Sezione Medicina

from Leadership Medica n. 5 2004

Lucid dreaming means venturing into one’s dreams while preserving the clear-headedness typical of alert consciousness. Just twenty years ago this possibility was strictly denied on the basis of a very simple neuroscientific dogma that one is either awake or deeply asleep or dreaming. The possibility of being in two states of consciousness at the same time was not admitted. On the other hand, if dreams could intrude into alert consciousness one would end up in the Emergency Unit where, on hearing about the event, the psychiatrist on duty would not hesitate to diagnose delirium typical of schizophrenia. The possibility of finding oneself awake in a dream was instead ruled out believing one could dream that he was dreaming. And yet conscious dreams were extensively known to parapsychologists, whose Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, London, had collected statements, reports and data on events during the past century, and also to psychiatrists, neurologists and clinical psychologists, as it is estimated that about 20 per cent of the population have had at least one lucid dream in their life and that some even have one or more lucid dreams a month. But parapsychology has always been considered a sort of “dustbin for illusions” and, to be precise, “dreaming of dreaming” was considered an illusion that belonged to dreams. In oriental cultures instead the phenomenon was and still is considered normal, but it was and still is cultivated and exploited for religious, evolutionary and salvation purposes, as we shall explain further on. In fact in the 1980s Stephen LaBerge, a medical student at the University of Stanford, asked his Professor of Physiology, William Dement, the famous oneirologist who, together with Aserinsky and Kleitman, had described REM, rapid ocular movements that characterized dream-filled sleep in the 1950s, to centre his dissertation on lucid dreaming. Dement told the naive student that to accept the idea he needed to be convinced that lucid dreaming was a phenomenal reality and not an illusion that belonged to dreams. LaBerge, who was and still is a spontaneous lucid dreamer, explained that though striated muscles are completely atonic and in a flaccid paralysis state during REM sleep, the eye’s extrinsic muscles, which, to be precise, control REM, respiratory muscles and middle ear muscles are instead active and obedient to voluntary control, with the natural exception of the middle ear’s little muscles, which remain providentially sensitive to environmental sounds so that suspicious noise can awaken men and animals. He also expounded the possibility of agreeing on a communication code based on intentional ocular movements, which the lucid dreamer could use to communicate with an outside observer. The REM state could obviously be ascertained with the widely used polygraphic sleep recordings, which evaluated the phases of sleep. No sooner said than done, Dement made LaBerge sleep in the laboratory. When the polygraph detected signs of the drop in muscular tension and the onset of REM, the oneironaut gave the agreed signal, eight consecutive eye movements from left to right. Dement had to admit he was faced with a sensational discovery in the field of dreams. Naturally, the experiment was duly repeated an adequate number of times on an adequate number of individuals before the finding was published, but, in practice, the discovery represented the possibility of making remarkable progress in the study of dreams. They had the method to investigate the oneiric world “live”, with neither “targeted” awakenings, nor want of methodological precision, nor interpretational doubts nor exasperating controversies.

Oneirology was marking time during that period. Neurophysiology had more or less finished identifying the nuclei, neurones and chemical mediators that regulate sleep and dreams. Despite the extremely limited experimental possibilities, since animals used for experiments could not speak and bloody experiments could not be conducted on man, psychophysiology had tried to solve the apparently minor issues, such as the functional meaning of REM (Dement himself had suggested that such movements correspond to the visual exploration he, the dreamer, would perform on the oneiric scene; which theory is also known as “scanning hypothesis”) or the subjective evaluation of the duration of dreams, besides more substantial problems, such as merging environmental and sensorial signs into the dream’s weave or the real degree of the brain’s isolation from the outside reality. They had begun to study the neuropsychology of dreams, attempting to understand the cognitive process of oneiric thought to better perfect the concept of the “primary process”, which Freud had used to define the mental activity that characterizes dreams. They had also tried to explain to what extent and how various auditive stimuli that reach oneiric consciousness influence the dream’s ‘plot’. The greatest stasis in the advancement of knowledge, however, occurred especially to studies on the psychology of dreams and it seemed that unsolved problems would remain such indefinitely. Hobson and McCarley’s theory that the brain was “a casual generator of dreams” attempted to question the psychoanalytical theory, stirring up a hornet’s nest of controversy and acid comments. Though the idea was not entirely unwarranted, it was considered more a provocation than a serious attempt to solve doubts and uncertainties, which not even Freud’s theories had cleared. In short Hobson and McCarley stated that PGO waves (pons-geniculate-occipital cortex waves, or those potential waves that represent one of the most impressive phasic events of REM sleep) were casual activators of mnemonic fragments, which entered oneiric consciousness and were experienced as dreams. PGOs are, in practice, REM generators as they first activate oculomotor nuclei and practically invade the entire brain. We can thus theorize that, like the oculomotor nuclei, they also activate, in a thoroughly casual manner, structures containing sensorial, motor or experiential memories. Following such stimuli, the oneiric consciousness would be chaotically invaded by blocks of experienced life, fragments of movies, landscapes, people, traumatic situations, objects of desire, and so on, which were meaningless by themselves, but which oneiric consciousness would attempt to organize in a meaningful structure. We can understand how far this idea irritated psychoanalysts, who consider the interpretation of dreams “the highway to explore the unconscious”. Anyhow, years of study of experimental oneiric protocols had proved considerable weak points in the Freudian theory. Erotic dreams are clearly a paltry percentage (less than 4 per cent) of oneiric experiences; most dreams have absolutely banal contents, which entirely resemble the contents of ordinary consciousness, as if the brain continued daytime conversations in dreams too. Hence many oneirologists considered the oneiric appeasement of unmentionable desires a structure invented by analysts’ forced interpretations rather than a real process of the unconscious mind. Many experimental psychologists, like cognitivists, whose background differed from the psychoanalytical one, attributed to dreams functions that were very distant from those proposed by Freud.

