for different purposes, and not always in the best of ways, but this should not distract dream researchers from their work on the problem.

Dr. Vlad Kovalzon, Doctor of Biological Sciences, does not recommend practicing lucid dreaming at home, even though it may be beneficial. According to the scientist, one should resort to conscious dreams only in certain situations. For example, victims of terrorist attacks, accidents and post-traumatic syndromes, while an ordinary person does not need it.

Conscious dreams are a special form of altered consciousness, not identical with dreams. If you constantly practice this state, you deprive yourself of a normal dream dream, and what this has to do with, what it entails, we can’t fully understand. But it is quite clear that there is nothing good in it.

Frequency of manifestations and popularity of lucid dreams

People want to learn conscious dreaming for a variety of reasons. For some, it is an opportunity to gain a new state of consciousness, and for others it is a way of playing out hypothetical or real situations that have actually happened.

Whether or not to practice lucid dreaming is a personal matter, but the phenomenon itself refers to important questions about thinking and consciousness, which have yet to be answered by modern science.

Despite the mysteriousness of lucid dreams, they are a fairly common phenomenon today. According to statistics, more than 50% of the world’s adults have had conscious dreams at least once in their lives, almost half of them encounter them every month.

Journeys into conscious dreams. How do they work? Are they hard to learn? And what do scientists say?

What opportunities does the practice of Conscious dreaming offer?

  1. The new experience. The first time a person learns to become conscious in his sleep, he usually seeks adventure. He tries to fly and pass through walls, teleport to various exotic places and other planets – all the things that we remember as a natural skill from childhood, but as adults consider unreal. In this playful way, dreamers remember what their consciousness is capable of, that it has no limits and no boundaries;
  2. The development of creative skills. You may have already heard that many works of art were created in the Conscious Dream. But you hardly know how many: The Divine Comedy, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre. Works by Stevenson, Edgar Poe, Chekhov, Mozart, Schumann, Wagner. “Woe from Wit”, by the way, was taken out of the dream in its entirety and almost without change! And the sewing machine, and the discovery of the nervous system, and the theory of relativity we owe to the dreams of their authors. The fact is that in a Conscious Dream many of the limiting barriers of consciousness are removed, and creative thinking manifests itself very vividly. There are many techniques for diving into Creative Dreaming, and they all develop the practitioner’s talents both in the dream and in reality;
  3. Practicing Skills. Conscious dreaming offers an amazing opportunity to develop skills and art at the level of the subconscious mind. Masters of Buddhist martial arts have used this opportunity for centuries. The development of any skill in the subconscious mind involves a very rapid construction of new neural connections, thus training through Dreaming accelerates the process of mastering skills many times over. Remember everyone’s favorite scene from The Matrix, where Morpheus teaches Neo to fight “I know Kung Fu”? This is not the authors’ guess or innuendo, but a direct adaptation of practicing martial arts in the Conscious Dream. To begin, you just have to learn to be conscious in your dreams;
  4. Deeping practice. As the dreamer becomes more experienced, he or she learns to interact with the dream world and learns its laws. The consciousness becomes flexible and the practitioner becomes able to travel in a Conscious Dream through the space of options – to dive into the past, see options for future events, and deliberately change the chain of events.

In conclusion we note that this area of human physiology is still very poorly understood. And despite the huge size of the research (and of this article) this is only the tip of the iceberg. Therefore, we are sure that this topic will be very much in demand in the environment of biohacking and medicine in the near future.


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