LUCID DREAMING: AWAKE IN YOUR SLEEP?
By Susan Blackmore
From Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 15 Summer 1991
What could it mean to be conscious in your dreams? For most
of us, dreaming is something quite separate from normal life.
When we wake up from being chased by a ferocious tiger, or
seduced by a devastatingly good-looking Nobel Prize winner
we realize with relief or disappointment that "it was only
Yet there are some dreams that are not like that. Lucid
dreams are dreams in which you know at the time that you are
dreaming. That they are different from ordinary dreams is
obvious as soon as you have one. The experience is something
like waking up in your dreams. It is as though you "come to"
and find you are dreaming.
Lucid dreams used to be a topic within psychical research
and parapsychology. Perhaps their incomprehensibility made
them good candidates for being thought paranormal. More
recently, however, they have begun to appear in psychology
journals and have dropped out of parapsychology - a good
example of how the field of parapsychology shrinks when any
of its subject matter is actually explained.
Lucidity has also become something of a New Age fad. There
are machines and gadgets you can buy and special clubs you
can join to learn how to induce lucid dreams. But this
commercialization should not let us lose sight of the very
real fascination of lucid dreaming. It forces us to ask
questions about the nature of consciousness, deliberate
control over our actions, and the nature of imaginary worlds.
A Real Dream or Not?
The term lucid dreaming was coined by the Dutch psychiatrist
Frederik van Eeden in 1913. It is something of a misnomer
since it means something quite different from just clear or
vivid dreaming. Nevertheless we are certainly stuck with it.
Van Eeden explained that in this sort of dream "the
re-integration of the psychic functions is so complete that
the sleeper reaches a state of perfect awareness and is able
to direct his attention, and to attempt different acts of free
volition. Yet the sleep, as I am able confidently to state, is
undisturbed, deep, and refreshing."
This implied that there could be consciousness during sleep,
a claim many psychologists denied for more than 50 years.
Orthodox sleep researchers argued that lucid dreams could not
possibly be real dreams. If the accounts were valid, then the
experiences must have occurred during brief moments of
wakefulness or in the transition between waking and sleeping,
not in the kind of deep sleep in which rapid eye movements (REMs)
and ordinary dreams usually occur. In other words, they could
not really be dreams at all.
This presented a challenge to lucid dreamers who wanted to
convince people that they really were awake in their dreams.
But of course when you are deep asleep and dreaming you cannot
shout, "Hey! Listen to me. I'm dreaming right now." All the
muscles of the body are paralyzed.
It was Keith Hearne (1978), of the University of Hull, who
first exploited the fact that not all the muscles are paralyzed.
In REM sleep the eyes move. So perhaps a lucid dreamer could
signal by moving the eyes in a predetermined pattern. Just over
ten years ago, lucid dreamer Alan Worsley first managed this is
in Hearne's laboratory. He decided to move his eyes left and
right eight times in succession whenever he became lucid. Using
a polygraph, Hearne could watch the eye movements for sign of
the special signal. He found it in the midst of REM sleep. So
lucid dreams are real dreams and do occur during REM sleep.
Further research showed that Worsley's lucid dreams most
often occurred in the early morning, around 6:30 A.M., nearly
half an hour into a REM period and toward the end of a burst
of rapid eye movements. They usually lasted for two to five
minutes. Later research showed that they occur at times of
particularly high arousal during REM sleep (Hearne 1978).
It is sometimes said that discoveries in science happen when
the time is right for them. It was one of those odd things that
at just the same time, but unbeknown to Hearne, Stephen LaBerge,
at Stanford University in California, was trying the same
experiment. He too succeeded, but resistance to the idea was
very strong. In 1980, both Science and Nature rejected his first
paper on the discovery (LaBerge 1985). It was only later that it
became clear what an important step this had been.
An Identifiable State?
It would be especially interesting if lucid dreams were
associated with a unique physiological state. In fact this has
not been found, although this is not very surprising since the
same is true of other altered states, such as out-of-body
experiences and trances of various kinds. However, lucid dreams
do tend to occur in periods of higher cortical arousal. Perhaps
a certain threshold of arousal has to be reached before awareness
can be sustained.
The beginning of lucidity (marked by eye signals, of course)
is associated with pauses in breathing, brief changes in heart
rate, and skin response changes, but there is no unique
combination that allows the lucidity to be identified by an
In terms of the dream itself, there are several features that
seem to provoke lucidity. Sometimes heightened anxiety or stress
precedes it. More often there is a kind of intellectual
recognition that something "dreamlike" or incongruous is going
on (Fox 1962; Green 1968; LaBerge 1985).
