Waking the Dreamer
"In the lucid dream you look around and
realize that the whole world... is all something that your mind is
with Stephen La Berge
Stephen LaBerge is the first scientist to empirically prove the
existence of the phenomena of lucid dreaming. His work has developed this
technique into a powerful tool for studying mind-body relationships in the
dream state and he has demonstrated the considerable potential for lucid
dreaming in the fields of psychotherapy and psychosomatic medicine. His
book on the subject, Lucid Dreaming, Exploring the World of Lucid
Dreaming and his more academic Conscious Mind, Sleeping Brain
have received enormous popular interest
Born in 1947, he obtained a B.S. in mathematics from the University
of Arizona. At the age of 19 he began graduate studies in chemistry at
Stanford University, but in 1968 took a leave of absence to pursue his
research interest in psychopharmacology. In 1977 he returned to Stanford
to begin studies on dreaming, consciousness and sleep, and received his
Ph.D. in Psychophysiology from Stanford's Graduate Special Program in
He has taught courses on sleep and dreaming, psychobiology and altered
states of consciousness at Stanford University, the California Institute
of Integral Studies in San Francisco, and San Francisco State University.
Currently, Stephen is a Research Associate in the Department of Psychology
at Stanford University, and Director of Research at the Lucidity
Institute; a center he founded to further explore the potential of lucid
dreaming. Here he is developing user-friendly technologies such as the
DreamLightģ to help people to learn the art of lucid dreaming and
disseminating information on the conscious dream-state through a quarterly
Stephen 's energy and enthusiasm for his work is highly contagious and
he has a way of dissecting information so as to always speak to the heart
of the matter. His large eyes and animated features reveal an impish,
child-like spirit and at the same time, an extremely sharp and analytical
This interview began at the Lucidity Institute on July 8, 1992, and was
completed on the evening of the same day, in the impressive grounds of
Stanford University. In the evening after-sunset glow, Stephen addressed
the questions of why we sleep, where we really are when we think we 're
out of our body, and the spiritual implications of taking responsibility
for our dreams.
(The following is a somewhat
longer version than the one printed in the book.)
DJB: What was it that originally inspired your interest in lucid
Stephen: I had been interested in lucid dreaming, in a way,
since my childhood experience. When I was five years old they had these
adventure serials and I would go to the matinees. I had the idea, after a
particularly fun dream where I was an undersea pirate, wouldnít it be fun
to go back to that same dream and continue it as in the serial? Nobody
told me you couldnít do that sort of thing, so that night I was back in
the same dream, and I remember doing that for weeks. I would have the
experience of seeing the surface of the ocean far above me and thinking, I
canít hold my breath this long! Then Iíd think, but in these dreams I can
breathe dream-water. (child-like laughter) That was all, at that
point, that I made of the lucidity, in the sense that I knew it was a
dream and that I could have fun in it. It wasnít until my early twenties
that I became interested in the mind. At that point I was interested in
the natural world and assumed I was going to become a chemist or something
like that, and when I came to Stanford in 1967 I was a graduate student in
chemical physics. Being in the Bay Area in those days, you can imagine
what kinds of things I got interested in (sly laughter) which told
me that there was a world inside that was of as much interest as the world
out there. I took a workshop from
Tarthang Tulku, a
Tibetan Buddhist, at Esalen and
I was surprised at the topic of the workshop, which was essentially asking
us to maintain consciousness throughout the twenty-four hours. Tarthangís
English was limited at the time, heíd just arrived from India, and he
would repeatedly say nothing more than, "This dream!" and laugh. He was
trying to get us to think of our current experience as a dream and to see
what it had in common with the nocturnal experiences and the day
experiences. After focusing my mind in that way over the course of this
weekend, I noticed on my way back to San Francisco, that I felt high. I
associated it with the exercise and the expansion of awareness that came
