Sleep and Consciousness

Jayne Gackenbach

This is an invited address on consciousness in sleep given at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C., for a lecture series entitled "The Brain and Consciousness: Frontier of the 21st Century", May 19, 1994.


Freud helped us focus on consciousness with the idea that there's an unconscious and never the twain shall meet. They're separated because, according to Freud, we're driven by unconsciousness impulses. To the point where it can feel like, "who the heck is driving this boat called 'me'." I've been interested in this question for most of my life. I'm a first generation baby boomer, born 1946. I've done all that baby boomers were supposed to do including living in New Mexico in the 6O's. After doing the prerequisite baby boom agenda of the 7O's, I shaved my legs after finishing my master's thesis on a feminist topic and went on to get my doctorate. In looking for a topic for my dissertation the question of consciousness came up as I watched the death of an elderly friend.

Thus my research, writing, and a lot of my thinking has been involved with dreams and sleep, and in particular the experience of consciousness during sleep or lucid dreaming. During this experience you're sound asleep, which we popularly think of as unconscious. You're whacked out and lying there in bed. If that isn't unconscious, I don't know what is. Yet at the same time some say they know they're dreaming. This seems a paradox. How can you know you're unconscious when you're unconscious? If you're unconscious, you can't be conscious. You get into this sort of wafflely feeling just thinking about it, so ingrained in our society is the idea of consciousness and unconsciousness being mutually exclusive. If you've had the experience of knowing you are dreaming while you're dreaming, then you know what it is like. Typically it's fun and you enjoy it. If you've never had it you may scratch your head and feel confused. In any case for 20 years I've pursued these questions. I'm 48 years old, and I'm still wondering who's driving this boat, while awake and while asleep? I've a little better idea which I will share with you tonight.

I'm going to try to walk that thin line between an intellectually sophisticated member of the audience and the person who's kind of interested but not really informed about contemporary psychological thinking. I shall try as much as possible to broach that gap. I'm going to start by talking in general about some of the biology of sleep and dreams and then move into the notion of consciousness in sleep and the various forms that consciousness can take in sleep as it develops.

Brain/Body Activity During Sleep and Dreams

There are three majors measures of sleep that are used in the sleep laboratory; brain waves, eye movements and muscle tone. In Figure 1 waking is compared to the two basic categories of sleep: NREM and REM sleep. Some of the major markers of these differences which are apparent with this kind of very brief look at a polygraph record is the eye movement activity, which in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is quite intense. Certainly relative to NREM sleep, and even much more variable and dense than during waking. Muscle tone is also quite interesting. Waking muscle tone is high relative to NREM muscle tone which is moderate, but what's interesting about REM is that there is virtually no muscle tone. For all practical purposes you're paralyzed!

When you go to bed at night, you sort of snuggle into your favorite sleeping position. You may be a side person or a back person or sleeping on your stomach may be the only way for you to settle in. Once you get yourself settled in Figure 2 shows the sequence of events that occur in sleep. You start in light sleep at point "A" while point "B" is deepest sleep. There are several features I'd like to point out on this figure. First you cycle between light and deep sleep throughout the night, about every hour and a half. This hour and a half circadian rhythm we actually experience throughout the twenty four hour day and thus it simply continues into sleep. It's particularly noteworthy in sleep because of the movement into what is called rapid eye movement sleep (REM). It is associated with dreams but this association is not absolute. You can see at "C" that there is mental activity that we might call dreams that occur in non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM). So although there are some dreams, for the most part, they are clustered in the REM episodes.

Furthermore, the dreams of REM sleep are phenomenologically quite distinct from those in NREM sleep. There's been an argument in the dream research literature about whether or not REM sleep is the biological marker for dreams. That's what it was touted as when first discovered in the early 1950's. Then with subsequent research sleep and dream scientists got disillusioned with that simplistic isomorphism and concluded that dreams go on all night long to one degree or another, they simply cluster in REM.

As is often the case in science, we have gone almost full cycle and realize that there are real phenomenological markers of mental activity during REM that are quite distinct from mentation during NREM sleep. One difference is bizarreness. In a recent article by Harry Hunt in the journal Dreaming, he was able to show that attempts to equate the bizarreness of REM sleep mentation to the bizarreness of NREM sleep mentation doesn't work. In other words, REMing dreams are distinct from NREMing dreams.

Lets return to Figure 2. You can see at "D" that REM episodes get longer as you go through the sleep cycle. Therefore most of your dreaming happens late in the sleeping cycle. Those dreams which last from 30 to 40 minutes have the elaborate story lines and complex shifts and transitions which we call bizarreness. Your mother's got a purple face. Tin cans are growing out of people's heads. That's the kind of stuff you are experiencing during these early morning hours. That's the kind of stuff that "real" dreams are made of!

