There is one other type of dream about which relatively little is known, as serious exploration has only recently begun. Awareness in the course of a dream that it is ‘only a dream’ is quite a common experience, and probably always has been (it was mentioned by Aristotle); but ‘lucid dreaming’, in the sense of deliberately exploiting the capability, appears to have been rare - though apparently it is used by Tibetan Yogi. They are encouraged to learn from experience, according to Evans-Wentz, in The Tibetan Book of the Dead (1927), ‘that the character of any dream can be changed or transformed by willing that it shall be.’ In the West, the first person to explore lucid dreaming was the Marquis Hervey de Saint-Denys, who happened to have found as a child that he was able to exert a measure of control over his dreams, and who published his Les Reves et les moyens de les diriger (1867) when he was 45. In it he described the way in which he had learned how to dictate the course his dreams took, up to a point. Hervey did not take much stock of the possibilities of exploiting this ability, but he did learn how to banish nightmares by telling himself it was only a dream.
The Marquis’s book attracted little attention; Frederic Myers does not appear to have known about it when, in 1887, he expressed regret ‘that we are too indolent in regard to our dreams; that we neglect precious occasions of experiment for want of a little resolute direction of the will.’ We should consider what we would like to test in our dreaming, he urged; ‘when going to sleep we should impress upon our minds that we are going to try an experiment - that we are going to carry into our dreams enough of our waking self to tell us that they are dreams, and to prompt us to psychological inquiry.’ But, Myers admitted, he had only rarely succeeded influencing the course of his dreams; and his posthumous Human Personality in 1903 did not return to the issue.
Freud mentioned the subject, and cited Hervey, in The Interpretation of Dreams; but only in passing. ‘If the content of a dream goes too far in overstepping the censorship, we think “After all, it’s only a dream!”- and go on sleeping.’ It was not until shortly before the First World War that a research paper appeared, ‘A Study of Dreams’ by Frederic van Eeden, a Dutch psychiatrist, which endeavoured to bring ‘lucid dreams’ (as he was the first to call them) within the confines of serious research.
Van Eeden first experienced lucidity - a term which, at the time, was ordinarily used as a synonym for second sight - in 1897, when he had dreamed that he was floating through a landscape in the early spring and watching the trees as they went past. ‘Then I made the reflection, during sleep, that my fancy would never be able to invent or make an image as intricate as the perspective movement of little twigs seen in floating by.’ He began to experiment, and found that he could dream that his body in bed was in one position, when in fact it was in another, and that he could make the transition gradually from being asleep in his dream body to waking up in his real one - a ‘most wonderful’ experience. This led him on to the concept of a dream body capable of separating itself from the real one - a forerunner of the similar impression which was soon to be reported by people having ‘out-of-the-body’ experiences. Over a period of fourteen years, van Eeden had made notes of lucid dreams; they seemed to him to be the most interesting of all the different types of dream, ‘worthy of the most careful observation and study’.
The fact that his article on the subject appeared in the Proceedings of the SPR was an indication that it was unlikely to receive careful attention from orthodox psychologists, for whom the notion of lucidity had an occultist taint. But it was taken up by Mary Amold-Forster in her Studies in Dreams (1921), because she had come to believe that ‘more than we yet realise, the control of our dreams lies within our power.’
Personal experience over many years had convinced her that the waking mind could direct the activities of the mind during sleep: ‘I believe that we can stop at will the recurrence of “bad” dreams, or dreams that we dislike or dread, and that we can, to a considerable extent, alter the very nature of our dreams by using in our sleep the same faculty of rational selection and rejection that we use with regard to our thoughts and to our wandering fancies by day.’ The technique, she explained, resembled hypnosis. If suggestion under hypnosis was capable of exercising such remarkable powers over the mind, ‘it should not be impossible to conceive of a process by which our normal consciousness is able to control to some degree the working of our subconscious or dream mind in sleep.’ She could only offer her own experiences as a guide; but it had been the knowledge that she, and many others, had known when dreaming that it was ‘only a dream’ that gave her the idea for the first step.
This was the era when Emile Coue’s claims for the power of autosuggestion, along with his incantation ‘Every day, in every way, I get better and better,’ was internationally celebrated. Mary Arnold-Forster varied the formula to ‘Remember this is a dream. You are to dream no longer,’ repeating it to herself during the day and on going to bed. For her, it worked. For a while, it simply woke her up when she was having a ‘bad’ dream, but later it enabled her to remain asleep, and to continue the dream with the ‘bad’ part banished. In one dream which she described, where she found herself in danger from a conspiracy, such was the degree of intelligence that auto-suggestion had provided her, that her dream control, rather than banish the conspirators, allowed their machinations to continue so that their secret could be unmasked. ‘The arch-conspirator, a white faced man in a bowler hat, had tracked me down to the building where I was concealed, and which by this time was surrounded; but all fear had departed, the comfortable feeling of great heroism, only fully enjoyed by those who feel themselves to be safe, was mine.’ This method could be of particular value to young children, Mary Arnold-Forster believed. If they realised their own ability to control their dreams, the fear of nightmares and the nightmares themselves could be banished.
Mary Arnold-Forster’s work made no more of an impact than van Eeden’s. The followers of Freud and Jung continued to be mainly concerned with interpretations of dream material; and orthodox psychologists, still uneasy about handling subjective phenomena, preferred to deal with sleep rather than with dreams. From time to time works appeared in which the writers - Ouspensky was one - wrestled with the subject; and the accumulating evidence was surveyed in 1968 by Celia Green of the Institute of Psychophysical Research, based in Oxford. But as she was to lament in The Decline and Fall of Science eight years later, the only researchers who were prepared to study lucid dreams were parapsychologists. Surely, she urged, the neurophysiological condition of people exercising some rational faculty while asleep was a worthy subject for research? As it happened, one academic psychologist thought so: Charles Tart, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Davis. In his Altered States of Consciousness (1969) he had described some of his own lucid dreams, and reprinted van Eeden’s paper. Tart, though, was also a leading parapsychologist. His recommendation would in all probability have produced no action had his book not impressed the young Stephen LaBerge, acquainting him for the first time with the subject.