from thinking of my waking experiences as a dream and trying to maintain a
continuity. A few nights after I came back from the workshop at Esalen, I
had the first lucid dream I could remember since my childhood. I was
climbing K2 dressed in short sleeves, going up the mountain through the
snow drifts. I had the thought, look how Iím dressed, how could I be doing
this? Itís because this is a dream. And at that point in my youthful
folly, I decided to fly off the mountain and dream big. Personally,
sitting here now, I would like to see what itís like to climb to the top
of the second highest mountain in the world. So that piqued my interest in
the topic of lucid dreaming and it gradually developed over the next five
years and along the way I had an experience that convinced me that
developing lucid dream- ing could be something of great value to me. I had
a dream in which I was going up a mountain path, and had been hiking for
miles and miles. I came to a very narrow bridge across an immensely deep
chasm, and looking down I was afraid to go across the bridge. My companion
said, "Oh you donít have to go that way, you can go back the way you
came," and he points back an immense distance to the long way around. And
somehow that just seemed the hard way of doing this, and I had the
thought, if I were to become lucid, I would have no fear in crossing that
bridge. Then I sort of noticed the thought, became lucid and crossed the
bridge to the other side. When I woke up I thought about the meaning of
that and saw that it had an application to life in general. Life is, in a
sense, a kind of bridge, and what causes us to lose our balance is fear of
the unknown, death, the meaninglessness around us, whatever it might be.
Yet if we maintain the right awareness and context, it is possible to
cross the bridge. About that same time I decided that Iíd finished my
seven years in search of the Holy Grail in hippydom and that I should get
back to being a scientist. It occurred to me that lucid dreaming could be
a dissertation project and that it could be scientifically researched. The
experts at the time said it was impossible but I had thought of a way
which it could be proven that it was possible.
RMN: Tell us about the experiment you did with Lynn Nagel, which
first empirically proved that lucid dreaming existed.
Stephen: Lynn Nagel was a research associate at Stanford in the
sleep center when I had the idea of doing something with lucid dreaming.
Without Lynn, it might never have happened. He helped me set it up, and
taught me how to do sleep recordings. In our first studies Lynn stayed up
all night while I slept as the subject. The basic idea of proving lucid
dreaming was a simple one. It was based on earlier studies that showed
that, if a person in their dream happened to be watching a ping-pong game
and theyíre looking from left to right, the eyes of their sleeping body
would show a corresponding pattern of eye-movement activity. So I had
thought that, since in a lucid dream I can volitionally do whatever I
want, why not make a signal that we could agree upon in advance; a pattern
of eye-movement signals that could then be used to prove that I had a
lucid dream and that I knew I was dreaming while I was in the dream? We
could also use that to establish what stage of sleep lucid dreaming
occurred. I thought it would be
REM sleep just because that was when most dreaming occurs.
DJB: Are the eyes the only part of the body that will correspond
to physical movements in a dream?
Stephen: No. What happens is that for any muscle group that you
move, there will be small twitching activity. Some parts of the body are
much more paralyzed than others and the main muscles that are strongly
paralyzed are the muscles of vocalization and locomotion. The large
muscles of locomotion could cause you to fall out of a tree while youíre
in the midst of a dream. Also you obviously want to suppress vocalization
in the middle of the forest at night, so that you donít cry out, "Hungry
tiger, come and get me!" things like that. Or, "Iím glad there are no
tigers around here!" (suppressed laughter) So those muscles are
very strongly paralyzed, but the eye muscles can do us no harm. You canít
wake up by moving your eyes and evolution hasnít developed any connections
to inhibit them. There are a few other muscles that are not very inhibited
and some that are not at all, for example, respiration. You donít want
voluntary respiration muscles inhibited during REM or you donít wake up!