There you are paralyzed from the neck down, your eye movements are jerky and rapid, your heart rate fluctuates, your breadth rate changes. Sometimes when you wake up from an especially intense REM episode you may be panting, your heart's pounding and you're sweating. And you mutter, "Thank God, that was only a dream!" If that happens you have come out of rapid eye movement sleep. So for instance, if you're an ulcer sufferer there are twenty times the amount of stomach acid secretions during REM than during NREM. If your child has asthma and they wake up with an asthma attack, they're likely waking from REM sleep. If you have angina, these heart problems are going to occur most likely out of REM sleep. In other words, REM doesn't seem to be really good for your health. It stresses the body. It pushes all these different systems more so than while awake. Not while your jogging ten miles, obviously, but this whole system is going to be really revved up in the main more so than while awake. In addition, while all these systems are on over-drive, the brain is increasing its activity. What is going on?

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Functions of REM and NREM

During rapid eye movement sleep is the time when new information is processed and stored into our memory banks. Our personal experience of this very important brain function is dreaming. A world is created. When you're in a dream it feels real. Even if you know it's a dream at the time it feels real. If you jump up in a dream and you fall down you feel the thud. Although when you wake up, you realize "oh well, that was a dream" and then tend to minimize and dismiss it, but the feelings of it's reality are there during the dream.

So how come whoever put this system together, God, nature, whatever, made this time when we are hallucinating so much that we think it's real. We're having all these emotions. All this bizarre stuff is going on. Our body is responding like mad while we are paralyzed from the neck down. Furthermore if we weren't paralyzed there is good evidence that we'd get up and act out the dream. Recently in Toronto a man got up from bed in the middle of the night, got into his car, drove across town, and killed him mother-in-law. A colleague of mine testified at the court case. He took him to his sleep laboratory in Boston and monitored the Toronto man's sleep He told me there is no doubt, it is easy to identify as can be seen in Figure 1. You can see that muscle tone has flattened out in REM but in his REM the muscle tone did not flatten out. He had muscle tone. Enough to murder.

The point is, if we didn't have that paralysis we'd act out our dreams. Can you image acting out your dreams? Maybe your dreams would be okay but some of my dreams, I don't know! So how come this thing called REM is there? There is all this activity on a biological level. From the intra-psychic, heavily psychodynamic level, all my inner self, unconscious motives and drives or all my "junk" is in there. That combination sounds interesting all by itself. We have some idea of how these things develop and Figure 3 gives you some indication of it. If you look at the percent of waking as we go through the life span from infancy and birth through childhood and adolescence to adulthood and old age you see it increases. Along the horizontal axis are the daily sleep and waking requirements. You can see that in infancy there are huge amounts of REM sleep relevant to the rest of your life. We certainly know newborn infants sleep a lot, that the older you get you sleep less and less and thus you have less and less REM sleep.

These data give us some hint as to the functions of REM and NREM sleep. Very briefly these are: information processing for REM whereas the function of NREM is somatic, vegetative maintenance. In other words NREM restores the body. For instance, growth hormones peak during delta sleep. Delta sleep is the deepest NREM sleep. So children not only have to get enough sleep, they've got to get enough delta sleep. Delta sleep tends to occur early in the sleep cycle. There's a disorder called social dwarfism where there is a failure to grow, children with it are unusually small. It was called "social" cause no biological mechanism could be discovered but they found that among failure to thrive children there was a high incidence of family dysfunction. There was a lot of stress and tension in the family. It may be that the children's sleep cycles are being disrupted enough so that there was not enough growth hormone being released during delta.

Another piece of evidence that supports the vegetative restorative function of NREM sleep is when there is high pre-sleep metabolic rates they are associated with higher levels of delta sleep. So if you're working on getting your metabolism up you are going to need more delta sleep. Also higher brain functions appear to be somewhat reduced during delta sleep. Slightly less brain oxygen consumption and as noted psychological events related to it are sparse.

REM sleep plays a role in the reorganization, restoration of brain processes that mediate the flow, structure and storage of information. This includes things like problem-solving, memory consolidation, information processing, and creativity. About 50% of the sleep cycle of the newborn is REM or quasi-REM kinds of sleep. Newborns sleep 16 to 20 hours a day. That is eight hours of REM! A reasonable question is, "What are they dreaming about, after all they were just born?" Although one could get metaphysical and talk about past lives it's not really necessary.

It turns out that when an infant is born although they have all their brain neurons, the communicating aspect of the neuron, the synapse which connects neuronal cells, have just begun to grow about a month before birth. Without the ability to communicate with each other the neurons are virtually useless. There are enough synaptic connections at birth for some basic survival behaviors. For instance, a newborn will recognize their mother's voice at birth and can see with perfect visual acuity for about 8 inches, the distance to mothers face as nursing but not beyond, which would be confusing and disruptive to the bonding process with the mother which must occur for the newborn to ensure its survival. Still there are a lot of neuronal connections to be made. After all getting that thumb in the mouth without poking ones eye is a fairly major task particularity when mom's not around. Learning to coordinate visual input, thumb, with motor output, moving it to mouth, takes synaptic connections. This growth of the synapses probably occurs during REM sleep. Because the newborn has so much to piece together in terms of simply getting all the potential motor activities working properly, among many other tasks, it is no wonder that they need huge amounts of synaptic growth time or REM. Along the same lines a premature infant will show as high as 75% rapid eye movement sleep.

