Waking the Dreamer
“In the lucid dream you look around and realize that the whole world… is all something that your mind is creating.”
with Stephen La Berge
Stephen LaBerge is the first scientist to empirically prove the existence of the phenomena of lucid dreaming. His work has developed this technique into a powerful tool for studying mind-body relationships in the dream state and he has demonstrated the considerable potential for lucid dreaming in the fields of psychotherapy and psychosomatic medicine. His book on the subject, Lucid Dreaming, Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming and his more academic Conscious Mind, Sleeping Brainhave received enormous popular interest
Born in 1947, he obtained a B.S. in mathematics from the University of Arizona. At the age of 19 he began graduate studies in chemistry at Stanford University, but in 1968 took a leave of absence to pursue his research interest in psychopharmacology. In 1977 he returned to Stanford to begin studies on dreaming, consciousness and sleep, and received his Ph.D. in Psychophysiology from Stanford’s Graduate Special Program in 1980.
He has taught courses on sleep and dreaming, psychobiology and altered states of consciousness at Stanford University, the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, and San Francisco State University. Currently, Stephen is a Research Associate in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University, and Director of Research at the Lucidity Institute; a center he founded to further explore the potential of lucid dreaming. Here he is developing user-friendly technologies such as the DreamLight® to help people to learn the art of lucid dreaming and disseminating information on the conscious dream-state through a quarterly newsletter.
Stephen ‘s energy and enthusiasm for his work is highly contagious and he has a way of dissecting information so as to always speak to the heart of the matter. His large eyes and animated features reveal an impish, child-like spirit and at the same time, an extremely sharp and analytical mind.
This interview began at the Lucidity Institute on July 8, 1992, and was completed on the evening of the same day, in the impressive grounds of Stanford University. In the evening after-sunset glow, Stephen addressed the questions of why we sleep, where we really are when we think we ‘re out of our body, and the spiritual implications of taking responsibility for our dreams.
(The following is a somewhat longer version than the one printed in the book.)
DJB: What was it that originally inspired your interest in lucid dreaming?
Stephen: I had been interested in lucid dreaming, in a way, since my childhood experience. When I was five years old they had these adventure serials and I would go to the matinees. I had the idea, after a particularly fun dream where I was an undersea pirate, wouldn’t it be fun to go back to that same dream and continue it as in the serial? Nobody told me you couldn’t do that sort of thing, so that night I was back in the same dream, and I remember doing that for weeks. I would have the experience of seeing the surface of the ocean far above me and thinking, I can’t hold my breath this long! Then I’d think, but in these dreams I can breathe dream-water. (child-like laughter) That was all, at that point, that I made of the lucidity, in the sense that I knew it was a dream and that I could have fun in it. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I became interested in the mind. At that point I was interested in the natural world and assumed I was going to become a chemist or something like that, and when I came to Stanford in 1967 I was a graduate student in chemical physics. Being in the Bay Area in those days, you can imagine what kinds of things I got interested in (sly laughter) which told me that there was a world inside that was of as much interest as the world out there. I took a workshop from Tarthang Tulku, a Tibetan Buddhist, at Esalen and I was surprised at the topic of the workshop, which was essentially asking us to maintain consciousness throughout the twenty-four hours. Tarthang’s English was limited at the time, he’d just arrived from India, and he would repeatedly say nothing more than, “This dream!” and laugh. He was trying to get us to think of our current experience as a dream and to see what it had in common with the nocturnal experiences and the day experiences. After focusing my mind in that way over the course of this weekend, I noticed on my way back to San Francisco, that I felt high. I associated it with the exercise and the expansion of awareness that came from thinking of my waking experiences as a dream and trying to maintain a continuity. A few nights after I came back from the workshop at Esalen, I had the first lucid dream I could remember since my childhood. I was climbing K2 dressed in short sleeves, going up the mountain through the snow drifts. I had the thought, look how I’m dressed, how could I be doing this? It’s because this is a dream. And at that point in my youthful folly, I decided to fly off the mountain and dream big. Personally, sitting here now, I would like to see what it’s like to climb to the top of the second highest mountain in the world. So that piqued my interest in the topic of lucid dreaming and it gradually developed over the next five years and along the way I had an experience that convinced me that developing lucid dream- ing could be something of great value to me. I had a dream in which I was going up a mountain path, and had been hiking for miles and miles. I came to a very narrow bridge across an immensely deep chasm, and looking down I was afraid to go across the bridge. My companion said, “Oh you don’t have to go that way, you can go back the way you came,” and he points back an immense distance to the long way around. And somehow that just seemed the hard way of doing this, and I had the thought, if I were to become lucid, I would have no fear in crossing that bridge. Then I sort of noticed the thought, became lucid and crossed the bridge to the other side. When I woke up I thought about the meaning of that and saw that it had an application to life in general. Life is, in a sense, a kind of bridge, and what causes us to lose our balance is fear of the unknown, death, the meaninglessness around us, whatever it might be. Yet if we maintain the right awareness and context, it is possible to cross the bridge. About that same time I decided that I’d finished my seven years in search of the Holy Grail in hippydom and that I should get back to being a scientist. It occurred to me that lucid dreaming could be a dissertation project and that it could be scientifically researched. The experts at the time said it was impossible but I had thought of a way which it could be proven that it was possible.
RMN: Tell us about the experiment you did with Lynn Nagel, which first empirically proved that lucid dreaming existed.
Stephen: Lynn Nagel was a research associate at Stanford in the sleep center when I had the idea of doing something with lucid dreaming. Without Lynn, it might never have happened. He helped me set it up, and taught me how to do sleep recordings. In our first studies Lynn stayed up all night while I slept as the subject. The basic idea of proving lucid dreaming was a simple one. It was based on earlier studies that showed that, if a person in their dream happened to be watching a ping-pong game and they’re looking from left to right, the eyes of their sleeping body would show a corresponding pattern of eye-movement activity. So I had thought that, since in a lucid dream I can volitionally do whatever I want, why not make a signal that we could agree upon in advance; a pattern of eye-movement signals that could then be used to prove that I had a lucid dream and that I