So, anyway, Lynn and I did experiments in the beginning where we were
trying to press a micro-switch. So in my dream I would be pressing my
dream-thumb down "here," (disembodied laughter) but there wasnít
any micro-switch in my dream-hand so it was a little funny and I could
never do that. We did find muscle twitches in the arm that corresponded to
that effort, but the problem is that most of the muscle fibers are not
firing when my brain commands them to and only a few impulses get through
in the same pattern. So we made up some eye movement signals; the one that
we use now, most typically, is two pairs of left-right eye movements which
are very easy to see in the context of other eye movements and itís also
easy to do. After a few false starts where we did things like waking me up
at the beginning of the REM period to remind me that I wanted to be lucid,
(foolish laughter) we finally let me alone. Then I had the first
lucid dream in the laboratory in which I made eye movement signals, and
sure enough, there they were on the polygraph.
RMN: You say you had a hard time getting your results published,
let alone accepted. Why do you think there is so much skepticism in this
Stephen: Basically, people were thinking of the dream as a
product of the unconscious mind, and of
that the dream is the royal road to the unconscious. From that they seemed
to develop the mistaken idea that dreams are themselves unconscious
somehow, but theyíre not, theyíre conscious experiences, otherwise you
couldnít report them. Itís true that the source of dreams is largely
unconscious and we donít know why things happen in the typical dream. In
that sense much of the dream content is unconsciously determined but that
doesnít mean that the experience is unconscious. One is given to speaking
very loosely about saying somebodyís conscious or unconscious and we would
sometimes hear people describing sleep as being unconscious. If you
tighten up the language a little, youíd say what you mean is, a sleeping
person is unconscious of the environment. Itís not the same thing as being
absolutely unconscious. When we say, a person is "conscious", that is a
shorthand for is "conscious of x." Whatís the "x"? What is consciousness?
Thatís a very difficult question. A much better way of putting it is, what
is the difference bet-ween a conscious and an unconscious mental process?
So itís kind of a philosophical problem that people were having. They just
thought it was plain impossible. So when we brought forward scientific
evidence, in 1980, their first conclusion was that we obviously must have
made some mistake because it just doesnít make sense. I think where
peopleís minds had a change was from presenting the material at
conferences to the colleagues who had the opinions about these things.
There they see it, and have their opportunity to say, "well what about
that?" And you answer, or you donít, to their satisfaction. So most people
by 1983 who were going to believe it, believed it, and then there were
some people who werenít going to believe it no matter what. One skeptic,
when he saw the data in 1983 said, "Well, itís all very nice, but itís not
dreaming." So I said, "What kind of evidence which you havenít seen so far
could prove this to you?" and he said, "There isnít any kind of evidence."
(stunned silence, followed by laughter) Admittedly this was after a
few beers that he said that.
DJB: What was his definition of dreaming then?
Stephen: Something thatís not lucid dreaming. In other words the
problem was that peopleís concept of what dreaming and what sleep was, was
too limited. In fact when REM sleep was first discovered it was called
paradoxical sleep in Europe because the characteristics of it were so
unexpected, and itís still called that. Basically it looks like
wakefulness, and in my view weíre seeing the same story all over with
lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming shows that under some circumstances the
sleeping brain can sustain very high levels of reflective awareness and
function very much like in the waking state. Thatís not the typical dream
to be sure, but it shows it is possible, and therefore one shouldnít say
dreams are necessarily single-minded, non-reflective and hallucinatory.
DJB: What do you think the function of a dream is and why did it
Stephen: I donít know whether dreaming has a special or unique
evolutionary function. Iíd say the answer to why we dream is simple, itís
the same reason that weíve got brains. Brains are primarily evolved to
produce models of the world, to be able to simulate the environment and to
predict whatís going to happen so that we can get what we want and avoid
what we donít want. Thatís a strong pressure driving the evolution of
nervous systems, in particular primates and humans, to a very high level
at which we simulate the environment so well that weíre unaware that weíre
simulating. We look out and we see the world. Thatís the common sense way
of viewing reality; but what I see when I look out at the two of you and
the tape-recorder on the table and the room that weíre sitting in here, is
not the world, unless Iím referring to my world, my mental world. Iím
seeing a simulation of my brain that is based on sensory input that Iím
receiving, plus other patterns of expectation having to do with all kinds
of other things I expect to see and am ready to see. Sensory input is
great evidence but also memory and expectation is good evidence too.