Other evidence pointing to this cognitive function for REM is with the right hemisphere. Although the right-left hemisphere dichotomy has been over simplified, there is relatively more activity in the left than in the right hemisphere of the brain during the day. What happens at night is not that the right hemisphere takes over rather it increases activity to the level of the left hemisphere. Therefore the kind of information that is best processed in the right hemisphere in conjunction with the left hemisphere is going to happen in the main during REM.

On a psychological level REM may serve some compensatory process function as hypothesized by Freud. Personally important experiences may be repressed during the day and thus you'll see a reciprocal emphasis in dreams at night. More often than not, however, you'll see a continuity between presleep experiences and dream experiences of the REM or NREM sort. What you've been thinking about before you go to bed at night, you'll see in the dream of that night. This is especially evident in our children. When my son was about 8-years-old we were impressed with the advertisements for a movie about cute little "Gremlins". Naively we went to the theater but during their first transformation with water into sharp toothed small but lethal monsters we both high tailed it out to the lobby. Not surprisingly that night about 2 a.m. I felt a small body crawl into bed with me. The "gremlins" from the show had awoken him from a nightmare!

But to simply reduce dreams to meaningless rough reproductions of waking events is also to reduce their importance. Most dreams occurr during the time of the sleep cycle when we process new information into our memory banks, REM sleep. Therefore dreams are always autobiographical and unique to each individual.

Why is Dream Forgetting Common?

If these experiences of the night are so biologically and psychologically important, how come we typically forget our dreams upon awaking? The norm in the dominant European culture of North America is dream forgetting. The average adult sleeps about eight hours a night and of that about two hours is REM or dreaming sleep. That's usually four dreams every night. Very few people remember even one dream a night no less four a night! The average is four a month, which would be about one a week. The norm is we forget dreams. There are various reasons but the three major hypotheses related to our failure to recall dreams which have been investigated by dream scientists are: repression, salience and interference.

The concept of dream forgetting being due to the repression of unpleasant emotions/experiences is classically Freudian. This is the idea that the dark side of my inner self, which I'm not ready to deal with, may emerge in dreams thus I forget the dream. Some Freudian analysts might argue that if you remember a dream, you're ready to deal with that material. Although there is some evidence for the repression hypothesis it is probably not the major reason we forget dreams.

The salience hypotheses states that some dreams are so personally impactful that you couldn't forget them. You wake up in the morning and your life has been changed or you hope like heck you life hasn't been changed. When my children were about nine and four I had a dream that they were crossing the street at a crosswalk with a friend of theirs. All three got hit by a car and were killed. I recall waking up and being absolutely terrified. I jumped out of bed and went to check on them. They were both sound asleep and in good health. None-the-less the fear would not leave me so I did something that I rarely do, I knelt by my bed with tears running down my face and prayed to God that this dream never come true. It still sends a shiver down my spine to even think about it! That is a dream I can not forget and in fact I still get anxious any time I know they will be in a cross walk.

Despite experiences of this sort of impact, probably the major reason we forget our dreams, according to scientific research, is something quite simple. It is interference. It's the same reason why if I said to you "I want you to tell me about your breakfast this morning". If you didn't remember you'd start to sort of extrapolate, "I normally have yogurt and fruit, so I must have had yogurt and fruit." You might remember some of it but I doubt many of you would include details like the number of glasses on the counter or other ordinary details. If you got a new table cloth, you might mention it. But if it's something that happens every day it's probably not high on your need to recall list. Other things interfere with that recall like the families hurry to get to work and school because mom overslept. When we wake up from a dream most people immediately think, "Got to get up. Got to get ready for work . Got to get the kids dressed. Got to get breakfast." It's forward thinking and interferes with the recall of what was just happening to us in our dream. Occasionally we will simply lay there and drift but still the simplest things can interfere, like moving or opening your eyes. Or we will wake up and think, "I was dreaming. I don't have a clue what it was. But I was dreaming." It's sort of like the tip of the tongue phenomena or may feel like peanut butter on your tongue. When my son was three-years old he couldn't image being awake while I slept so he would "helpfully" come into my bedroom, lift my eyelid and cheerfully announce to me, "Wake up time mommy!" I went through a rather long period of dream forgetting due to his well intended interference.

There are some other factors I'd like to briefly point to which may contribute to dream recall. When I moved to Canada I started working with the Central Alberta Cree and quickly found out that their dream recall is quite high. Not only is this my personal observation but there is research on the Cree done before I got there as well as my own substantiating this observation. Because of this work it has occurred to me that perhaps part of the large dream forgetting characteristic of Euro-North American's is our cultural taboos around attending to this sort of material. We're not supposed to pay attention to our inner lives. We're not supposed to take them seriously. In fact one theory of dreaming in REM sleep is that it's garbage. It's the way the brain makes sense of presumably random neuronal firing from the brainstem. Thus according to this perspective recalling dreams is recalling garbage and couldn't possibly be healthy. That theory has been generally debunked. I am not saying that every single thing you dream every night is equally important but I do think there's a moderate position.

