What are dreams?
Experts can’t agree on what dreams are, precisely. Some say dreams are the brain resolving problems or processing emotions from your waking life; some say they’re just a collection of memory data that your brain is trying to incorporate. But perhaps the simplest possible definition is that dreams are your brain’s way of knowing that it exists. Your brain has plenty to do in your waking state, when you have nonstop external stimuli for it to process, but when you’re asleep, it has very little stimuli to sift through. When there is no world for your brain to perceive, it adapts by creating its own to maintain normal function and keep sharp.
We may not know why we have dreams, but we do know when we have them. When you get a proper night’s rest, you experience four main stages of sleep:
- NREM 1 (N1): Also known as “non-rapid eye movement 1,” or “light sleep.” Your body temperature, heart rate, breathing rate, and energy use all decrease across the board. Your muscles are still active and you can still produce reactions to environmental stimuli. Essentially, you are falling asleep.
- NREM 2 (N2): Drifting toward deep sleep. You’re harder to awaken, and conscious awareness of your environment goes away. This stage accounts for about half of your sleep time.
- NREM 3 (N3): Deep sleep or “slow-wave” sleep. Environmental stimuli are no longer likely to produce any reactions. Thought to be the most restful stage of sleep, and accounts for about a quarter of your sleep time. This stage leads into the fourth stage and is sometimes considered to be a part of the fourth stage as well.
- REM (rapid eye movement): Also known as the “dream state.” Your muscles become paralyzed and your breathing and heart rate become unregulated. The true function of REM sleep is unknown, but missing it can impair your ability to learn complex tasks. This stage accounts for about a quarter of your sleep time as well.
Each night, you cycle through each stage about four or five times in the order of N1, N2, N3, N2, REM, then repeat. The REM stage is where your most vivid, memorable dreams occur, and you experience that state for about 90 minutes a pop.
What is a lucid dream?
Normal dreams are a lot like an amusement park ride you didn’t choose to get on; you’re on guided rails, there are strange things all around you that seem real, and you’re forced to experience everything that comes your way. You may have the ability to react, but you can’t get off the ride, whether you love it or hate it.
Lucid dreams, on the other hand, are like exploring an amusement park that you built yourself. Not only can you go wherever you want, you can do whatever you like. It’s your world. In essence, a fully lucid dream is a dream you have complete control over. Want to fly like a superhero? It’s possible—I’ve done it. Want to confront a bully without fear? No sweat. Want to have romantic relations with a beautiful dream person? You most certainly can. Imagine going to bed every night and living out your most extravagant fantasies, then waking up still feeling refreshed and rested. That’s lucid dreaming.
Now, I’m sure you’re excited to give lucid dreaming a try, but like most wonderful things, it will take some patience and effort. Over time, we’ll learn to identify our dream state and bend every REM stage of our sleep to our will. But for now, we need to focus on a different state of consciousness: the one you’re in right now.
Assignment: Become More Aware of Your Present State of Consciousness
Being aware inside of a dream is not unlike the awareness you’re currently feeling as you read these words—except the worlds in your dreams lack certain consistencies. For example, if you were to click back on your browser at this very moment, then click forward, you’d end up on this webpage again. In a dream state, you might click back then forward and end up on a different webpage, or on a sailboat. Dreams are not consistent, and spotting those inconsistencies is one of the easiest ways to realize you’re dreaming, which is the first step to becoming lucid.
But to truly understand what it feels like to be lucid in your dream, you need to possess a better understanding of what it feels like to be lucid in the real world. This exercise, from the book Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming by Stephen LaBerge, Ph.D., and Howard Rheingold, will be your first assignment. Do all of these steps once a day:
- Look: Become aware of what you see: notice the richly varied and vivid impressions—shapes, colors, movement, dimensionality, the entire visible world.
- Listen: Become aware of what you hear: register the various sounds taken in by your ears—a diverse range of intensities, pitches, and tonal qualities, perhaps including the commonplace miracle of speech or the wonder of music.
- Feel: Become aware of what you touch: texture (smooth, rough, dry, sticky, or wet), weight (heavy, light, solid, or empty), temperature, and the rest. Also note how your body feels right now and compare that to the many other ways it feels at other times, tired or energetic, stiff or limber, painful or pleasant, and so on.
- Taste: Become aware of what it is like to taste: taste a number of different foods and substances, or remember and vividly imagine their tastes.
- Smell: Become aware of what you smell: the odor of warm bodies, earth, incense, smoke, perfume, coffee, onions, alcohol, and the sea. Remember and imagine as many of them as you can.
- Breathing: Attend to your breathing. A moment ago you probably were not consciously aware of your breathing even though you have inhaled and exhaled fifty times while doing this exercise. Hold your breath for a few seconds. Let it out. Now take a deep breath. Notice that being conscious of your breathing allows you to alter it deliberately.
- Emotions: Become aware of your feelings. Remember the difference between anger and joy, serenity and excitement, and as many other emotions as you care to feel. How real do emotions feel?
- Thoughts: Become aware of your thoughts. What have you been thinking while doing this exercise? What are you thinking right now? How real do thoughts seem?
Pause and reflect on these things, or even write them down. You use these senses and experience these other things at all times throughout the day, but how often do you really pay attention to them? The more in-tune you can become with your senses and feelings, the more easily you’ll be able to use them as tools in the dream state. After all, you can’t conjure a pleasant sunset beach in your mind if you don’t know how to define and recall the smell of the ocean breeze, the texture of sand between your toes, the color of light on the horizon, or how relaxing it feels to be somewhere so peaceful.
Once you’ve done that, move on to these last two steps:
- “I”: Become aware of the fact that your world always includes you. As William James noted, it is I see, I hear, I feel, I think that is the basic fact of experience. You are not what you see, hear, think, or feel; you have these experiences. Perhaps most essentially, you are who is aware. You are always at the center of your multidimensional universe of experience, but you are not always consciously aware of yourself. Briefly repeat the exercise with the following difference: At the same time you attend to each of the various aspects of your experience, be aware that it is you who is noticing these things (“I see the light…”).
- Awareness of awareness: Finally, become aware of your awareness. Normally, awareness focuses on objects outside ourselves, but it can itself be an object of awareness… Here, experience cannot be adequately expressed by language.
Congratulations: you have taken your first step to becoming an oneironaut, or “explorer of dreams.” Next week, we’ll go over the many benefits of lucid dreaming—and some of the minor dangers—and discuss the importance of building dream memory. You’ll also get a brand-new assignment.
Until then, feel free to ask questions or discuss your own experiences in the comments below. How did you feel doing the assignment? Have you had a lucid dream before? Some people get beginner’s luck and have a lucid dream simply after hearing about the phenomenon for the first time. This is your classroom, so discuss dreaming with your classmates.
You spend a third of your life asleep. Why not do something with it? Okay, oneironauts: sleep tight and dream on.