Even the concept of the unconscious was undergoing a review and it was being revisited, not to mention the idea that oneiric consciousness emerges from a regression to the primeval stages of the development of thought. The last uncertainties had been created by experts on commissurotomized brains, brains in which connections between the two hemispheres had been interrupted. These studies had led to the conclusion that the “minor” hemisphere, the right one, tends to habitually think in a “primary” manner and that if the predominance of a hemisphere is inverted in dreams, there is no regression but simply a change in the cognitive regimen, a different way of processing information. As in all discussions, the opposing parties had good topics to support their ideas, but such a discussion revealed Freudian theories were becoming outdated and tired. Hence lucid dreaming came as the ideal tool to move out of the controversial circularity and to recommence studies from an entirely new perspective. The most sensational feature of conscious dreams is that the dreamer can decide what to dream, whether to participate in his dream as a protagonist or to watch as a spectator or whether to interrupt one and replace it with another; he may change the ending, choose male and female co-protagonists, appease all desire or experience all types of adventures, besides solving problems, removing recurrent nightmares or freeing himself of traumatic memories. In practice it is as if one became the owner of the most fantastic film production company one could imagine. This feature would seem to confirm one of the cornerstones of psychoanalytical psychology, which states that dreams are necessary to appease desire. This is however only a partial confirmation as dreams do not basically appease inadmissible sexual desires marked by the moral codes of ordinary consciousness, but only desires that are most powerful in the dreamer’s consciousness. This is clear when, instead of choosing a dream, the lucid dreamer lets it spontaneously emerge. In most cases the plot is based both on emotional and practical problematic situations and on desires that have nothing to do with sex. For example, whenever a young lucid dreamer, busy drafting her dissertation, a task that cost her great effort and which she performed against her will because her parents had forced her to graduate in a field of studies that did not interest her, realized she was in a lucid state and let a dream spontaneously begin, she unfailingly saw herself seated before the computer dawdling over her reference books repeatedly erasing and rewriting a few lines, rise from the chair exasperated and then sit down again with her mind filled with anguish, re-experiencing the torment of daily routine. It was suggested she could become the protagonist of those dreams and “write” her dissertation in that condition “trusting her creative unconscious mind”. The trick worked beautifully. In the morning the young girl dashed to the computer and speedily jotted down what she would have developed in the dream. She succeeded in completing her graduation thesis in two months. When instead it is the dreamer who decides what to dream, if sexual desires are the centre of his daytime consciousness, he can appease them night after night with whoever he wants to and in whatever manner his imagination will suggest. LaBerge himself relates how he enjoyed himself as a youth no sooner he realized what he could do in his lucid dreams by experiencing the juiciest adventures, till one night, he realized he had experienced enough. He had imagined he was on a Californian highway driving a luxurious convertible and had picked up a hitchhiker in hot pants. While the girl was getting into the car, however, LaBerge realized he did not feel like having the umpteenth adventure and, no sooner he realized this tired desire, the girl vanished and the car began moving alone at an increasing speed till it took off skywards like an aircraft.

