The art, the science, and the spiritual practice of lucid dreaming.
Often in his dreams, London-based artist Dave Green holds a piece of paper and a pen and starts drawing. “I might draw something very simple on the page and it all goes from there,” he says.
In February 2021 he went into a dream where he drew a circle, a very simple one. Within that circle, some foliage suddenly appeared, like trees around a pond. “The circle was informed by my awakened consciousness and the foliage by my unconscious,” he says.
He believes there’s an interplay going on between both his conscious and unconscious mind at the same time, so his waking awareness draws the initial lines and the unconscious takes over. Whenever he picks up that paper in his dream, he knows it will get flooded with pictures, symbols, words, and numbers. And because these types of dreams—lucid dreams—are such intensely creative experiences, he will need to draw the painting he dreamed of the moment he wakes up (or he will forget most of it otherwise).
The illusions that visit us in our dreams are the same ones we encounter in waking life.
This isn’t some habit he has of recalling his dreams or a way of generating fodder to inspire his artwork. He is convinced there is deeper meaning, and he is part of a growing movement that seeks to use lucid dreams to tap the unconscious mind for that meaning.
Many have shared similar goals, long before him.
Roots in Tibetan Buddhism
Lucid dreaming is a long-standing tradition among Tibetan Buddhists, who practice dream yoga during their sleep, which is a type of meditation in which the dream state becomes a means for spiritual practice, self-discovery, transformation, and even enlightenment. Practitioners of dream yoga aim to maintain awareness and mindfulness while dreaming, similar to how they practice mindfulness during waking hours, fully recognizing that the dream state is illusory. Both dream yoga and general Buddhist teachings emphasize that the illusions that visit us in our dreams are the same ones we encounter in waking life. The founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama himself, once said that all physical phenomena are like a dream, and that, relative to a higher state of consciousness, we are in a non-lucid state right now. Which raises the question: Which is the more illusory state—reality or the dream?
American psychophysiologist Stephen LaBerge, a writer, lecturer, and pioneer in the scientific study of lucid dreaming, noticed that the brain scans of lucid dreamers indicated visual cortex activation similar to what you would see in waking visual perception. (The visual cortex, the part of the brain charged with detecting contrast, color, and movement, combines them all together to produce the complexity of our visual perception.)
He then proceeded to somewhat aphorize the “realness” of the waking life, pithily suggesting that the waking experience is a dream experience with physical constraints, while the dream experience is a waking experience without physical constraints. And in his own book Minding Closely, American author and Tibetan Buddhism expert Alan Wallace suggests that the waking state claps our imagination in irons as the various physical processes that govern it “constrain appearances.” But in a dream, it’s just you and your imagination. The rose whose reflected photons forced it to appear red to you is free to turn chartreuse.
“I find LaBerge’s aphorism on dream experience extremely fascinating,” says Gurneet Swahney, a neurosurgeon at Fortis Hospital in Mumbai, India, who specializes in treating complicated and critical brain and spinal cord ailments. “Neuroimaging studies have suggested that during a lucid dream, the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is associated with high-level information processing and conscious awareness, becomes more active,” Swahney says. “Furthermore, research has indicated the involvement of gamma wave activity in the brain during lucid dreams,” indicating electrical activity generated by neurons firing in your brain.
Two things happen during lucid dreams, according to Swahney: The shift in the prefrontal cortex activity allows the dreamer to recognize that they are in a dream state and potentially in control of dream content. And the increased brain activity as measured by gamma waves fills the dreamer with a heightened sense of awareness. “Dreaming can be liberating in many ways,” says Swahney. “The idea that the waking experience is merely dream experience with physical constraints implies that the brain is capable of so much more than we give it credit for.”
Bed down, brighten up
A lucid dream is, simply put, a dream in which you’re aware you are dreaming. The unfolding events you witness aren’t really happening in your waking life, and you know it. Lucid dreams usually occur during the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep, one of the four alternating stages of sleep that usually starts 90 minutes after you bed down, lasts between 10 minutes and an hour, and during which your brain activity, breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure increase, your eyes move rapidly (while still shut), and you temporarily become “paralyzed.” The most effective type of lucid dreaming in terms of ease of initiation for beginners is considered to be the so-called MILD one.
The mnemonic induction of lucid dream (MILD) is a technique leveraging the capabilities of prospective memory, or simply put, your ability to remember to do things in the future; you have to do some mental gymnastics to remember that you are dreaming whilst you are dreaming and, thus, separate your dream from waking life. It sort of goes like this: You wake up after five hours of sleep and set the intention for dreaming by repeating the mantra, “The next time I’m dreaming, I will remember that I’m dreaming,” and then you resume your sleep. How fast you acquire the ability to lucid dream varies from person to person. For some, a couple days after their first MILD is enough, while for others it may take months of everyday practice to do so. Realistically, though, you might want to invest a year or so if you want to call yourself a seasoned lucid dreamer.
Experts say it’s easier for some people than others. For Green, lucid dreaming was literally child’s play. “I had my first lucid dream when I was a child,” he says. “I realized that holding my breath would wake me up from the dream.”
Green is one of the select few experiencing wake-initiated lucid dreams (WILD), which happen when a person directly crosses over from the wake state to the dream state. In a WILD, you can close your eyes, relax your body, and wait for a hypnagogic hallucination during the transition period between waking life and sleep, when you can experience all the imaginary images and sensations, including smell and sound, that come with dreams.