It is common to wake from an ordinary dream and wonder, "How
on earth could I have been fooled into thinking that I was
really doing push-ups on a blue beach?" A little more awareness
is shown when we realize this in the dream. If you ask yourself,
"Could this be a dream?" and answer "No" (or don't answer at all),
this is called a pre-lucid dream. Finally, if you answer "Yes",
it becomes a fully lucid dream.
It could be that once there is sufficient cortical arousal it
is possible to apply a bit of critical thought; to remember
enough about how the world ought to be to recognize the dream
world as ridiculous, or perhaps to remember enough about oneself
to know that these events can't be continuous with normal waking
life. However, tempting as it is to conclude that the critical
insight produces the lucidity, we have only an apparent
correlation and cannot deduce cause and effect from it.
Becoming a Lucid Dreamer
Surveys have show that about 50 percent of people (and in some
cases more) have had at least one lucid dream in their lives.
(see, for example, Blackmore 1982; Gackenbach and LaBerge 1988;
Green 1968.) Of course surveys are unreliable in that many
people may not understand the question. In particular, if you
have never had a lucid dream, it is easy to misunderstand what
is meant by the term. So overestimates might be expected.
Beyond this, it does not seem that surveys can find out much.
There are no very consistent differences between lucid dreamers
and others in terms of age, sex, education, and so on (Green
1968; Gackenbach and LaBerge 1988).
For many people, having lucid dream is fun, and they want to
learn how to have more or to induce them at will. One finding
from early experimental work was that high levels of physical
(and emotional) activity during the day tend to precede lucidity
at night. Waking during the night and carrying out some kind of
activity before falling asleep again can also encourage a lucid
dream during the next REM period and is the basis of some
Many methods have been developed (Gackenbach and Bosveld 1989;
Tart 1988; Price and Cohen 1988). They roughly fall into three
One of the best known is LaBerge's MILD (Mnemonic Induction
of Lucid Dreaming). This is done on waking in the early morning
from a dream. You should wake up fully, engage in some activity
like reading or walking about, and then lie down to go to sleep
again. Then you must imagine yourself asleep and dreaming,
rehearse the dream from which you woke, and remind yourself,
"Next time I dream this I want to remember I'm dreaming."
A second approach involves constantly reminding yourself to
become lucid throughout the day rather than the night. This is
based on the idea that we spend most of our time in a kind of
waking daze. If we could be more lucid in waking life, perhaps
we could be more lucid while dreaming. German psychologist
Paul Tholey suggests asking yourself many times every day,
"Am I dreaming or not?" This sound easy but is not. It takes
a lot of determination and persistence not to forget all about
it. For those who do forget, French researcher Clerc suggests
writing a large "C" on your hand (for "conscious") to remind
you (Tholey 1983; Gackenbach and Bosveld 1989).
This kind of method is similar to the age-old technique for
increasing awareness by meditation and mindfulness. Advanced
practitioners of meditation claim to maintain awareness through
a large proportion of their sleep. TM is often claimed to lead
to sleep awareness. So perhaps it is not surprising that some
recent research finds association between meditation and
increased lucidity (Gackenbach and Bosveld 1989).
The third and final approach requires a variety of gadgets.
The idea is to use some sort of external signal to remind
people, while they are actually in REM sleep, that they are
dreaming. Hearne first tried spraying water onto sleepers' faces
or hands but found it too unreliable. This sometimes caused them
to incorporate water imagery into their dreams, but they rarely
became lucid. He eventually decided to use a mild electrical
shock to the wrist. His "dream machine" detects changes in
breathing rate (which accompany the onset of REM) and then
automatically delivers a shock to the wrist (Hearne 1990).
Meanwhile, in California, LaBerge was rejecting taped voices
and vibrations and working instead with flashing lights. The
original version was laboratory based and used a personal
computer to detect the eye movements of REM sleep and to turn
on flashing lights whenever the REMs reached a certain level.
Eventually, however, all the circuitry was incorporated into
a pair of goggles. The idea is to put the goggles on at night,
and the lights will flash only when you are asleep and dreaming.
The user can even control the level of eye movements at which
the lights begin to flash.
The newest version has a chip incorporated into the goggles.
This will not only control the lights but will store data on
eye-movement density during the night and when and for how long
the lights were flashing, making fine tuning possible. At the
moment, the first users have to join in workshops at LaBerge's
Lucidity Institute and learn how to adjust the settings, but
within a few months he hopes the whole process will be fully
automated. (See LaBerge's magazine, DreamLight.)
LaBerge tested the effectiveness of the Dream Light on 44
subjects who came into the laboratory, most for just one night.