In his Lucid Dreams (1985) LaBerge gives full credit to his forerunners, including van Eeden and Celia Green. Ordinarily an academic psychologist would have been unlikely to have heard of either of them; but prompted by Tart’s comments, LaBerge had studied them and had decided to keep a journal in which he recorded his lucid dreams. Soon he had hundreds. Even if he had had thousands, he realised, it still would have made no impression in the academic world; what was needed was a way to demonstrate lucid dreaming physiologically. The method he eventually hit upon was almost ridiculously simple, in retrospect. As there were rapid eye movements in sleep, the eye muscles must be functioning. I knew that lucid dreamers could look freely in any direction they wished while in a lucid dream, because I had done this myself. It occurred to me that by moving my (dream) eyes in a recognisable pattern, I might be able to send a signal to the outside world when I was having a lucid dream. I tried this out in the first lucid dream that I recorded: I moved my dream gaze up, down, up, down, up, to the count of five. As far as I knew at the time, this was the first signal deliberately transmitted from the dream world.
Again, he could have claimed to have made this signal scores of times, without impressing psychologists in the dream research area. He needed a dream laboratory; and his good fortune was that Stanford University not only had the one where some pioneer work had been done in sleep and dreaming, but was also prepared to take him on as a PhD candidate. In 1978 he had the first lucid dream ever to be recorded on a polygraph, and witnessed by one of his collaborators on the venture.
By 1980 a number of other volunteers had shown themselves able to signal lucidity, and LaBerge had presented his results in his PhD dissertation. Understandably elated, he and his colleague Lynn Nagel decided to report their findings to a wider audience. What followed was predictable. One of the referees to whom Science sent the report recommended acceptance; the other damned it, because he did not believe in the possibility of lucid dreaming. Nature did not even bother to send it to referees; the topic, LaBerge was informed, was ‘not of sufficient general interest’ (the relation of Nature to science, though it is still often referred to as the premier science journal, resembles that of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition’s to art). Still, the paper did eventually appear, in Perceptual and Motor Skills, in the summer of 1981.
There was a curious sequel. In 1980 the journal Nursing Mirror had carried an article on lucid dreams by a British parapsychologist, Keith Hearne, who turned out also to have used his research for his PhD to do work along the same lines as LaBerge. On the strength of it Hearne had actually obtained his doctorate two years before LaBerge. But Hearne had wanted to do more research before publishing his findings, and had actually begged psychologists who knew about them not to reveal them. As a result it was to be LaBerge who won the initial credit, when academic resistance to accepting lucid dreaming broke down under the weight of the accumulating evidence.
The implications of LaBerge’s findings are - or should be - clear enough for psychologists. But what of the public? Obviously many of us will be interested to see if we can induce lucid dreaming, whether from curiosity or in the hope of putting an end to our bad dreams.
LaBerge emphasises that having occasional lucid dreams is like finding money in the street; cultivating them is like learning a trade to earn an income - ‘if this sounds like work, it is.’ But he believes that anybody who has good recall of dreams and who is sufficiently motivated can learn to dream lucidly, and that it becomes progressively easier with practice. The most useful aid to lucidity, as Mary Arnold-Forster found, appears to be auto-suggestion. In Creative Dreaming (1975), Patricia Garfield described how she used the formula, ‘Tonight, I will have a dream.’ [Emile] Coue would not have approved. The will, he used to insist, is nothing, the imagination everything - illustrating his assertion by asking people if they could will themselves to salivate and, when they agreed they could not, he would remind them how easy it is to make the mouth water by imagining some particularly favourite dish.
Still, Coue was all for formulae which would stir the imagination; and LaBerge offers MILD - Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams. The intention must be there; dreams must be carefully recalled; the induction process must be urged along with reminders such as ‘Next time I’m dreaming, I want to remember to recognise I’m dreaming;’ and the most fruitful time to practise is in the awakening period in the morning, when lucid dreams have most often been reported.
And the benefits? At the head of the list, potentially, is the likelihood that lucid dreaming will join meditation and other altered states of consciousness as a way to improve the mind’s control over the body. ‘Since we generate, while dreaming, body images in the form of our dream bodies, why shouldn’t we be able to initiate dream processes during lucid dreams by consciously envisioning our dream bodies as perfectly healthy?’ - another echo of Coue, who called upon the waking imagination to do precisely that, by awakening the dormant therapeutic resources of the unconscious mind.
Next, there is the banishment of ‘bad’ dreams. Here LaBerge followed Mary Arnold-Forster’s method. When he dreamt he was threatened by muggers, lucidity came to his rescue; he attacked them, heaping them into a pile and setting fire to them. ‘Out of their ashes, I arranged for flowers to grow, and I awoke feeling filled with vibrant energy.’ Like her, too, he has taught the method successfully to a child.
Third, problem-solving. LaBerge cites Mendeleev’s dream ‘table of the elements’, and Howe’s dream invention of the sewing machine; in both cases the ‘incubation’ period when a problem was left unsolved was ended by illumination in a dream. In theory, at least, lucid dreaming could assist in reducing the incubation period by enabling the illumination to reach consciousness sooner.
And, most important of all, the possibility is opened up of using lucid dreams to secure and promote good health, by tapping the mind’s subliminal resources for advice.
“Lucid Dreaming” is an extract from The Power of Dreams by Brian Inglis, published by White Crow Books.