“It comes spontaneously to me,” Green is quick to add. Though neuroscientists are still in the dark about why lucid dreams occur, they have a hypothesis that the prefrontal cortex—the very front part of the brain that regulates complex cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functioning—is bigger in people who have lucid dreams. Another person to whom lucid dreaming comes naturally is Bayu Prihandito, an environmental engineer turned life coach, mindfulness expert, and yoga and dance teacher.
In lucid dreams, we challenge our day-to-day perceptions until we awaken to their genuine truth.
“My very first lucid dream occurred when I was a child in Indonesia. I was around 10 years old. From what I recall, I was mostly flying around my neighborhood. Since then, I’ve experienced lucid dreams occasionally, perhaps a few times a year,” Prihandito says. His hands come in handy when it comes to separating lucid dream from reality. “They appear distorted. Sometimes they’re elongated, or they might have more or fewer fingers than usual, and the texture and color can sometimes be off,” he says.
Prihandito flies a lot in his lucid dreams—most of the time to his hometown or to peaceful natural sceneries he’s visited. Occasionally, he engages in conversations with what he calls dream characters. “These interactions [with people I don’t know] feel as if I’m directly communicating with the unconscious mind that’s creating this dream world,” he says, echoing the words of Carl Jung, the renowned Swiss psychiatrist and analytical psychoanalyst who theorized that dreams and their window into the unconscious are important in self-individuation and self-realization. Jung’s concept revolves around the universal, symbolic themes that make up what he called humanity’s “collective unconscious.” His archetype of the wise old man is so strong, for example, that it has had a profound influence on modern psychology and self-development.
“In a lucid dream, when I have the realization, ‘Ah, this is all a dream!’, I often feel euphoria, not from the dream’s content, but because I understand its true nature,” Prihandito says. He embraces the Buddha’s view that our waking experiences mirror dream experiences but with physical limitations. “Our fears and self-imposed barriers in our waking lives are mere constructs of the mind, and recognizing these barriers is crucial for true awakening,” he says. In lucid dreams, we challenge our day-to-day perceptions until we awaken to their genuine truth, what the Buddha called enlightenment, Prihandito concludes, “where he transcended typical comprehension, discerning reality’s true essence.”
One foot in each world
For his part, Green’s aim is to rev up the metacognition of the wake state, which could lead to higher metacognition in the dream state. He trains a lot for this. He keeps a dream diary to make note of any recurring things coming up in his dreams. He also claims to engage in regular reality checks, taking time out at regular intervals during his day to ask himself if he is dreaming (he may even touch objects around him to make sure he is in the realm of waking reality).
The risk, he says, is suffering confusion and delirium when you have one foot in Morpheus’s dream world and another in the realm of waking reality. Lucid dreams might make distinguishing what’s real and what’s imagined dangerously overwhelming, particularly for people prone to mental health disorders who have a tenuous hold on waking reality to begin with.
3 Tips for Self-Induced Lucid Dreaming
Practice good sleep hygiene
A consistent sleep hygiene is useful for lucid dreaming. Avoid caffeine and alcohol in the evening, move your electronic devices out of the bedroom, and avoid screens at least thirty minutes before bed. Make sure you get enough hours of sleep each night to regularly experience REM sleep, an important step for lucid dreaming.
Use a dream journal
Lucid dreaming requires metacognition, an awareness of your own thoughts. Keep a notebook and pen on your nightstand to capture what you remember from your dreams every time you wake up and review them to remind yourself of patterns or signals from your past dreams.
Develop a reality-testing system
Use regular reality checks throughout the day during which you notice the fact that you’re awake so that you become accustomed to distinguishing between your real life and your dreams. You can look into mirrors for irregularities, check the time to see if it is progressing normally, or press your index finger into your palm to determine if it is solid.
“In a dream, you behave very differently from waking life. Nothing’s stable for very long, [which is] especially noticeable,” says Green. If, for example, you’re looking at a piece of text and then you look away and back and the words have changed into something else, you can be fairly certain you’re in a lucid dream, says Green.
But not everyone agrees with the concept of lucidity in the first place.
Lincoln Stoller is a therapist at the Victoria, British Columbia-based practice Mind, Strength, Balance with a PhD in quantum physics. In his book Becoming Lucid, he argues that there is no clear meaning to lucid dreaming because there is no clear meaning to lucidity, even when we are fully awake. “In waking life, we consider ourselves lucid when we are only partly aware. In dreams, we often feel out of control and, when we are occasionally in control, we interpret that as lucidity, but it rarely is,” Stoller says. Lucidity, like art, is subjective (if not contentious).
“If Dave Green feels he is lucid in a dream and intentionally creates a drawing, then wakes up and recreates that drawing, this is in no way different from a regular dream. He’s simply dreaming about drawing and remembering his dream,” Stoller says. Similarly, if someone goes to sleep with the intention of having a lucid dream wherein they will create a drawing on a certain theme, and then have a dream in which they recall they had the intention of going to sleep and becoming lucid in their dream and creating a drawing about a certain theme, this also is in no way different from a regular dream. It’s only the plot line that makes it sound lucid, Stoller says. “You may call that a lucid dream, but that means nothing.”
Previously, Green, who is also a lucid dream educator and researcher, said he enjoys the skepticism of some of his audience, coupled with the moment they “come to the realization” lucid dreaming is real. Most of his lucid-dreaming-painted works fetch about $200 or less, but one sold for as high as $1,278. He believes there is a market for art produced in the dream state, because it may hold the key to unlocking some of our most fascinating questions. “Lucid dreaming makes you reflect on the nature of reality. The audience is going to be asking themselves the same question. What is consciousness? What is real?” Green says.
Perhaps some people desire to view consciousness as the soul, he quickly adds. “Then, in a lucid dream, it’s definitely reinvented.”