The curious oneironaut let the dream spontaneously continue and the car, climbing vertically at an increasing speed, stopped before a blinding light. At that moment a powerful male voice asked: “Whatever do you want?” leaving the young dreamer disconcerted. And on hearing this story we too are puzzled over the meaning of the psychodynamic drive that generated the “spontaneous dream”. Who had spoken? One would say the “director of the dream” who, in turn perplexed, does not know which film to screen. It seems reasonable that this director was LaBerge’s mind, void of immediate desires. This is the explanation the Tibetan Buddhists who practice dream yoga, people who have spent centuries processing a method to learn lucid dreaming, would offer. They too believe that dreams are born of desire, which they call “attachments”. Hence they too are convinced that dreams first support desire. However, unlike followers of Freudian theories, they consider sex only one of the possible “attachments” so that lucid dreams end up by revealing to the dreamer the basic desires around which his life rotates both day and night. Appeasing desires is probably not the purpose of life, besides, when one discovers he is attached to money, sex or power, he could also realize he is greedy, envious, lascivious or tyrannical. As the Buddhists state, true to their belief that “life is pain”; we can realize the source of our problems. A similar awakening should help those practicing dream yoga to discover the root of their pain and to thus “free themselves”, if not entirely, at least as far as possible, of attachments. Lamaist “psychology” distinguishes dreams in two categories: “karmic dreams” (in this case the term “karma” designates the “consequence” of thoughts or actions) and “mental clarity dreams”. The former are generated by “karmic seeds”, which are, to be precise, attachments, but they can also be emotional traumas, problems that are hard to solve or, even karmic traces of previous lives. The latter are dreams that result from the awareness of reality’s illusoriness, when “clarity of mind” is reached. Detachment from attachments is slowly reached, night after night, when one has completely appeased each desire, as young LaBerge realized on the Californian highway. This practice is called “karmic cleansing” and can also be used to remove recurrent nightmares or dreams that are born from past emotional traumas. For example, if one night the oneironaut decides to let a spontaneous dream arise and this carries him back to the anguish of having to face his A-level examinations, he would only have to decide that it is pointless to suffer for an event that has entirely passed for the dream to stop recurring. These aspects of dream yoga resemble self-psychotherapy, which on the one hand is useful to relieve the pain of daily life, and on the other hand reveals the mind’s structure to those practising dream yoga in order to develop “clarity” and hence to promote a cognitive development. Besides it still helps avoid reincarnation, hence it is also useful for spiritual purposes. All this reveals a decidedly deeper conception of human consciousness and a “psychotechnology” that has nothing to envy clinical psychotechnology conducted in numberless Western psychotherapeutic schools. In particular, we can notice that the theories of Tibetan Buddhists and the psychoanalytical theory of dreams have interesting concordances and superimpositions, but they also present some differences that deserve to be taken into consideration as starting points for a review of the psychological meaning of dreams. The western scientific mentality has the methodological tools to face this review. For over half a century psychoanalysts and dream experts have studied oneiric reports; it would thus be possible to adopt, as a general practice, statistical methods to check new theories. No doubt this branch of research on lucid dreaming is the most stimulating, if at all because it has already promoted a confrontation between western and eastern psychology. It is an attempt to complete two cultures, which for centuries have walked independently and today feel the need to draw closer to a dialogue. Francisco Varela was an enthusiastic promoter of this. A famous expert in cognitive sciences, he organized annual seminars between the Dalai Lama, his assistants and many representatives of western neurosciences, and also between physicists, philosophers and men of letters, which resulted in comparisons between the two cultures. One of these meetings was dedicated to lucid dreaming and to dream yoga. Varela’s writings show how deeply he was influenced by Buddhist thought and especially the importance of concepts of emptiness, illusoriness and the transitory nature of reality because they describe an organization of thought and consciousness, which cognitive sciences are only reaching in recent years, thanks to his work too. In short, Gerard Edelman’s beautiful definition of reality summarizes this focal point as “recollected present”, in the sense that any sensorial signal (i.e. a sound) that has just reached the brain must meet similar signals present in the memory to be recognized so that if there were no memory there could be neither a “present” nor consciousness. Memory loss syndromes that follow damage to cerebral memory areas offer further evidence of this. As we know, even the memory of one’s own identity can be lost; hence we can easily deduce that consciousness is a mnemonic structure. All this appears to be outside the sphere of interests of neurosciences and migrates into that of philosophy but, in practice, this course must be seen as a powerful review of various paradigms on which western thought has so far been based. The theory that prevented a scientific study of consciousness because “subjectivity” is not objective numbers among these, besides the one on the mutually exclusive nature of essential states of consciousness, which, as we have seen, was crushed by the experimental demonstration of lucid dreaming. In fact, considering