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The Science and Psychology of Lucid Dreaming

It may sound loopy, but "lucid dreaming" - the state of being awake and aware that you are asleep and dreaming - is real and experimentally verified.

By Joseph Brean / Source: National Post

They call themselves oneironauts, "dream sailors," those who can influence their own dreams, if not quite control them, to such a degree that sleep becomes an inner exploration, a virtual reality simulator for real life.

With roots in the rituals of Tibetan dream yogis, and links to unscientific paranormal research, the practice can seem a bit loopy.

But "lucid dreaming" – the state of being awake and aware that you are asleep and dreaming – is real, experimentally verified, and based firmly in evolutionary theory and current sleep psychology. The two fields are only beginning to understand the wondrous types of consciousness that can be produced during the sleep cycle, when the body is paralyzed and the mind is at play.

After decades on the fringes of psychology, with its existence denied by Sigmund Freud, lucid dreaming is now emerging as a natural explanation for out-of-body experiences.

It is also being put to therapeutic use to treat nightmares, night terrors and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

The problem is that, although everyone dreams, with only the rarest of brain-damaged exceptions, not everyone has the wherewithal to recognize they are dreaming and hold on to this insight for any significant length of time. People can be trained, however, and some are expert, such that they can direct their attention around their own dream world, even bend it to their will.

"Yes, I could have sex with any movie star, yes I could do anything … but the feeling of flying is really cool. I wake up after a flying dream and I feel like just a million bucks," said Dax Urbszat, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Toronto who says he lucid dreams about once a week and even uses the practice to maintain a personal connection to a long-dead friend.

"It's very exhilarating. I just want to fly around the city and visit people," he said Thursday night on the Mississauga campus. He described one of his favourite lucid dreams, in which he was "tumbling, like I'm doing somersaults. I see sky and I see grass, and sky and grass, and I wonder what's going on. And then all of a sudden I kind of slow down my spin, and I notice, 'Oh, that's a baseball diamond down there, a stadium over here.' I figure it out now. I'm the baseball. I've been hit for a home run."

Dreams can be profound or ridiculous, even both, and they have baffled philosophers and psychologists for as long as they have wondered how our minds work.

Freud saw them as expressions of the unconscious, in which hidden meaning could be inferred from a dream's plot or form. Some biological theories hold that dreams are the mind's attempt to make sense of random brain activity during sleep. To evolutionary psychologists, dreaming is like a "threat simulator" that confers an adaptive advantage by helping people rehearse their response to threats in the safety of their own minds.

A more modern, cognitive view is that dreams are constructed from the daily experience of the dreamer, and offer a forum in which conflicts can be confronted and resolved. Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School who has studied the therapeutic effects of lucid dreaming on post-traumatic stress disorder, calls this "dream incubation," the theory that by focusing on an image as you fall asleep, you can force that image into your dream.

Descending into sleep, the brain's electrical activity slows from beta waves, of roughly 20 cycles per second, to alpha waves, which indicate a relaxed mind, as in meditation. Once theta waves begin, of about 5 cycles per second, the sleeper can experience "hypnic jerks," in which they are jolted back awake, sometimes with the sensation of falling. Soon after that, with brain activity at its minimum, the slow delta waves of deep sleep begin, and it is in this period that most physical regeneration of the body takes place. It is also the time when unusual behaviours such as mumbling, laughing or sleepwalking take place – even sleep killing, as in the case of Kenneth Parks, an Ontario man who was acquitted of murder after driving more than 20 kilometres and killing his mother-in-law, all in his sleep.

But after the deep sleep of delta waves, something strange happens, usually about five times a night. A sleeper enters rapid eye movement sleep, known as REM, in which the body is paralyzed except for the diaphragm, the eyes flicker behind closed lids, and brain waves resemble waking activity. This is the period when memories are fixed in place. It is also the time when we dream.

The University of Toronto psychiatrist Norman Doidge, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, said that brain scans "show that when we dream, that part of the brain that processes emotion, and our sexual, survival, and aggressive instincts, is quite active. At the same time the prefrontal cortex system, which is responsible for inhibiting our emotions and instincts, shows lower activity. With instincts turned up and inhibitions turned down, the dreaming brain can reveal impulses that are normally blocked from awareness."

Mr. Urbszat similarly calls dreams "a languageless type of communication," by which he means that logic, math and language are impaired, but our sense for patterns, spatial arrangements and colours are enhanced.

"I don't have dream control, more like influence," Mr. Urbszat said. Sometimes, for example, he will slip back into regular dreaming from a lucid dream, often forgetting it in the process.

But when it works, the experience can be magical. He recalled the lucid dream that had the greatest effect on him, one of his very first. He was in an African village, walking past a row of raised huts, when he saw a chicken and a few chicks walk across the road in front of him, into one of the huts.

"And I just went, 'Whoa, I'm dreaming. All right, yes. Try not to get too excited,'" he said. "So I followed them up into the hut. They weren't in there and I was like, 'That's it, I'm lucid dreaming now. The thing I've read about, wanted to do, I'm doing it right now.' I didn't even think. I just fazed right through the wall like I was Casper the Ghost and just started flying. And here's what I told myself. I didn't figure it out until many years later, but it was quite profound at the time. I said, 'Okay, what I'm going to do is just fly and as the earth turns on its rotation, I'm going to fly with it, so I'll be in sunlight forever. I'll never have to have darkness again.' These are metaphors. Ten years later, literally, I'm doing a paper on lucid dreaming for my graduate studies, and it comes to me. Why did the chicken cross the road? That's what it was. To get to the other side. The chicken crossed the road to take me to the other side of consciousness."

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