How Lucid Dreaming Lets Dreamers Rehearse for Real Life

It's the brain's own virtual reality.

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May 8 2015, 2:00pm

Image: Mansour Man/Flickr

Virtual reality is no easy business. Even a bare-bones version needs hours of programming, a decent computer and, eventually, shelling out some $200 for VR headgear. But what if that wasn't necessary? What if the best alternate reality environment were enclosed inside our brain, and could be accessed just by taking a nap?

You've probably heard of lucid dreaming. In a nutshell, dreaming lucidly means being aware that one is dreaming, and nonetheless keeping on with the dream—instead of waking up saddened to realize that you're not really riding that hippo.

The mechanism was explored in Christopher Nolan's 2010 film Inception, which ultimately resulted in gigas of internet discussions on the concepts of dreams and reality (was that spinning top twirling or not?). At some point in the movie, a character starts doubting whether she's awake or still inside a lucid dream—eventually getting badly hurt. While that scenario would be a stretch, lucid dreaming experts agree that the experience can be extremely realistic: In fact, they think that lucid dreaming is one of the best life simulators available.

"If people dreamt every night that they flew over the Grand Canyon, they wouldn't look so miserable."

British psychologist Keith Hearne, a pioneer of lucid dream research, thinks that lucid dreaming could end up being the TV of the 21st century. "It's staggering that we have this in-built virtual reality system," he told me in a phone call. "And what's more, it comes with sensory feelings, which could make it a much better system than any computer-generated VR."

Hearne was the first academic to investigate lucid dreams in a sleep laboratory in the 1970s, and he even built a "dream machine" to try to trigger lucid dreams through mild electrical pulses (although it didn't work for everyone). The machine is now on display at the London Science Museum.

The Hearne Dream Machine. Image: Science Museum

Hearne explained the basic functioning of lucid dreaming is that, once you recognize you're dreaming, you can shape the dream environment however it pleases you. Flying around or growing like a giant are routine, but you can make any scene or character appear in no time by dint of sheer will. You act as scriptwriter, coder and VR-visor. "You just need to cover your eyes with your hands and think that you want to be on an island or somewhere else and you'll find yourself there," he said. "And you can potentially conjure up people, by finding a door and thinking clearly that behind that door there is somebody you want to meet."

The potential applications of lucid dreaming, according to Hearne, are mainly creative and recreational. "If people dreamt every night that they flew over the Grand Canyon, they wouldn't look so miserable," he told me. But others are aiming to harness the quasi-real vividness of lucid dreams for learning purposes.

Daniel Erlacher, a psychologist and sports doctor at Bern University, conducted a study in which people who practiced a motor task (tossing coins into a cup) in a lucid dream significantly improved over a single night—while non-lucid dreamers did not. Erlacher believes athletes could enhance their performances by rehearsing in their lucid dreams—also because the oneiric world is a place where they can engage in risky stunts without injuring themselves.

But lucid dreaming doesn't work just like an e-learning platform. If you went to bed hell-bent on learning Russian without even being able to read Cyrillic, you'd be disappointed. "Lucid dreaming can rightly be considered as a simulator, but the problem is that you need a baggage of memories, of information, to be able to practice them in the simulator," Erlacher told me over Skype. "You can never learn something in a lucid dream if you don't have the input to learn it."

"I prepared a talk in a lucid dream. I went in a lucid dream and asked for suggestions."

But there could be more to Erlacher's idea of lucid dreaming as a sandbox for bold experimentation. Charlie Morley is a London-based Buddhist lucid dreaming teacher who claims to use lucid dreaming to help people get over their phobias. An athletic guy in his early 30s, Morley embodies a spiritual approach that is quite widespread in the lucid community. Though the lucid dreaming process is becoming more clear from a scientific point of view (neuroscientists have discovered how dreaming lucidly activates the frontal lobe, an area of the brain associated with self-awareness), there is nonetheless a certain exoteric aura about it—Hearne, for instance, is into parapsychology, the study of paranormal phenomena involving the mind.

I met Morley in London. "Let's say you fear spiders. In a lucid dream, you can go and conjure a spider and then have the spider crawl up your arms," he said. "And since lucid dreaming is so realistic, you can feel the hair of the spider, its legs. So you'll expose yourself to your phobia and you could try and rewire your brain in order to overcome it."

Morley also thinks lucid dreaming has the potential to wipe off disturbing nightmares or even heal ailments—he claims to have treated his myopia in a dream, by ordering his eyes to "stop having conflicts". Like Hearne, he underlined how lucidity opens the door to a whole new way of expressing creativity. "I know of an architect who used it to visualize his blueprints in 3D," he said. "Personally, I prepared a talk in a lucid dream. I went in a lucid dream and asked for suggestions. This guy came in and told me: 'You should start the talk with the sentence I wrote this talk in a lucid dream'... I loved that."

Morley, like Hearne, imagines that if lucid dreaming went mainstream, it would by far outdo VR technology. Problem is that lucid dreaming is not a particularly easy-to-access skill. While some techniques (e.g. Inception's "reality checks": becoming constantly questioning whether one is dreaming) look more promising than others at engendering lucidity, there is not really a surefire way to start using this in-brain VR. Some even suggested that the brains of lucid and non-lucid dreamers are just different. And while VR can potentially involve some sort of interaction among users, lucid dreaming is an individual, solo experience.

Or maybe not? Morley told me that attempts to use lucid dreaming as a form of otherworldly communication are quite common among lucidity enthusiasts. The way to do it is sending a "message"—which could actually be an element of the dream—to other "lucid" friends. "Once, for instance, my fianceé, while in a lucid dream, decided to send me a woolly mammoth," Morley told me. "I have no proof to say that the communication actually worked— what I know is that that same night I lucid-dreamt of an elephant running around on the streets of London."

Perfect Worlds is a series on Motherboard about simulations, imitations, and models. Follow along here.