RMN: So youíre saying that we dream as a habitual function of
what we do during our waking state and dreams donít have any particular
Stephen: Right. Itís the same constructive process that weíre
using now under the special conditions of sleep. So if the brain is
activated in REM sleep, if itís turned on enough to be making a world
model, it makes a world model, but itís not making it out of sensory input
anymore. Now it draws on the other sources that may have been secondary in
the waking state, the expectation, motivational, those biases that bias
perception. So it constructs a world that shows us what we expect, fear,
wish for, need and all that.
RMN: So itís not necessarily a way to assimilate our experience?
Stephen: No. It may serve a value, but we didnít evolve a dream
in order to do something, we evolved brains in order to do something.
Surely, dreaming serves some function, but in a way, almost accidental to
the evolution of the brain. Thereís no doubt that REM sleep facilitates
memory consolidation but we donít know for sure whether that has anything
to do with the dream content or not.
RMN: What do you think is the purpose of sleep?
Stephen: No one knows for sure, but there may be multiple
purposes served by sleep. On this planet we have a strong 24-hour
dark-light cycle, and almost all creatures are adapted to being active in
one of those two phases. Humans are active in the light as we are strongly
dependent on vision but suppose you didnít sleep, instead youíre awake in
the middle of the night in the jungle. Are you more likely to get what you
want or what you donít want, wandering around the jungle in the dark? You
see? So it makes more sense to have an enforced period of inactivity
during the phase of the dark-light cycle at which youíre at a clear
disadvantage. There are perhaps other energy conservation purposes and
other specific functions that sleep serves, but that seems a sufficient
argument to me of accounting for why it happens. So one idea about REM
sleep is that itís something thatís designed to maintain active enough
brains so that if you need to get up for some reason, you can, and when
itís time to get up in the morning you can do that. Thatís perhaps one of
the reasons why REM sleep increases later in the night and becomes more
frequent and more active. So given that weíve got an active brain in the
context of sleep and no sensory input, then you get dreams, not because it
serves a function, but because - why not?
RMN: Youíve talked about using fear and anxiety in a dream as a
catalyst to propel you 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. Itís
not just fear, by the way, fear is not enough for you to become conscious.
Fear is, here you are in the jungle and thereís a tiger. What do you do?
You run. Thatís what fear motivates you to do - avoid and escape. So letís
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 youíre in. You
see that same thing in less threatening ways in everyday life.
RMN: So when youíre dreaming and you experience anxiety, itís an
opportunity then to check out your options and change the outcome. What,
to your knowledge, was the earliest documented account of lucid dreaming?
Aristotle talks about lucid dreaming. He doesnít use that term but he
says, sometimes during sleep thereís something that clearly says to us,
this is in your mind, this isnít really happening. Then you see accounts
here and there throughout history where somebody talks about this, usually
a philosopher. Yet thereís 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 Ďlucid dreamí,
largely from the psychiatric sense of lucid as in Ďlucid intervalí, 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
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 doesnít 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 Iíd call the
opposite of the lucid under- standing of the dream. Letís 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 theyíve 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
Stephen: Some practises of Buddhism indeed regard it in that
way. The Nyingmapas donít 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 donít know how far Buddhist practitioners of this art are able to
take lucid dreaming. Iím 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: Thereís 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 thatís two per cent difference with people who
meditated the day before. We donít 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: Weíve 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 youíll 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 donít remember their dreams they
donít 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, thatís one thing, if you wake up
thinking, itís time to get out of bed then youíre not going to remember
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 donít have so many fixed beliefs about what can be?
Stephen: Exactly. Thatís something Iíd 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; theyíre
basically at the mercy of what everybody else tells them to do. So hereís
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 Iíd say that hardly ever applies to adolescents who
already have plenty of change and structures that are in flux going on.