Metaphoric Magic in Dreams

Dreams speak to us albeit it is in a different language. The language is metaphor. While awake we might use the metaphor rose to refer to rosy cheeks while in dreams that rose may be thorny and may refer to Rosie, someone you work with who has a thorny personality.

Therefore the language of our "un"consciousness in sleep can be difficult to understand. Metaphors used in dreams are often idiosyncratic and personal but it is a language you can learn that is somewhat culturally specific. If you were raised in a culture where from day one you were told that if you dream about a white Volkswagens it meant you would get a job. So that if you got a job you'd be sure to dream about a white Volkswagen. Unfortunately most of us are not taught these keys to our inner life thus we are left to our own devices in interpreting our dream metaphors.

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Lucid Dreaming: The Maximum Self-reflectiveness?

Most of the way we experience consciousness in sleep is in the form of dreams. And most of the dreams that we recall come from REM sleep. This time of sleep has been called paradoxical because as noted we're paralyzed yet our physiology is so juiced. We're in this alternative reality in every way, shape and form. But there are many forms of dreams which societies have identified over the years. As my topic is consciousness in sleep I will now turn to one of these intensified REM forms called lucid dreams.

This hyper-REM phenomenon is significantly more of whatever REM is. Lucid dreaming is when you know you're dreaming while you're dreaming. You're sound asleep and dreaming believing that the dream is reality when for a variety of reasons you recognize it is a dream and that you are in fact asleep. Typically people react initially with a sense of wonder and fun. They quickly realize that they can do in a dream all these things they could not do while awake. However this initial excitement also often wakes them up. Because you get so excited you can't stay asleep. There are limits to being conscious while you're unconscious.

There are various ways to conceptualize lucid dreaming. One is in terms of the relative self-reflectiveness that the attainment of such a state of consciousness might imply. Canadians Alan Moffitt and colleagues developed a scale measuring self-reflectiveness based on the therapeutic work of Ernest Rossi. In it they consider degrees of self-reflectiveness in dreams. The classic position has been that in most dreams we are fairly unself-reflective or critical of our dream surroundings/events/characters. For instance, I recall one of my students telling me that he knows he's dreaming a lot. I asked, "how do you figure that out?" He replied, "Well, I know if I'm in an airport in a dream and my car is there and it's blue, and I know my car's not blue. I know my car's purple. Ergo, it must be a dream. " I recall thinking to myself, if that was me in the dream and there was a purple car instead of a blue one, I'd think "oh well, something must have changed and I now have a purple car". I'd just drift along accepting whatever came my way. In contrast this student is very critical in his attitude in waking and that translates into dreaming thus he is often able to identify that he is dreaming. That degree of reflectiveness, or critical attitude, is actually quite rare.

At the lowest level this self-reflectiveness scale begins with "The dreamer is not in the dream". Researchers have found that this is one of the first experiences of dreaming that children have. It takes quite a while until they begin to move to the next stage of thinking abilities when they can begin to construct the self enough to have a self in the dream. One day when I was telling my seven year old boy my dream he looked at me with an irritated expression. I asked him, "What's wrong?" He said, "How come you get to be in your dreams, and I don't?" I remember thinking that was a fairly sophisticated observation. Without explaining that he has cognitive limitations, I assured him that eventually he would be there and of course he is now fully in his dreams. Although occasionally young children are in their dreams as active characters more often than not they are watching, or they have a sense of it happening out there somewhere. A self in ones dream is a developmental benchmark.

The midway point on the scale is when the dreamer becomes completely involved in the dream. This is where many of us remain, completely absorbed in the dream so much so that if it is a nightmare we are so relieved when we finally awaken. Eventually we have some experience of some kind of reflective activity like thinking about an idea. So in the dream we might mutter to our dream selves, "This isn't quite right." Particularly as we utilize the highest form of logical thought called, formal operations. The reality is that only about half the time do we actually end up doing thinking at this higher level even when awake!

At one of the higher levels on this scale the dreamer has multiple levels of awareness simultaneously participating and observing. This would be a dream where you're watching yourself doing something and you're in it and out of it at the same time. But it still feels real. Another example would be a false awakening dream. In it you dream that you wake up, and then you really wake up and realize that you dreamt you woke up. Did you ever do that two or three times in a row? You know you dream you wake up, and then you dream you wake.. and then, and then, and then....after all "waking up" can get scary? I recall doing it once four times in a row, and I was getting pretty scared thinking, "what's real and what's not?" Another example of the slipperiness of reality that these dream experiences can subject us to is the dream where you were so sure it was real that you comment on it as though it were real to a friend. They look at you like you're crazy and only then do you realize in embarrassment that "I dreamt it!"

