knew I was dreaming while I was in the dream? We could also use that to establish what stage of sleep lucid dreaming occurred. I thought it would be REM sleep just because that was when most dreaming occurs.
DJB: Are the eyes the only part of the body that will correspond to physical movements in a dream?
Stephen: No. What happens is that for any muscle group that you move, there will be small twitching activity. Some parts of the body are much more paralyzed than others and the main muscles that are strongly paralyzed are the muscles of vocalization and locomotion. The large muscles of locomotion could cause you to fall out of a tree while you’re in the midst of a dream. Also you obviously want to suppress vocalization in the middle of the forest at night, so that you don’t cry out, “Hungry tiger, come and get me!” things like that. Or, “I’m glad there are no tigers around here!” (suppressed laughter) So those muscles are very strongly paralyzed, but the eye muscles can do us no harm. You can’t wake up by moving your eyes and evolution hasn’t developed any connections to inhibit them. There are a few other muscles that are not very inhibited and some that are not at all, for example, respiration. You don’t want voluntary respiration muscles inhibited during REM or you don’t wake up! So, anyway, Lynn and I did experiments in the beginning where we were trying to press a micro-switch. So in my dream I would be pressing my dream-thumb down “here,” (disembodied laughter) but there wasn’t any micro-switch in my dream-hand so it was a little funny and I could never do that. We did find muscle twitches in the arm that corresponded to that effort, but the problem is that most of the muscle fibers are not firing when my brain commands them to and only a few impulses get through in the same pattern. So we made up some eye movement signals; the one that we use now, most typically, is two pairs of left-right eye movements which are very easy to see in the context of other eye movements and it’s also easy to do. After a few false starts where we did things like waking me up at the beginning of the REM period to remind me that I wanted to be lucid, (foolish laughter) we finally let me alone. Then I had the first lucid dream in the laboratory in which I made eye movement signals, and sure enough, there they were on the polygraph.
RMN: You say you had a hard time getting your results published, let alone accepted. Why do you think there is so much skepticism in this field?
Stephen: Basically, people were thinking of the dream as a product of the unconscious mind, and of Freud’s idea that the dream is the royal road to the unconscious. From that they seemed to develop the mistaken idea that dreams are themselves unconscious somehow, but they’re not, they’re conscious experiences, otherwise you couldn’t report them. It’s true that the source of dreams is largely unconscious and we don’t know why things happen in the typical dream. In that sense much of the dream content is unconsciously determined but that doesn’t mean that the experience is unconscious. One is given to speaking very loosely about saying somebody’s conscious or unconscious and we would sometimes hear people describing sleep as being unconscious. If you tighten up the language a little, you’d say what you mean is, a sleeping person is unconscious of the environment. It’s not the same thing as being absolutely unconscious. When we say, a person is “conscious”, that is a shorthand for is “conscious of x.” What’s the “x”? What is consciousness? That’s a very difficult question. A much better way of putting it is, what is the difference bet-ween a conscious and an unconscious mental process? So it’s kind of a philosophical problem that people were having. They just thought it was plain impossible. So when we brought forward scientific evidence, in 1980, their first conclusion was that we obviously must have made some mistake because it just doesn’t make sense. I think where people’s minds had a change was from presenting the material at conferences to the colleagues who had the opinions about these things. There they see it, and have their opportunity to say, “well what about that?” And you answer, or you don’t, to their satisfaction. So most people by 1983 who were going to believe it, believed it, and then there were some people who weren’t going to believe it no matter what. One skeptic, when he saw the data in 1983 said, “Well, it’s all very nice, but it’s not dreaming.” So I said, “What kind of evidence which you haven’t seen so far could prove this to you?” and he said, “There isn’t any kind of evidence.” (stunned silence, followed by laughter) Admittedly this was after a few beers that he said that.
DJB: What was his definition of dreaming then?
Stephen: Something that’s not lucid dreaming. In other words the problem was that people’s concept of what dreaming and what sleep was, was too limited. In fact when REM sleep was first discovered it was called paradoxical sleep in Europe because the characteristics of it were so unexpected, and it’s still called that. Basically it looks like wakefulness, and in my view we’re seeing the same story all over with lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming shows that under some circumstances the sleeping brain can sustain very high levels of reflective awareness and function very much like in the waking state. That’s not the typical dream to be sure, but it shows it is possible, and therefore one shouldn’t say dreams are necessarily single-minded, non-reflective and hallucinatory.
DJB: What do you think the function of a dream is and why did it evolve?
Stephen: I don’t know whether dreaming has a special or unique evolutionary function. I’d say the answer to why we dream is simple, it’s the same reason that we’ve got brains. Brains are primarily evolved to produce models of the world, to be able to simulate the environment and to predict what’s going to happen so that we can get what we want and avoid what we don’t want. That’s a strong pressure driving the evolution of nervous systems, in particular primates and humans, to a very high level at which we simulate the environment so well that we’re unaware that we’re simulating. We look out and we see the world. That’s the common sense way of viewing reality; but what I see when I look out at the two of you and the tape-recorder on the table and the room that we’re sitting in here, is not the world, unless I’m referring to my world, my mental world. I’m seeing a simulation of my brain that is based on sensory input that I’m receiving, plus other patterns of expectation having to do with all kinds of other things I expect to see and am ready to see. Sensory input is great evidence but also memory and expectation is good evidence too.
RMN: So you’re saying that we dream as a habitual function of what we do during our waking state and dreams don’t have any particular purpose?
Stephen: Right. It’s the same constructive process that we’re using now under the special conditions of sleep. So if the brain is activated in REM sleep, if it’s turned on enough to be making a world model, it makes a world model, but it’s not making it out of sensory input anymore. Now it draws on the other sources that may have been secondary in the waking state, the expectation, motivational, those biases that bias perception. So it constructs a world that shows us what we expect, fear, wish for, need and all that.
RMN: So it’s not necessarily a way to assimilate our experience?
Stephen: No. It may serve a value, but we didn’t evolve a dream in order to do something, we evolved brains in order to do something. Surely, dreaming serves some function, but in a way, almost accidental to the evolution of the brain. There’s no doubt that REM sleep facilitates memory consolidation but we don’t know for sure whether that has anything to do with the dream content or not.
RMN: What do you think is the purpose of sleep?
Stephen: No one knows for sure, but there may be multiple purposes served by sleep. On this planet we have a strong 24-hour dark-light cycle, and almost all creatures are adapted to being active in one of those two phases. Humans are active in the light as we are strongly dependent on vision but suppose you didn’t sleep, instead you’re awake in the middle of the night in the jungle. Are you more likely to get what you want or what you don’t want, wandering around the jungle in the dark? You see? So it makes more sense to have an enforced period of inactivity during the phase of the dark-light cycle at which you’re at a clear disadvantage. There are perhaps other energy conservation purposes and other specific functions that sleep serves, but that seems a sufficient argument to me of accounting for why it happens. So one idea about REM sleep is that it’s something that’s designed to maintain active enough brains so that if you need to get up for some reason, you can, and when it’s time to get up in the morning you can do that. That’s perhaps one of the reasons why REM sleep increases later in the night and becomes more frequent and more active. So given that we’ve got an active brain in the context of sleep and no sensory input, then you get dreams, not because it serves a function, but because – why not?
RMN: You’ve talked about using fear and anxiety in a dream as a catalyst to propel you