Itís 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 ĎJust Say Noí, and the idea that the
only reason that kids ever take drugs is peer pressure.(knowing
laughter) Letís realize that there may be other reasons. They may want
something else, something new, something thatís fun, something other than
the routine theyíre 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 youíve got some extra
time and energy in your life, some unallocated attention that you could
apply to working on this. If youíre somebody thatís so busy that you have
hardly time to take a walk, youíre 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 youíve got a sufficient level of dream recall
you start studying your dreams for the dream signs; whatís 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 DreamLightģ which is a device we
developed primarily in response to peopleís requests for methods to help
them have lucid dreams. Itís a mask that you wear while youíre 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 lucid dream?
Stephen: Thatís clearly important, and what youíve 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 youíre
thinking, "Iím not sure I can", that ĎIím not sure I caní 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 youíre thinking
I want this to happen, and Iím intending to do this.
RMN: What are some of the benefits that youíve observed and
experienced from developing this skill?
Stephen: The applications of lucid dreaming range from the poor
manís Tahiti, the adventure and exploration and thrill part of it, to the
mental rehearsal, the practice, trying things out in the dream state that
youíve learned. You can also develop motor skills or work on overcoming
shyness, overcoming nightmares, dealing with fears and of course thereís
the mental health aspect of it that might have extensions into a broader
sense of health. On the basis of mind-body experiments that weíve done at
Stanford using the signaling technique, weíve found that when you dream,
you do something to your brain thatís as if youíve 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 theyíre going have a lucid dream in
which something is healed and sure enough it gets better, but we donít
know if it would have got better on itís 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 wonít ever have the
opportunity for in the waking state. You have to have the courage to
resist the fear that youíll actually feel, to say this dragon is a mental
image - a mental image canít 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 canít 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 itís just like a playback,
itís 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 thereís 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
youíre driving a car, or flying, you know, thatís easy to represent
because all you see is, hereís the wheel and thereís 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 donít feel like your doing it.
DJB: Well in North Carolina theyíve 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 canít, you can only walk this way.
DJB: It actually has a steering column that allows you to change
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? Iíve read about Alaskan
shamans who claim to be able to visit their shaman buddies in their sleep.
Stephen: I havenít really experimented with that. I consider to
it be theoretically possible, but itís not something that I felt was of
developmental value first of all. There are many aspects of dream control
that I havenít pursued. Iíve emphasized instead controlling myself and my
responses to what happens, instead of making it magically different,
because Iíve wanted something that would generalize the waking state. In
this world we donít have the power to magically make other people appear
and disappear. There have been a few people whoíve said, "I can visit you
in your dream" and Iíve said, "Okay do so." But Iíve 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,
itís all so real, and so hey! you two people look perfectly real to me so
youíll remember this conversation later, right? Now why would I think
youíd 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 didnít 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, Iíll go visit it. (inappropriate laughter) And I
woke and said, what? This is a dream! Your bodyís not in there or youíd be
in trouble if your bodyís asleep in your own dream, how could you wake up?
People who donít make that extra effort donít tend to learn.
RMN: Some inventions have come about through lucid dreaming--
for example, the sewing machine and part of
Einsteinís equations. Have you found a link between creativity and
Stephen: We have anecdotes from people whoíve used lucid
dreaming for creative problem-solving or artistic creation of some kind.
Itís 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 thatís 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. Iíd 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
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
DJB: Has your experience with psychedelics influenced your
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 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 theyíll really work instead
of almost telling you all. That was my naivetť, not realizing that the
problem wasnít 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 itís really like! Of
course the next day when I was back in the usual state, comparing the two,
I realized, of course, that wasnít what it was like and this is not what
itís like. Theyíre both mental models or simulations. Itís 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 itís shocking and a tragedy whatís 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: Thereís 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, itís 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
Iíll eventually get the whole thing because more of the same should help.
It doesnít 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 theyíre equally likely to have a long-lasting
beneficial effect on someoneís life?
