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People are engaged in lucid dreaming when they are aware that they are in the midst of a dream. The most unusual aspect of these states is that lucid dreamers can consciously alter the content of their dreams. This characteristic has led researchers to begin to explore the possibilities of utilizing lucid dreaming to treat nightmares and for other therapeutic purposes.
The first recorded reference to lucid dreaming is in Aristotle‘s On Dreams, where he says that “often when one is asleep, there is something in consciousness which declares that what then presents itself is but a dream.” