mind, I was interested only in the outside world. At first I wanted to be making analogs of tryptamines because I was thinking we just need to modify these molecules and then they’ll really work instead of almost telling you all. That was my naiveté, not realizing that the problem wasn’t the molecule, the problem was the mind. From going from the ordinary state of perceiving the world to an extraordinary state of perceiving the world, I would think, so this is what it’s really like! Of course the next day when I was back in the usual state, comparing the two, I realized, of course, that wasn’t what it was like and this is not what it’s like. They’re both mental models or simulations. It’s something that was very important for me in terms of understanding the power of the mind and seeing how just changing some of the operations parameters in the perceptual system could lead to a radically different view of the world. I think it’s shocking and a tragedy what’s happened with the illegality of these substances, preventing scientific research and therapeutic use and I look forward to the day when that changes.
RMN: There seems to be a correlation between psychedelic consciousness and lucid consciousness in the dream state.
Stephen: There’s a lot in common between the two states. In fact people can in the dream state, take a dream “psychedelic” and have it produce an effect.
DJB: Terence McKenna says that he smokes DMT in his dreams and then has the full experience.
Stephen: And what that shows is that what prevents us from having these experiences is not the chemical, it’s the mental framework. So in a way psychedelics can be a kind of guide in revealing some of the potential in the mind. I think they have limitations in terms of taking us to the visions they show us. One can take the mistaken path of saying, well since I had the taste of it with the substance, if I keep taking it I’ll eventually get the whole thing because more of the same should help. It doesn’t seem to work that way.
RMN: Do you think that lucid dreaming is a more valid approach to personal development than psychedelics in as much as it can become more of a yoga, or do you think they’re equally likely to have a long-lasting beneficial effect on someone’s life?
Stephen: Well, I would say almost any experience can be valuable to a person if they’re prepared to make use of it, and psychedelics or lucid dreams can be very useful if a person heeds the lessons that experience brings. It’s not what happens to a person that matters, it’s what they make of it. In a way lucid dreaming requires more of your own responsibility in making it happen and dealing with it. It’s easy enough to take a pill and that can put you in a relatively passive role.
DJB: But you can take an active role in it.
Stephen: That’s right, the question is: what do you do with this state? Do you direct it in a way where you seek for what you’re looking for inside yourself? So it can be used in the same way.
DJB: Have you noticed any correlation between people who use psychedelics and a propensity towards lucid dreaming? Every time I’ve done a psychedelic, within a couple of days I’ll amost always have a lucid dream.
Stephen: Yes, that is probably due to biochemical changes. Taking psychedelics will produce changes of neurochemical levels which will intensify REM sleep. Basically what you’ve done is you’ve altered the regulation of the system and so you’ve pushed it away from the equilibrium and it’s going to come back and perhaps oscillate for a while until it gets back into it’s new equilibrium. So it’s not surprising that in the next couple of nights you’re going to have variations in REM sleep.
RMN: What is known about the chemicals given off by the brain in REM sleep?
Stephen: Relatively low levels of norepinephrene and serotonin, high levels of acetylcholine.
DJB: How in the world did they figure that out?
Stephen: Cat brains.
DJB: How about out-of-the-body-experiences. Do you think they’re related to lucid dreaming?
Stephen: It’s a complicated topic and I devoted an entire chapter to it in Lucid Dreaming because it’s something you have to deal with carefully. I think they’re not what people naively think they are; which is literally that you’re leaving your physical body in some ghost body in the physical world. Let’s take what happens in an out-of-the-body experience. Typically a person is lying in bed, awake – at least they think they are. Next thing they know, they feel themselves separating from that body as if they have a second body that floats out of the first one, and then they may look back down and see what they take to be their physical body. So let’s just examine that idea for consistency. Now, I’m floating up here, and then I look around at the bedroom and I notice that there’s a window where there shouldn’t be or there’s no window where’s there should be. So I say, “Oh, I guess that wall there is not exactly a physical wall, maybe it’s an “astral” wall, and of course then that’s an astral floor, an astral bed – and what’s that down on the astral bed that a moment ago I thought was my physical body?” It’s an astral-body or a dream-body. Therefore, what happened to the assumption that I’m moving in physical space? It’s suddenly evaporated. The reason people find it so compelling is that it feels like you leave your body, and since it feels like it, that’s what you believe is happening. In our experiments in the laboratory, out of about 100 lucid dreams that were recorded, about 10% of those had out-of-body phenomenologies. So we analyzed the physiology associated with the out-of-the-body experience type lucid dream compared to the other lucid dreams to see if there’s some characteristic that predicts that a person is likely to have a dream in which they think they’re out of their body. And what we found was that there was much more likeliness of a brief awakening before the experience. Now, I think the way the OBE takes place – in the typical form, which is in association with sleep – is, you’re lying in bed, you wake up, you’re awake. It’s from REM sleep, so you’re now in the context of going back into REM sleep and what happens is that you fall asleep without knowing it. Suddenly the sensory input is cut off and you’ve got now the memory of the body instead of the sensory perception of the body. A moment ago your body had weight but now that gravitational force has been cut off; there’s not sensory input for it, so it suddenly disappears and, I propose, that the same thing happens as when you pick up an empty carton of milk. Suddenly your body flies upwards and you feel as if as there’s a force going up that compensates for your mental model of your body-weight. When you perceive that the weight is less than expected by your mental model you explain that as an upward force.
DJB: What do you think about near-death experiences, when people feel they’re leaving their body?
Stephen: Another factor that can produce an OBE is the capacity tp dissociate. There are some people who can much more readily than others detach themselves from their current experience. Once you detach it’s possible then to reconstruct a view of reality that involves you outside the situation somehow. For most people, for that to happen, they either need the context of REM sleep, or they’re falling off a mountain, or they’ve just been declared dead, or something. That’s quite an emotional shock and it’s enough to produce dissociation which then allows you to reorganize the experience. Now you hear stories about people in near-death experiences seeing things that they shouldn’t be able to see and that sort of thing. Well, I don’t deny them that, there may be some paranormal information transfer occasionally in these experiences, but I think we underestimate how much knowledge we have about our surroundings through other senses. I don’t buy the account that we leave in some second body. That second body, does it have a brain in there? What are the fingers for? If you pulled an eye out, would it look like an eye or is it just a mental model of an eye? (nervous laughter) It seems clear that that’s what it is. It’s one of those ideas that people are very attached to for some reason and I think it’s a misplaced sense of the value of individual survival. They think “this proves that I survive death because I was there!” Yet I don’t think that’s what we want to survive death. Why would we want these funky monkey forms to persist forever?
DJB: What do you think happens after biological death and has your experience with lucid dreaming influenced your thoughts in this area and about the nature of God?
Stephen: Let’s suppose I’m having a lucid dream. The first thing I think is, “Oh this is a dream, here I am.” Now the “I” here is who I think Stephen is. Now what’s happening in fact is that Stephen is asleep in bed somewhere, not in this world at all, and he’s having a dream that he’s in this room talking to you. With a little bit of lucidity I’d say, “this is a dream, and you’re all in my dream. ” A little more lucidity and I’d know you’re a dream figure and this is a dream-table, and this must be a dream-shirt and a dream-watch and what’s this? It’s got to be a dream-hand and well,