Stephen: Well, I would say almost any experience can be valuable
to a person if theyíre prepared to make use of it, and psychedelics or
lucid dreams can be very useful if a person heeds the lessons that
experience brings. Itís not what happens to a person that matters, itís
what they make of it. In a way lucid dreaming requires more of your own
responsibility in making it happen and dealing with it. Itís 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: Thatís right, the question is: what do you do with this
state? Do you direct it in a way where you seek for what youíre 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 Iíve done
a psychedelic, within a couple of days Iíll amost always have a lucid
Stephen: Yes, that is probably due to biochemical changes.
Taking psychedelics will produce changes of neurochemical levels which
will intensify REM sleep. Basically what youíve done is youíve altered the
regulation of the system and so youíve pushed it away from the equilibrium
and itís going to come back and perhaps oscillate for a while until it
gets back into itís new equilibrium. So itís not surprising that in the
next couple of nights youíre going to have variations in REM sleep.
RMN: What is known about the chemicals given off by the brain in
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 theyíre
related to lucid dreaming?
Stephen: Itís a complicated topic and I devoted an entire
chapter to it in
Lucid Dreaming because itís something you have to deal with
carefully. I think theyíre not what people naively think they are; which
is literally that youíre leaving your physical body in some ghost body in
the physical world. Letís 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 letís just examine that idea for consistency. Now, Iím
floating up here, and then I look around at the bedroom and I notice that
thereís a window where there shouldnít be or thereís no window whereís
there should be. So I say, "Oh, I guess that wall there is not exactly a
physical wall, maybe itís an "astral" wall, and of course then thatís an
astral floor, an astral bed - and whatís that down on the astral bed that
a moment ago I thought was my physical body?" Itís an astral-body or a
dream-body. Therefore, what happened to the assumption that Iím moving in
physical space? Itís suddenly evaporated. The reason people find it so
compelling is that it feels like you leave your body, and since it feels
like it, thatís 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 thereís some characteristic that
predicts that a person is likely to have a dream in which they think
theyíre 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, youíre lying in bed, you wake up, youíre awake. Itís from
REM sleep, so youíre 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 youíve 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; thereís 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 thereís 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 theyíre 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 itís
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 theyíre falling off a mountain, or
theyíve just been declared dead, or something. Thatís quite an emotional
shock and itís 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 shouldnít be able to see and that sort
of thing. Well, I donít 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 donít 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 thatís what
it is. Itís one of those ideas that people are very attached to for some
reason and I think itís a misplaced sense of the value of individual
survival. They think "this proves that I survive death because I was
there!" Yet I donít think thatís 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: Letís suppose Iím 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 whatís happening in fact is that Stephen is asleep
in bed somewhere, not in this world at all, and heís having a dream that
heís in this room talking to you. With a little bit of lucidity Iíd say,
"this is a dream, and youíre all in my dream." A little more lucidity and
Iíd know youíre a dream figure and this is a dream-table, and this must be
a dream-shirt and a dream-watch and whatís this? Itís got to be a
dream-hand and well, so whatís this? Itís a dream-Stephen! So a moment ago
I thought this is who I am and now I know that itís just a mental model of
who I am. So reasoning along those lines, I thought, Iíd like to have a
sense of what my deepest identity is, whatís my highest potential, which
level is the realest in a sense? With that in mind at the beginning of a
lucid dream, I was driving in my sports car down through the green, Spring
countryside. I see an attractive hitchhiker at the side of the road,
thought of picking her up but said, "No, Iíve already had that dream, I
want this to be a representation of my highest potential. So the moment I
had that thought and decided to forgo the immediate pleasure, the car
started to fly into the air and the car disappeared and my body, also.
There were symbols of traditional religions in the clouds, the Star of
David and the cross and the steeple and near-eastern symbols. As I passed
through that realm, higher beyond the clouds, I entered into a vast
emptiness of space that was infinite and it was filled with potential and
love. And the feeling I had was-- this is home! This is where Iím from and
Iíd forgotten that it was here. I was overwhelmed with joy about the fact
that this source of being was immediately present, that it was always
here, and I had not been seeing it because of what was in my way. So I
started singing for joy with a voice that spanned three or four octaves
and resonated with the cosmos with words like, "I Praise Thee, O Lord!"
