A summary of my first lucid dream, research in hybrid states of consciousness, and how to measure lucid dreams

Last night, I lucid dreamed for the first time. Lucid dreams are rare occurrences in which you are aware of the dream and have full control over the happenings of a dream, as opposed to regular dreams which you normally experience like watching a movie. I have always been interested in lucid dreaming, and in the past I’ve looked up ways to induce a lucid dream purposefully. The general consensus among lucid dreamers is pretty clear. To induce a lucid dream, you should: 1) Ask yourself whether you are awake or dreaming in your everyday life (literally stop and think, “Am I dreaming?”). This same question might occur to you in your dream if it becomes habitual enough. 2) Write down your dreams every morning to help strengthen your memories of dreaming. 3) Wake up in the middle of a REM cycle and fall asleep again to continue where you left off, but hopefully, also become aware of your dream.

Last summer when I had a break from school and was sleeping long enough to think about lucid dreaming, I tried strategies 1 and 2, but never had a lucid dream. For the next year, I forgot about lucid dreaming, until today. My research meeting this morning was cancelled, so I slept in. I woke up twice, once to turn off my alarm, and once to read a Slack message. I slept again both times. I remember waking up from dreams both times, which probably had the effect of strategy 3, waking up during REM sleep. The second time I fell asleep was the start of my lucid dream.

I was holding a bottle of lotion identical to the one I have on my dresser at home – it was a crystal clear, vivid image. The feeling of the bottle to the touch was so real, I asked myself if I was really dreaming or if I was awake. Strategy 1 was then accomplished. Then, after trying to devise some nonsensical strategy using the bottle to come up with a definitive answer (realizing that my dream copy of the lotion would be inaccessible to my real life copy, and thinking “If I had 2 pumps of lotion left and I used them in the dream, and in real life the bottle was empty, then I am awake…”), I somehow concluded that I was in a dream. After realizing I was in a dream, I thought I might as well try to control it.

The following experience was fascinating, both intense and strange. I tried to walk using my legs, which resulted in a strong feeling of muscle movement in my legs as I walked. If I stopped trying, the dream continued as if I was watching a movie, without any sensation in my body. I wanted to feel the sensation, so I tried really hard to move. The more I tried, the more exhausting it was, but the stronger the sensation became. It was as if I was pushing against a strong gravity from all sides or walking through some thick fluid, which was probably the result of my muscle paralysis during sleep. I also started talking and felt a sensation in my throat as if I was. I wondered if I was sleep walking and sleep talking. I realized I wasn’t when I woke up a few seconds later.

When I woke up, I was pretty excited that I had the ability to control my dreams. It made me wonder whether there is hard scientific evidence to show that lucid dreams are different from regular dreams, and what kind of research has been done regarding these kinds of dreams.

Researchers have known about lucid dreaming since ancient times. However, only relatively recently have strides been made to rigorously measure and control them. An article published in 2009 in the National Institutes of Health, titled Lucid Dreaming: A State of Consciousness with Features of Both Waking and Non-Lucid Dreaming [1] shows that there are physiological markers correlated with a lucid dream-like state, distinct from both wakefulness and dreaming. The study also confirmed that people can be trained to lucid dream by repeatedly reminding themselves to recognize the bizarre events of the dream, which the researchers took advantage of to collect data. This strategy is pretty close to hypnotism induced lucid dreaming, which reportedly works fairly well too. Thinking about the suggestible state that hypnotism brings someone into, and how similar lucid dreaming is to that state, it seems likely the two are very similar states brought on from different initial conditions – waking and sleeping. It’s also interesting to note that if someone doesn’t want to have a lucid dream, they probably won’t, similar to how if someone doesn’t want to be hypnotized, they probably won’t. Suggestibility and openness is at the crux of both of these experiences, which suggests a lot of overlap in the eventual physiological states. The scientific terms for these are actually called “hypnagogia” – the weird, suggestible state resulting from transitioning between waking and sleeping, and “hypnopompia”, the same but while going from sleeping to waking. So technically, in order to lucid dream, you just have to recognize that you are experiencing a hymnopompic hallucination. The two states are technically different, but there seems to be quite a bit of overlap in how they feel to a person. Researchers at MIT Brain and Cognitive Sciences, in this study, described a hypnogogic hallucination like this, which pretty accurately describes how I felt during my lucid dream:

This state of mind is trippy, loose, flexible, and divergent,” explains Haar Horowitz. “It’s like turning the notch up high on mind-wandering and making it immersive — being pushed and pulled with new sensations like your body floating and falling, with your thoughts quickly snapping in and out of control.”

Haar Horowitz describing a hypnogogic hallucination. [2]

Getting back to the original study, the researchers did some crazy things. They utilized the fact that people could signal that they have become lucid through a voluntary sequence of eye movements. Kind of like in the image below.

A subject moving their eye in a specific sequence of movements to signal to the scientist that they’ve become lucid.

And in summary, the scientists found three concrete things: 1) that eye movements are more pronounced than REM sleep but less so than in the waking state, 2) likewise for muscle movements, and 3) there was a noticeable increase in the 40 Hz power band, which falls in the gamma band, during lucid dreaming. Here’s an illustration from the paper to show that:

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Figure 4 from [1]. WEC stands for Waking, Eyes Closed, lucid is the lucid dreaming state, and REM is the Rapid Eye Movement state. During REM sleep, there’s very low power in the 40 Hz range, and during the waking state, there’s high power. In the lucid state, there’s overall higher power than the REM state but lower power than the waking state.

All the findings point to a unique, hybrid state of waking and dreaming that defines lucid dreaming, characterized by hybrid levels of eye movement, muscle movement, and power in the 40 Hz band. So in other words, lucid dreaming is definitely a thing. Overall, it’s strange, fascinating, and most importantly, measurable! Maybe I’ll order an EEG headband so I can attempt to detect these changes in myself when I sleep. Here’s to hoping I’ll have another lucid dream soon.

References

[1] Voss U; Holzmann R; Tuin I; Hobson A. Lucid dreaming: a state of consciousness with features of both waking and non-lucid dreaming. SLEEP 2009;32(9):1191-1200.

[2] Beckmann, Sarah. “A New Way to Control Experimentation with Dreams.” Brain and Cognitive Sciences, bcs.mit.edu/news-events/news/new-way-control-experimentation-dreams.