These things get very slippery. What's dreaming and what's not dreaming? What's real and what's not real? It can get quite confusing. A colleague of mine has a great slide that he uses in his presentations of a huge toilet with a little person standing there looking at it! It illustrates the dream where you are telling yourself, "it's OK, you're awake you can pee!" when another part of you replies, "No. You're asleep. Don't go!" Did you ever lose that argument?

At the highest level of Moffitt and colleagues scale the dreamer consciously reflects on the fact that he or she is dreaming. This is the lucid dream. It is the experience of, "Hey, wait a minute, this is a dream. That's why there's a tin can growing out of that guy's head or that's why I can fly like superman!" Although for these dream researchers that is the highest level of self-reflectiveness, I'm going to argue it's the basement of the potential of consciousness in sleep. And in fact, the potential of consciousness in the twenty-four hour cycle.

Lucid Dreaming Proof

This work on lucid dreaming really took off among dream researchers. The initial verification of the possibility of knowing you are dreaming while you are dreaming is primarily due to my colleague Steven LaBerge. By now his work has been replicated in several sleep laboratories. I think we can say with reasonable certainty that you can be "awake" in some sense while you're asleep.

This is how it has been proven. When you're in REM sleep remember you're paralyzed from the neck down. The task was to come up with a way to signal to the polysongrapher, "Hey, I know I'm dreaming". You can not hit a micro switch or kick your leg because of this paralysis. But it turns out that you do have control of your eye movements. That is, while in a dream if you think, "I'm going to move my eyes way to the right and then way to the left" and then your dream self does it with his/her dream eyes, that's what really happens to the dreamers physical eyes. Faberge devised a technique at exactly the same time as Keith Hearne in England, totally unbeknownst to each other, where people could signal when they realized they were dreaming. The signal to the sleep lab technician through electrodes attached to the corners of the eyes was a prearranged set of eye movements. Then the technician would wake them up and ask "what was going on before I awoke you?" If dreamer knew they were dreaming and had signaled they would want to know if the technician got the signal?

For instance in Figure 4, there are five signals from LaBerge's laboratory. He writes about this figure: "This is from the last eight minutes of a thirty minute REM period. Upon awakening the subject reported having made five eye movement signals. The first signal at one -- left-right, marked the onset of lucidity. . . . During the following ninety seconds, the subject flew about exploring his dream world until he believed he had awakened, at which point he made the signal for awakening, at number two, which is four movements of left-right, left-right. After another ninety seconds the subject realized he was still dreaming and signaled at three with three pairs of eye movements. Realizing this was too many, he correctly signaled with two pairs at number four. Finally, upon awakening a hundred seconds later, he signaled appropriately with again four movements of left-right, left-right." You can see that you don't need to be a trained polysonographer to recognize the signals. They jump out at you. They're not ambiguous. And they exactly fit the dream transcript describing the felt experience of the dream.

Lucid Dreaming Is REMing at It's Best

Figure 5 summarizes some of the biological activity associated with lucid dreaming. On the left is the REM episode prior to the eye movement signal. While on the right are the same physiological variables after the eye movement signal. You can see that across the board there is an increase in activity immediately after the signal. For instance, REM density, the number of eye movements per unit of time, goes up. This may be a rough estimate of the efficiency of REM sleep in doing its task. Specifically the more eye movements in a shorter period of time can be interpreted as indicating that the brain is doing more efficiently what it is supposed to do in REM sleep.

Also evident in Figure 5 is the increase in respiration rate, heart rate, and skin potential. If you think about these findings in the context of what I have just told you about REM sleep and it's hyper effect on many bodily functions, in lucid REM there is another significant jump in heart rate, respiration and skin potential. One might say that lucid REM is more of whatever REMing is about.

Not shown in this figure is data regarding the paralysis associated with REM. Remember you're paralyzed in REM. One of the measures of paralysis is the Hoffman or H-reflex, a spinal reflex. It turns out that in lucid REM, you're significantly more paralyzed than in ordinary REM. Paralyzed isn't just an on - off mechanism. There's varying degrees of cataplexy. Thus whatever REM sleep is about relative to NREM, lucid REM is more of it. REM sleep is about dreaming, which is a unique form of mentation in sleep. Lucid REM sleep is more of that.

Individual Differences in Lucid Dreaming

Most of the questions I have asked in my research program over the last almost 20 years have dealt with individual differences in lucid dreaming. So, for instance, I have asked what is the spontaneous incidence of these experiences of consciousness in sleep? I was interested in knowing when this occurred normally. That is when a dreamer wasn't programmed go out and try to have the experience. In a series of studies my students and I found that among college students if I asked them did you ever have a dream when you knew you were dreaming, 58% said they had had such a dream at least once in their lifetime while 21% had had it once or more per month. It's interesting that if you look at certain populations you get remarkable increases in this incidence. From five samples of meditators we got average incidences of once or more per week. It is important to note that among these groups of meditators they were not meditating in order to have lucid dreams. Lucid dreams seemed to be part of a range of positive outcomes that emerged from the practice of meditation. I'm going to argue that this outcome is not superfluous rather it is a fairly central aspect to the practice of meditation.