There wasnít any I, there was no thee, no Lord, no duality somehow but
sort of, ĎPraise Beí was the feeling of it. My belief is that the
experience I had of this void, thatís what you get if you take away the
brain. When I thought about the meaning of that, I recognized that the
deepest identity I had there was the source of being, the all and nothing
that was here right now, that was what I was too, in addition to being
Stephen. So the analogy that I use for understanding this is that we have
these separate snowflake identities. Every snowflake is different in the
same sense that each one of us is, in fact, distinct. So here is death,
and hereís the snowflake and weíre falling into the infinite ocean. So
what do we fear? We fear that weíre going to lose our identity, weíll be
melted, dissolved in that ocean and weíll be gone; but what may happen is
that the snowflake hits the ocean and feels an infinite expansion of
identity and realizes, what I was in essence, was water! So weíre each one
of these little frozen droplets and we feel only our individuality, but
not our substance, but our essential substance is common to everything in
that sense, so now God is the ocean. So weíre each a little droplet of
that ocean, identifying only with the form of the droplet and not with the
majesty and the unity.
RMN: Do you believe that the soul then reincarnates into another
Stephen: There may be intermediate states where "to press the
metaphor" the seed crystal is recycled and makes another snowflake in a
similar form or something like that, but thatís not my concern. My concern
is with the ocean, thatís what I care about. So whether or not Stephen, or
some deeper identity of Stephen survives, well thatíd be nice if that were
so, but how can one not be satisfied with being the ocean?
DJB: If I was able to, through
completely replicate every atom in your brain, identical down to every
little trace-- would that be you?
Stephen: That would be "Stephen", if thatís what you mean. I
donít see a reason why we couldnít transfer the information in our brain
to some other structure. It may be, for example, if you had something like
you just described with nanotechnology, or a digital computer that was
sufficiently complex, youíd still need some kind of substrate to sustain
the different informational states. For all we know the vacuum of space
itself may have an infinite amount of structure in it that could easily
sustain a mind.
DJB: We interviewed
Nick Herbert, the quantum physicist, and he described how there are
mathematical models that leave a lot of latitude for things like parallel
universes and other dimensions. Have you ever entertained this as a model
for lucid dreaming, that there actually really are other dimensions or
places that are not just mental simulations or constructs?
Stephen: I think of those as skew, not parallel, universes. (extra-dimensional
laughter) Seriously, Iíve never liked that model, it seems
tremendously inelegant to require every time you make a quantum decision
the thing you didnít decide is still there in some way. It seems like a
reductio ad absurdum of quantum theory. People think quantum theory is
about the world but itís not, itís about descriptions of the world. Whatís
the world really like if you donít make a measurement? Well, making the
measurement is making the world - the world is interaction. In other
words, as a thought experiment, letís think about an object. Here it is
right here on the table. I just pointed as if the space encloses it. Well,
letís say, not only is it invisible as you can see but it doesnít interact
in any way with any other thing in the world - is it a part of the world?
No. What is the universe? The universe is a collection of objects that
interact in some form with the other objects of the world.
DJB: Can you tell us about the
Lucidity Institute and any
current projects youíre working on?
Stephen: The purpose of the Lucidity Institute is to sponsor and
support research on human consciousness and what weíre focusing on now is
primarily lucid dreaming because that is one capacity of the mind that we
feel is useful. If we knew more about the physiology of lucid dreaming we
will be able to make it happen more readily. We could find other mental
techniques or physiological interventions, perhaps some drug effects that
could make the state much more accessible and stable. The idea is to help
people make more viable decisions about what theyíre going to do in life,
to get more experience out of the world, but basically to understand that
life can have many more possibilities than we ordinarily think of. In the
lucid dream you look around and realize that the whole world that youíre
seeing all something that your mind is creating. It tells you that you
have much more power than youíd ever believed before - or dreamt - for
changing the world, starting with yourself.