that clearing mind and soul of the interests of exact sciences can be traced back to Cartesius, a philosopher, this drawing closer between neurosciences and philosophy is already a change of paradigm and we could say it is creating a new category of thinkers, the neurophilosophers. The stand of British empiricists, who, we could say, stated too briefly that reality exists only because we think of it, followed the oriental thought that supported this theory for centuries without realizing it. Their stand is in line with current trends. Surprisingly lucid dreaming strongly backs this neurophilosophical point: lucidly dreamt events induce the same body reactions the real event would cause. LaBerge proved this by asking an oneironaut to “imagine” she was having sex in a dream. Though she was dotted with electrodes (18, to be precise) and slept in the laboratory before many experimenters, the woman succeeded in performing her experimental task by signalling with the eye movement code the beginning of the performance and the moment of the orgasm. Psycophysiological recordings showed that her body had experienced the event as if it were real. This experience was probably pointless, if at all because pollutions at night had already proved the power of dreams. But in this case it was not the “satisfaction of an unconscious desire”, but the consequence of a deliberately imagined event. The only parameter that did not correspond to the psycophysiology of a physically real orgasm was the heart rate, which, contrary to what really occurs, had risen very little. Beyond neurophilosophical meanings, this marginal result is instead interesting in another sense. Since oneiric events have no power to move voluntary muscles as striated muscles are paralysed during REM sleep and as smooth muscle reactions are identical to the real event, we can deduce that the heart muscle, which is anatomically and physiologically neither smooth nor striated, responds unwillingly to imaginary events. Hence the experiment leads us to meditate on the power of imagination related to states of consciousness. Today the use of visualization methods is widespread in many psycotherapeutic systems such as the Gestalt approach, neurolinguistic programming, Desoille’s rêve éveillé in self-healing attempts, in hypnosis and in yet others. Not to mention the many meditation practices. We have often asked ourselves and we still wonder about their real effectiveness and the experiment of sex in lucid dreams gives us a partial answer. In lucidity imagination has the power of a real event and since it is hard to have an orgasm only based on imagination when one is awake, we can already say that the power of imagination is low (2 or 3 in a scale from 1 to 10) in alert wakefulness, while it scores ten in lucid dreaming. Hypnosis is midway between these two. In some highly hypnotizable individuals it can give rise to reactions that closely resemble those that would cause a real event, though this power is greater in already experienced events than in those that are imagined without being based on a recollection. Since in the state of trance, alert consciousness is not entirely turned off and trance consciousness, which closely resembles oneiric consciousness, does not entirely prevail, the effectiveness of imagination can be placed around 5 on the scale of power. But the intensity of a hypnotic trance can vary. The power of imagination is very close to lucid dreaming when it reaches its peak. But in this case the alert consciousness is “dissociated”, in other words it seems to be elsewhere and is unaware about what the hypnotic one is representing. To understand this state let us consider “automatic writing”. We suggest the individual in a deep trance should write whatever comes into his mind on a sheet of paper and his hand obediently begins drafting a text, at times even with closed eyes. If the individual “awakens” at this point, you can calmly converse with him while his hand goes on writing. The one who is writing is the hypnotic consciousness, which is “disjointed” from the alert one, which is instead busy conversing. The strangeness of this phenomenon did not fail to impress generations of experts and it is still far from being explained. However it seems to be the hypnotic condition in which the power of imagination can equal that of lucid dreaming. The power of imagination in a hypnagogic state is intermediate between wakefulness and dreams when one is falling asleep. In this case consciousness wavers between sleep and wakefulness, the degree of alertness fluctuates and neurosensorial relations with the environmental reality are more or less closed; one is close to a state of trance, which, not being heterogeneously induced, leaves room for voluntary imagination and can use the power of imagination with carefully planned methods. This is what occurs during the many meditation techniques processed by oriental cultures. Lastly, there is a state of consciousness called mystical ecstasy during which the power of imaginary events, if we may say so, greatly surpasses all others. In such a condition imagination can influence the body to the point of producing stigmata, evident lesions, which moreover reproduce the shape, site and serious nature of the iconographic model’s wounds (a statue or a painting representing the crucified Christ) present in the memory of one in an ecstasy. There is hence a vertical connection between the degree of alertness and the power of visualizations; a drop in the former increases the effectiveness of mental images. This is probably a less relevant theory compared to other more interesting issues that could solve the phenomenon of lucid dreaming, but we must keep in mind that studies on lucidity are still at an early stage and that researchers dedicated to them are still very few. The future holds a better knowledge of dreams and of human consciousness too.

Prof. Marco Margnelli
Presidente della Società Italiana per lo Studio degli stati di Coscienza e della Biofeedback Association of Europe