I also examined the phenomenological content of lucid and nonlucid dreams, wondering if they were similar. We found that it depends on who you ask. If you ask the dreamer, they tend to characterize their lucid dreams as much more remarkable and noteworthy than their non-lucid dreams. This is true at least for those who have had them somewhat infrequently. The more you have them, the more ordinary they appear. Eventually everything habituates. They don't necessarily get boring, you just get used to this state of mind in sleep. Therefore, I think our self-evaluation findings are confounded by novelty .

If on the other hand you ask independent judges' to evaluate lucid and non-lucid dreams, we found that in the main there were very few differences. The few differences are noteworthy. The most obvious, of course is that you know you're dreaming. But this defines the categories. It does also appear to open certain dream potentials. You've got some control over the dream. This we have seen over and over when you're dreaming and you know you're dreaming you can, to a point, control the dreams.

Another difference is that the auditory references are higher in lucid dreams. The fact that this difference was combined with kinesthetic differences seems to indicate that the vestibular system is somehow more implicated. This we substantiated in other research.

Also there are fewer characters in lucid dreams. That's kind of interesting from a psychodynamic perspective. If you view every character in the dream as part of yourself, then fewer of them would imply more integration of the aspects of self. Furthermore, lucidity has the potential to give you an opportunity to further your integration/growth process. I was also interested in the psychological predisposition's which result in people having lucid dreams. Although there were some differences there was nothing that was particularly remarkable. For instance, there was some evidence for lucid dreamers to be more androgynous, that is they were comfortable expressing both the masculine and feminine parts of themselves. Lucid dreamers are more likely to take internal risks like being willing to be hypnotized. They're also more self oriented.

Where we found stronger individual differences was in terms of the superior spatial skills of lucid dreamers. People who spontaneously experience lucid dreams seem to know how to maneuver in space (not outer!) really well. You may wonder, "what do you mean that having the ability to lucid dream is associated with getting around in space? I mean this quite literally. For instance, we measured people who frequently reported having lucid dreams and those who didn't, and looked at the integrity of their vestibular systems. Before the experiment we weeded out people who get motion sickness or had some kind of obvious vestibular problem. Thus these were all people who had reasonably healthy vestibular systems. We used standard clinical tests of the integrity of the system and found that for those that were not having lucid dreams very often there were marginal problems with their vestibular system. The vestibular system is one of the primary systems we use to orient ourselves in the space around us. How much do we tilt when turning a corner on a bicycle? Are these high heels too high? We also found the same thing when we tested them on a piece of apparatus called a stableometer. This apparatus is like in a circus when clowns balance on a platform resting on a ball. That is frequent lucid dreamers could balance on the platform.

Another aspect of spatial abilities is field independence. Have you ever known someone who no matter wherever they are, they're never lost. Even if there's no big buildings or mountains they seem to know how to find their way around with some sort of internal map. These people are field independent. It is someone who can be relatively independent of their physical environment and can still accurately orient and maneuver themselves in space. This independence of the field we found was very true of spontaneous lucid dreamers. They also are able to manipulate complex spatial objects in their imagination. So, for instance, we asked them to rotate a three dimensional object in imaginary space and then match it to another three dimensional object. They were able to do this significantly more accurately than those for whom consciousness in sleep rarely if ever appeared.

The idea of moving in mental space has some correlates to the ability to move in physical space. Remember when you're in a dream, you're in what feels like a real world with spatial parameters. Although the laws of physics aren't quite the same, you still have to maneuver.

It turns out that the practice of meditation increases performance on these various spatial measures as well as the frequency of lucid dreaming. More over there are some forms of meditation that maintain that consciousness in sleep is a marker of the development of higher states of consciousness. Specifically, if you measure meditators on field independence, they not only score highly field independent but scientists have had to cut the administration time of the test in half in order to get any variability because everybody scores perfectly in the normally allotted time!

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How to Have a Lucid Dream

You may be now asking, "how can I have this thing?" There's various ways to think about lucid dream induction. Research has found that you might do some things before sleep and/or during sleep or naps. Before sleep, you may want to try simply suggesting to yourself that you will know you are dreaming that night. "It sounds interesting. Let's give it a shot."

To facilitate this you might ask a question while you're awake, "Am I dreaming?" I do not recommend this if you have any problems with identifying what's real. We can go on and on about nothing's real and get lost in the whole philosophy of it but let's put that aside. If you are reasonably confident that you know what's real and what's not, that is on an emotional level it does not create strong anxiety, then you might ask that question every time a light blinks. So when you stop at a stoplight a light blinks. Turn a light on in a room that's a light blinking. At these times say to yourself, "Am I dreaming?" Of course the next question is, how the heck do you test if you are dreaming? Because if you think about it when you are in a dream you usually can't tell that it's a dream. One of the things you might do is look at your watch, look away and then look at your watch again. If when I looked at my watch it said five to seven and when I looked again, it said five to seven then I am awake. But if I looked again and it said ten to nine then I'd strongly suspect that this was a dream.