Fifty-five percent had at least one lucid dream this way. The
results suggested that this method is about as succesful as
MILD, but using the two together is the most effective
Lucid Dreams as an Experimental Tool
There are a few people who can have lucid dreams at will. And
the increase in induction techniques has provided many more
subjects who have them frequently. This has opened the way to
using lucid dreams to answer some of the most interesting
questions about sleep and dreaming.
How long do dreams take? In the last century, Alfred Maury
had a long and complicated dream that led to his being beheaded
by a guillotine. He woke up terrified, and found that the
headboard of his bed had fallen on his neck. From this, the
story goes, he concluded that the whole dream had been created
in the moment of awakening.
This idea seems to have got into popular folklore but was very
hard to test. Researchers woke dreamers at various stages of
their REM period and found that those who had been longer in REM
claimed longer dreams. However, accurate timing became possible
only when lucid dreamers could send "markers" from the dream
LaBerge asked his subjects to signal when they became lucid
and then count a ten-second period and signal again. Their
average interval was 13 seconds, the same as they gave when
awake. Lucid dreamers, like Alan Worsley, have also been able
to give accurate estimates of the length of whole dreams or
dream segments (Schatzman, Worsley, and Fenwick 1988).
As we watch sleeping animals it is often tempting to conclude
that they are moving their eyes in response to watching a dream,
or twitching their legs as they dream of chasing prey. But do
physical movements actually relate to the dream events?
Early sleep researchers occassionally reported examples like
a long series of left-right eye movements when a dreamer had
been dreaming of watching a ping-pong game, but they could do
no more than wait until the right sort of dream came along.
Lucid dreaming made proper experimentation possible, for the
subjects could be asked to perform a whole range of tasks in
their dreams. In one experiment with researchers Morton Schatzman
and Peter Fenwick, in London, Worsley planned to draw large
triangles and to signal with flicks of his eyes every time he
did so. While he dreamed, the electromyogram, recording small
muscle movements, showed not only the eye signals but spikes
of electrical activity in the right forearm just afterward.
This showed that the preplanned actions in the dream produced
corresponding muscle movements (Schatzman, Worsley, and Fenwick
Further experiments, with Worsley kicking dream objects,
writing with umbrellas, and snapping his fingers, all confirmed
that the muscles of the body show small movements corresponding
to the body's actions in the dream. The question about eye
movements was also answered. The eyes do track dream objects.
Worsley could even produce slow scanning movements, which are
very difficult to produce in the absence of a "real" stimulus
(Schatzman, Worsley, and Fenwick 1988).
LaBerge was especially interested in breathing during dreams.
This stemmed from his experiences at age five when he had
dreamed of being an undersea pirate who could stay under water
for very long periods without drowning. Thirty years later he
wanted to find out whether dreamers holding their breath in
dreams do so physically as well. The answer was yes. He and
other lucid dreamers were able to signal from the dream and
then hold their breath. They could also breathe rapidly in
their dreams, as revealed on the monitors. Studying breathing
during dreamed speech, he found that the person begins to
breathe out at the start of an utterance just as in real speech
(LaBerge and Dement 1982a).
It is known that the left and right hemispheres are activated
differently during different kinds of tasks. For example,
singing uses the right hemisphere more, while counting and
other, more analytical tasks use the left hemisphere more. By
using lucid dreams, LaBerge was able to find out whether the
same is true in dreaming.
In one dream he found himself flying over a field. (Flying
is commonly associated with lucid dreaming.) He signaled with
his eyes and began to sing "Row, row, row your boat...."
He then made another signal and counted slowly to ten before
signaling again. The brainwave records showed just the same
patterns of activation that you would expect if he had done
these tasks while awake (LaBerge and Dement 1982b).
Although it is not often asked experimentally, I am sure plenty
of people have wondered what is happening in their bodies while
they have their most erotic dreams.
LaBerge tested a woman who could dream lucidly at will and
could direct her dreams to create the sexual experiences she
wanted. (What a skill!) Using appropriate physiological
recording, he was able to show that her dream orgasms were
matched by true orgasms (LaBerge, Greenleaf, and Kedzierski
Experiments like these show that there is a close
correspondence between actions of the dreamer and, if not real
movements, at least eletrical responses. This puts lucid
dreaming somewhere between real actions, in which muscles work
to move the body, and waking imagery, in which they are rarely
involved at all. So what exactly is the status of the dream
The Nature of the Dream World
It is tempting to think that the real world and the world of
dreams are totally separate. Some of the experiments already
mentioned show that there is no absolute dividing line. There
are also plenty of stories that show the penetrability of the
Alan Worsley describes one experiment in which his task was
to give himself a prearranged number of small electric shocks
by means of a machine measuring his eye movements. He went to
sleep and began dreaming that it was raining and he was in a
sleeping bag by a fence with gate in it. He began to wonder
whether he was dreaming and thought it would be cheating to
activate the shocks if he was awake. Then, while making the
signals, he worried about the machine, for it was out there
with him in the rain and might get wet (Schatzman, Worsley,
and Fenwick 1988).
