into a lucid state. Tell us more about this.
Stephen: Anxiety certainly seems to stimulate reflectiveness and there may be a biological basis for that, that conscious processing in general seems to have evolved as a special problem-solving feature. It’s not just fear, by the way, fear is not enough for you to become conscious. Fear is, here you are in the jungle and there’s a tiger. What do you do? You run. That’s what fear motivates you to do – avoid and escape. So let’s say you climb a tree and the tiger starts to climb up after you. Now you feel something new, which is anxiety, which is fear plus uncertainty and that causes an increased scanning of the environment for alternative actions. What else can I do? What new combination of things? Oh yeah, look, a coconut! Which you throw at the tiger, you see? So in the origins you can see the rudimentary consciousness being very strongly associated with anxiety and the re-framing, the re-formulation, the re-scanning of the environment for new ways of getting out of a problem you’re in. You see that same thing in less threatening ways in everyday life.
RMN: So when you’re dreaming and you experience anxiety, it’s an opportunity then to check out your options and change the outcome. What, to your knowledge, was the earliest documented account of lucid dreaming?
Stephen: Aristotle talks about lucid dreaming. He doesn’t use that term but he says, sometimes during sleep there’s something that clearly says to us, this is in your mind, this isn’t really happening. Then you see accounts here and there throughout history where somebody talks about this, usually a philosopher. Yet there’s very little research in the West until the nineteenth century when Hervey de Saint-Denis published a book on dreams and how to guide them based on thousands of lucid dreams he had. Fredrik van Eeden, in the late nineteenth century coined the term ‘lucid dream’, largely from the psychiatric sense of lucid as in ‘lucid interval’, where an otherwise normally mad person will come to his senses for a moment.
RMN: What about other cultural awareness of lucid dreaming, the Hawaiians and Native Americans and the dream-time of the Australian aborigines?
Stephen: In regard to the Aborigines there may well be a correlation. In terms of primal cultures in general, dreaming is usually the business of the professionals, your everyday person doesn’t get involved in these things. I have wondered to what extent shamanistic experiences are related to lucid dreaming, they sound similar in many ways. In Native American cultures you see something like what I’d call the opposite of the lucid under- standing of the dream. Let’s suppose, I had a dream last night in which the two of you wrecked my Porsche, so I now expect reparations, so pay up. (silence)
RMN: They took dreams completely literally.
Stephen: Right. In other words they viewed the dream as the supernatural version of what must be, and that, in my view, is the worst way to take dreams because it takes the freedom of them away. Instead of being able to imagine anything with no constraints from physical reality, whatever you imagine you have to make physically true. On the other hand, in this culture, dreams are considered nothings, you know, things to be forgotten and ignored.
DJB: Just a dream.
Stephen: Right. Where you do see this developed to high levels however, is in Tibetan Buddhism, since they’ve been practicing lucid dreaming probably for a thousand years.
RMN: It seems that the criteria for a successful lucid dreamer is similar to that for being a successful Buddhist. But Dzoghen, one of the branches of Buddhism which practises lucid dreaming, sees it as a very advanced technique only to be embarked upon after a great deal of preparation.
Stephen: Some practises of Buddhism indeed regard it in that way. The Nyingmapas don’t tend to. They tend to say, “Well, give it a try!” So in some cultures this had been taken to great extremes and today we still don’t know how far Buddhist practitioners of this art are able to take lucid dreaming. I’m hoping to be able to do some research on that some time in the future.
RMN: Have you found any correlation between people who practice some kind of meditation and the ability to have lucid dreams?
Stephen: There’s a study by Henry Reed based on some ten thousand dream reports, in which people were asked whether or not they had meditated the day before the night that they collect those dreams on. Then the percentage of lucid dreams occurring on nights following meditation the day before was measured. The difference was seven per cent versus five per cent, so that’s two per cent difference with people who meditated the day before. We don’t know what kind of meditation, how much or anything of that nature, so there are a lot of questions about it, but the point is there is a small difference.
DJB: It can also be the type of person. The type of person who would be interested in meditation would be more aware of alternative realities and that sort of thing.
RMN: Have you found any other criteria such as age, creativity or even sex which affects how successful someone is at lucid dreaming?
Stephen: We’ve asked about all of those things and have not found any way of predicting to any large extent whether or not a person will report lucid dreams, except for one thing, and that is, how often you remember your dreams. Frequent dream recallers are more likely to have lucid dreams. If you ask do you recall your dreams at least once a night, or find the median split on dream recall, then you’ll find twice as many lucid dreams in the group that reports more dreams in general. You can see why that makes sense, because if people don’t remember their dreams they don’t ever reflect on them in the waking state. Also, what determines dream recall has a lot to do with the habits of what you do in bed. So if you wake up while lucid dreaming, that’s one thing, if you wake up thinking, it’s time to get out of bed then you’re not going to remember dreams.
RMN: You talk in your book about a woman, Mary Arnold Forster, who was teaching lucid dreaming to children at the beginning of this century. Do you think that children may be more receptive partly because they don’t have so many fixed beliefs about what can be?
Stephen: Exactly. That’s something I’d very much like to see – more children learning about this. I think it could be of great value to them considering that most children have extremely little power; they’re basically at the mercy of what everybody else tells them to do. So here’s a world in which they can be the master. Also, in this society, we have various problems with drugs that are associated with children. I think children as adolescents are the people least likely to benefit from drugs. Certainly psychedelics can be useful to some people at some circumstances in their lives but I’d say that hardly ever applies to adolescents who already have plenty of change and structures that are in flux going on. It’s most valuable for people who have rigid structures that have built up over the years and who need them loosened up. So the problem is that our current approach to this seems to be ‘Just Say No’, and the idea that the only reason that kids ever take drugs is peer pressure.(knowing laughter) Let’s realize that there may be other reasons. They may want something else, something new, something that’s fun, something other than the routine they’re used to, and lucid dreaming could provide that for them, in a way that is safe and legal and harmonious with their development. So I think that there could be real value in developing lucid dreaming as a kind of drug-abuse inoculation.
DJB: What kind of techniques, do you think, are the most effective for dream recall and actually producing lucid dreams?
Stephen: If you were to say, I want to become a lucid dreamer, how should I go about it? I would say that means you’ve got some extra time and energy in your life, some unallocated attention that you could apply to working on this. If you’re somebody that’s so busy that you have hardly time to take a walk, you’re not going to have the time and energy to do this. We have developed a course in lucid dreaming that is designed for people to use at home. The first lesson in there is about how you develop dream recall. After you’ve got a sufficient level of dream recall you start studying your dreams for the dream signs; what’s dream-like about them? You then start doing exercises that use your focus in your mind on your typical dream content, becoming more reflective and developing your ability to have specific intentions that you carry out in the future and so on. The course in lucid dreaming right now is something you can use either with or without a DreamLight® which is a device we developed primarily in response to people’s requests for methods to help them have lucid dreams. It’s a mask that you wear while you’re asleep and it flashes a light during REM, not so much as to wake you up but enough to remind you in your dream that you are dreaming.
RMN: A lot of people hear about this phenomena and then have a lucid dream for the first time; it happened to me when I first read your book. How much do you think that realizing this is possible is linked to the ability to