One thing that's gotten a lot of attention over the last few years is a biofeedback sleep mask designed by Stephen LaBerge. With it your eye movements are monitored when you're in REM. When there feedback is received of a blinking light which is placed in this mask that you wear as you sleep. When you see a blinking light in your dreams you have trained yourself while awake to then ask, "Am I dreaming?" With sufficient motivation, LaBerge has found success with the mask in helping to induce lucid dreams.

Two other presleep activities may contribute to the increase in dream lucidity, the practice of meditation and the cultivation of high dream recall.

When it spontaneously occurs to you that you are dreaming without all the effort of practice and electronic gadgetry, it is likely to occur in one of three ways; nightmares, incongruities, or you simply knew from the beginning of the dream. For instance, the bogeyman may be chasing you and you suddenly realize it's only a dream and are quite relieved. By incongruities I mean those oddities in dreams that do not occur while awake. For instance, I once had a dream of an old man with a tin can growing out of his head. It occurred to me upon thinking about this oddity in the dream that this may be a dream. All too often we blindly accept these strange events in our sleep. Finally, subjects who spontaneously report lucidity tell me that they just new from the onset of the dream. Thus there was nothing that specifically triggered the awareness. I believe this third manner of recognizing the true state of mind in sleep may be an indicator of the development of higher states of consciousness.

Lucid Dreaming Is Only the Beginning

Why would you want to have a lucid dream? Some of the possibilities include, developing greater self awareness, getting rid of nightmares, solving work problems, even practicing your tennis stroke. If you're a tennis player and you want to practice a new angle with your wrist in order to get that shot exactly right, you can practice in your imagination and that can be helpful. But the dream is the strongest imagistic realm to which we have access. To practice there "feels" real. Sports psychologist, Paul Tholey from Germany has done a lot of work with athletes, training them in lucid dreams. In any case, it's fun, it's enjoyable, it has some psychological as well as some very pragmatic potentials, but lucidity is only the beginning.

I'm going to briefly summarize why I believe that dream lucidity is only the beginning. In my research program and in my books about lucid dreaming I have conceptualized it as the bargain basement of consciousness in sleep. Witnessing dreams and sleep are indicates of higher forms of the development of consciousness. My colleague Charles Alexander has conceptualized these "higher" states of consciousness as post-representational. Let me explain, the way we think is representational. When I think it is always about "something". There is a representation of something. Thus when I think about my children, I have feelings that represent them, I have an idea or cognition's about them, I have a mental picture about them, I have felt sense of how it is to touch them. But always they are represented. Even when I think about myself there is still representation, me the teacher, me the mother, me the middle aged-woman, me the expert, and so forth! There is always "something" that is represented in my consciousness.

In post-representational levels of consciousness our thought, feelings, sense of body, etc. is without content. It is self-referral and is sometimes called pure or transcendental consciousness. The idea that consciousness can have its own integrity, can know itself without an object, without a thing to be conscious of has been around for many thousands of years in some philosophical systems from east Asia. For those of us in the west it can feel like one of those peanut butter kind of concepts. You know what it is but its like trying to talk with peanut butter in your mouth when trying to explain it. Here's a quote from Alfred Lord Tennyson that somewhat describes this idea: "It's a kind of waking trance, I frequently had from boyhood, when I had been all alone, once as it were out of the intensity of consciousness of individuality . The individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being. And this, not a confused state, but the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest. .utterly beyond words".

Some traditions argue that the most unambiguous marker of the development of these states of being is consciousness in sleep. These states have been called spiritual or mystical states. One of the early steps towards this consciousness in sleep is a lucid dream. But in a lucid dream although you know you're dreaming while you're dreaming you're still caught up in it. It's exciting, it's fun, you're not detached from it, which is what happens as you move into the higher forms of consciousness in sleep.

I was fortunate enough to have access to an elite group of meditators. These people are on a program of their practice all but two hours a day. They constitute extremely sophisticated observers of these states of consciousness. Lucid dreaming was described to them as a dream in which they are actively thinking of the fact that they're dreaming. One of them wrote about his lucid dreams, "I'll become aware of the dream as separate then aware that I am dreaming. Then I begin to manipulate the story and the characters to create whatever situation I desire. [At] times in unpleasant situations, I'll think as the dreamer, 'I don't have to put up with this.' And I change the dream, or at least I back out of the involvement."

Witnessing a dream was described to them as, "a dream in which you experience a quiet, peaceful inner awareness or wakefulness, completely separate from the dream". Another elite meditator wrote about this experience, "sometimes, whatever the content of the dream is, I feel an inner tranquillity of awareness that is removed from the dream. Sometimes, I may even be caught up in the dream, but the inner awareness and peace remains. It is deembedded."