This kind of interference is amusing, but there are dreams
of confusion that are not. The most common and distinct are
called false awakenings. You dream of waking up but in fact,
of course, are still asleep. Van Eeden (1913) called these
"wrong waking up" and described them as "demoniacal, uncanny,
and very vivid and bright, with ... a strong diabolical light."
The French zoologist Yves Delage, writing in 1919, described
how he had heard a knock at his door and a friend calling for
his help. He jumped out of bed, went to wash quickly with cold
water, and when that woke him up he realized he had been
dreaming. The sequence repeated four times before he finally
actually woke up - still in bed.
A student of mine described her infuriating recurrent dream
of getting up, cleaning her teeth, getting dressed, and then
cycling all the way to the medical school at the top of a long
hill, where she finally would realize that she had dreamed it
all, was late for lectures, and would have to do it all over
again for real.
The one positive benefit of false awakenings is that they can
sometimes be used to induce out-of-body-experiences (OBEs).
Indeed, Oliver Fox (1962) recommends this as a method for
achieving the OBE. For many people OBEs and lucid dreams are
practically indistinguishable. If you dream of leaving your
body, the experience is much the same. Also recent research
suggests that the same people tend to have both lucid dreams
and OBEs (Blackmore 1988, Irwin 1988).
All of these experiences have something in common. In all
of them the "real" world has been replaced by some kind of
imaginary replica. Celia Green, of the Institute of
Psychophysical Research at Oxford, refers to all such states
as "metachoric experiences."
Jayne Gackenbach, a psychologist from the University of
Alberta, Canada, relates these experiences to UFO-abduction
stories and near-death-experiences (NDEs). The UFO abductions
are the most bizarre but are similar in that they too involve
the replacement of the perceived world by a hallucinatory
There is an important difference between lucid dreams and
these other states. In the lucid dream one has insight into
the state (in fact that defines it). In false awakening, one
does not (again by definition). In typical OBEs, people think
they have really left their bodies. In UFO "abductions" they
believe the little green men are "really there"; and in NDEs,
they are convinced they are rushing down a real tunnel toward
a real light and into the next world. It is only in the lucid
dream that one realizes it is a dream.
I have often wondered whether insight into these other
experiences is possible and what the consequences might be.
So far I don't have any answers.
The oddest thing about lucid dreams - and, to many people who
have them, the most compelling - is how it feels when you wake
up. Upon waking up from a normal dream, you usually think,
"Oh, that was only a dream." Waking up from a lucid dream is
more continuous. It feels more real, it feels as though you
were conscious in the dream. Why is this? I think the reason can
be found by looking at the mental models the brain constructs
in waking, in ordinary dreaming, and in lucid dreams.
I have previously argued that what seems real is the most
stable mental model in the system at any time. In waking life,
this is almost always the input-driven model, the one that is
built up from the sensory input. It is firmly linked to the
body image to make a stable model of "me, here, now." It is
easy to decide that this represents "reality" while all the
other models being used at the same time are "just imagination"
Now consider an ordinary dream. In that case there are lots
of models being built but no input-driven model. In addition
there is no adequate self-model or body image. There is just
not enough access to memory to construct it. This means, if my
hypothesis is right, that whatever model is most stable at any
time will seem real. But there is no recognizable self to whom
it seems real. There will just be a series of competing models
coming and going. Is this what dreaming feels like?
Finally, we know from research that in the lucid dream there
is higher arousal. Perhaps this is sufficient to construct a
better model of self. It is one that includes such important
facts as that you have gone to sleep, that you intended to
signal with your eyes, and so on. It is also more similar to
the normal waking self than those fleeting constructions of
the ordinary dream. This, I suggest, is what makes the dream
seem more real on waking up. Because the you who remembers
the dream is more similar to the you in the dream. Indeed,
because there was a better model of you, you were more
If this is right, it means that lucid dreams are potentially
even more interesting than we thought. As well as providing
insight into the nature of sleep and dreams, they may give
clues to the nature of consciousness itself.
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Susan J. Blackmore is with the Perceptual Systems Research Centre,
Department of Psychology, University of Bristol, and the School
of Social Sciences, University of Bath.
Marko, Suomen Atari-sivut / ArkiSTo 2003