Stephen: That’s clearly important, and what you’ve just described happens very frequently. Part of what you learn when you learn how to have lucid dreams is that you can do it. However, if you’re thinking, “I’m not sure I can”, that ‘I’m not sure I can’ is a barrier. The problem is, since it rarely happens for most people, then it gives you the idea that it must be difficult, instead of thinking that it rarely happens simply because you never have the mental set where you’re thinking I want this to happen, and I’m intending to do this.
RMN: What are some of the benefits that you’ve observed and experienced from developing this skill?
Stephen: The applications of lucid dreaming range from the poor man’s Tahiti, the adventure and exploration and thrill part of it, to the mental rehearsal, the practice, trying things out in the dream state that you’ve learned. You can also develop motor skills or work on overcoming shyness, overcoming nightmares, dealing with fears and of course there’s the mental health aspect of it that might have extensions into a broader sense of health. On the basis of mind-body experiments that we’ve done at Stanford using the signaling technique, we’ve found that when you dream, you do something to your brain that’s as if you’ve actually done it. So there are very strong relationships between dream content and physiological response which we think could be used for facilitating healing, facilitating the function of the immune system in some way.
DJB: Have you done any studies on that?
Stephen: No but in the book Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming, we published anecdotes of people doing some kinds of healing. These are all uncontrolled in that they decide at some point in time that they’re going have a lucid dream in which something is healed and sure enough it gets better, but we don’t know if it would have got better on it’s own or at what rate and so on.
RMN: What about the potential for incorporating lucid dreaming into an educational program in the sense of sleep-learning?
Stephen: The most important kind of sleep-learning that you can do is not having a tape-recording and trying to pipe more factual information into you. Sleep time is not a very good time for taking in information, but lucid dreams are an excellent opportunity for experiential learning, for finding out about the wisdom of life. Having an encounter with a dragon, for example, which you won’t ever have the opportunity for in the waking state. You have to have the courage to resist the fear that you’ll actually feel, to say this dragon is a mental image – a mental image can’t hurt me, and then to act on that. I would advise having a conversation, making friends with the dragon. The point is, is that what you can learn from your experiences in the lucid dream state are things that can apply to your waking state. When you learn that when you face your problems and fears you overcome them, and things turn out better than they do when you simply try to avoid them, that generalizes and you have more sense of self-confidence that you can do things. Your security can improve as you realize that you can handle difficult situations if you keep your head about you.
DJB: It actually sounds real similar to Virtual Reality.
Stephen: Right. To put it in terms of Virtual Reality, I would say that lucid dreaming is high resolution (actual laughter) Virtual Reality with appropriate technology now. The best computers we can get are our brains. If you look at the pluses and minuses of the two approaches, you see with lucid dreaming that you have something which is not directly shareable; I can’t record a lucid dream and say here, you try it. The Virtual Reality with an external computer that generates everything has the potential of doing that, but it’s just like a playback, it’s more like watching a video-tape than it is actually doing something. Jaron Lanier has complained about VR not having that unexpectedness and intuitive suprise, and of course there’s plenty of that in lucid dreaming. Clearly the lucid dream state has much more felt reality. At this point no one has anything near to a solution of how you can be embodied in VR. If you’re driving a car, or flying, you know, that’s easy to represent because all you see is, here’s the wheel and there’s the picture out there – and that feels real. Yet the moment that you want your body to be walking, you see the picture move, but you don’t feel like your doing it.
DJB: Well in North Carolina they’ve developed treadmills that simulate the sensation of walking with tactile sensors.
Stephen: Okay, suppose you want to go to the lab? (pointed laughter) Sorry you can’t, you can only walk this way.
DJB: It actually has a steering column that allows you to change direction.
Stephen: Well, okay (virtual laughter) the point is, at this stage the technology is limited.
RMN: In terms of the difference in the potential for empathy between VR and lucid dreaming, have you explored the possibility of conscious dream sharing with another person? I’ve read about Alaskan shamans who claim to be able to visit their shaman buddies in their sleep.
Stephen: I haven’t really experimented with that. I consider to it be theoretically possible, but it’s not something that I felt was of developmental value first of all. There are many aspects of dream control that I haven’t pursued. I’ve emphasized instead controlling myself and my responses to what happens, instead of making it magically different, because I’ve wanted something that would generalize the waking state. In this world we don’t have the power to magically make other people appear and disappear. There have been a few people who’ve said, “I can visit you in your dream” and I’ve said, “Okay do so.” But I’ve never experienced an unequivocal success that I remember. I think the problem is that we tend to bring mental models from the waking state into the dream state. So we have expectations in the dream, especially in a lucid dream. Here it is, it’s all so real, and so hey! you two people look perfectly real to me so you’ll remember this conversation later, right? Now why would I think you’d do that, any more that I would think this table would remember this conversation? One of the things you have to do in developing skill with lucid dreaming is to be critical of your state of mind. So you wake up from a lucid dream and you think, did I make some assumptions that were inappropriate or do something that didn’t make sense? So you can therefore refine and clarify your thinking and build up mental models that are appropriate to the dream world. I dreamt in a lucid dream that I was flying above the San Francisco Bay, and I had the thought, my body is asleep over there, I’ll go visit it. (inappropriate laughter) And I woke and said, what? This is a dream! Your body’s not in there or you’d be in trouble if your body’s asleep in your own dream, how could you wake up? People who don’t make that extra effort don’t tend to learn.
RMN: Some inventions have come about through lucid dreaming– for example, the sewing machine and part of Einstein’s equations. Have you found a link between creativity and lucid dreaming?
Stephen: We have anecdotes from people who’ve used lucid dreaming for creative problem-solving or artistic creation of some kind. It’s surely a state where you can get a great many ideas, the problem is that not every idea you get is good. I think the major value of lucid dreaming is in giving people the sense that we live in a much wider world than we might imagine.
DJB: So becoming lucid in a dream can be analogous to what people call a spiritual awakening?
Stephen: Yeah. Giving people the idea of what life would be like if we realize that everyday life is sleep-walking and that there can be a further kind of awakening.
RMN: It seems that lucid dreaming can do much to help people broaden and develop their sense of themselves. Do you see lucid dreaming becoming a successful part of a psychotherapeutic program?
Stephen: Oh yes, very clearly. I think that’s one of the strongest applications we have, what I think has the most definite proved value so far. There are a few psychotherapists who are using it, but it has been slow to catch on. Lucid dreaming is the most obvious approach to overcoming nightmares, telling people that they are imagining fears and they just have to exercise courage to face it somehow. I’d say that the great value of lucid dreaming is as a means of self-development, a sort of self-therapy. This would apply to people that have an interest in getting to know themselves better and becoming more whole. I would think that people who are interested in something like Jungian analysis would be good candidates for this kind of thing, where they can take responsibility for the individuation process and help to further it in the dream state.
DJB: Has your experience with psychedelics influenced your research?
Stephen: In a way. It was one of the things that inspired me to take an interest in the mind and before that, as I said earlier, I had no interest in the