One of the classic characteristics of the development of thought, the development of consciousness is a continued de-embeddedness. We think of this as wisdom, somehow things don't shake us up so much when we get older and hopefully wiser. As we move through life we become de-embedded or the term more classically used, "detached". Detachment does not mean that we don't care. Rather we've been through it and we have learned how to let those things wash over us.

Witnessing in deep sleep or relatively dreamless sleep was described to these meditators as, "a dreamless sleep in which you experience a quiet, peaceful inner state of awareness and wakefulness." One informant wrote, "It's a feeling of infinite expansion and bliss and nothing else. Then I become aware that I exist, but there is no individual personality. Gradually I become aware that I'm an individual, but there are no details who..where..what..when..etc. eventually these details fill in and I might awaken."

This state of consciousness has also been called the "void". Because there is no content or object of awareness, the only referrals are when leaving it. Thus what happens is you begin to construct not only self but also world, and finally self in world. You realize it's only a construction, a fabrication. The notion that self and the world are constructions is consistent with current information processing views of the way the brain processes information from sensory channels. What's amazing is how wrong this construction can be as in the case of eye witnesses testimony or our susceptibility to illusions. But what's more amazing is how right it can be. If you think it's just a construction it's really quite amazing that we're not killing each other more on the highways.

Development of Pure Consciousness from Lucidity

I argue in my book Control Your Dreams that with the growth of self-reflectiveness in dreaming it moves toward lucid dreaming and onto witnessing dreaming and witnessing deep sleep. Here's an example of witnessing deep sleep from a mathematics professor who has been meditating for twenty years on a regular basis. He describes it in this way, "one experiences oneself to be a a part of a tremendous composite of relationships. These are not social or conceptual, or intellectual relationships, only a web of relationships. I'm aware of the relationship between entities without the entities being there. There's a sense of motion, yet there's no relative things to gage motion by. . .it's just expansiveness. There're no objects to measure it. The expansiveness is one of light, like the light of awareness. Visual, but not visual; more like a light in an ocean. An intimate experience of light."

I don't want to say that you have to be lucid in order to witness, some people get so attached to lucidity that they find they need to let go of lucidity in order to eventually develop the detached perspective of the witness. You can become as attached to knowing you're dreaming while you're dreaming as you can to anything else. After all there is still an object of awareness while lucid in dreams - your dream.

There are several lines of evidence both biological as well as psychological that support this developmental model or at the least that there is a relationship between these states of consciousness in sleep. I have summarized this research in a book I coedited, Dream Images: A Call to Mental Arms. I shall briefly highlight some of it here.

It has been found that increases in REM density have been associated with both the lucid state in nonmeditators and for meditators who claim witnessing half the night or more. Alpha brain waves are experienced in early and pre-lucid episodes and they're associated with witnessing dreams and sleep. A model which has nicely pulled some of this EEG work together is that of Fred Travis. He argues that in meditation you have moments of this transcendence or unity, which isn't to say that you might not also have it when you're running or crocheting or nursing your baby. What these and most of lives activities may have in common is a focused sense of total connection, total communion. Travis and others have measured those experiences in meditation and it turns out that they're identical to to your EEG every time you change states of consciousness. That is move from sleeping to waking to dreaming sleep. The implication is that perhaps there is a state of consciousness which underlies waking, dreaming, and sleeping which I have called pure or transcendental consciousness.

Building on Travis's work is a recent dissertation by Lynn Mason. In a sophisticated sleep laboratory study she found that the:

experimental subjects [meditators] reported experiencing a quiet peaceful inner awareness and alertness during deep sleep. Experimental subjects displayed a unique electrophysiological signature. . . These findings support the primary criteria of higher states of consciousness as the maintenance of transcendental consciousness along with deep sleep.

What Does It Feel Like?

I did a phenomenological analysis looking at similarities and differences between lucid dreaming, witnessing dreams and witnessing sleep on about 60 elite meditators. Basic things I want to bring your attention to is the feelings of separateness.. .more characteristic of witnessing dreams you're not caught up in the dream . . .in the sense that a true elder is not caught up in the day to day flow of life. Now one could make a reasonable argument that I don't know if I want to be that detached. The whole argument with Prozac maybe you read all those articles coming out Prozac may be .Have you tried it. I did my shtick with Prozac. It was fun. It was great. But I got some side effects I didn't want. one of the things people claim, is hey wait a minute I feel so detached, am I anymore in the world? And is that what I want? Is that what I not want? I mean the whole values dialogues there. In any case, that's the nature of this experience in this phenomenological analysis. State transitions more likely to be described in witnessing in sleep because there's nothing to talk about so you can only talk about coming out of it. .in the description we showed. Control is something that happens in lucid dreams. It's something that's just not relevant, in witnessing because if you're detached from something, you're not particularly interested in controlling it.


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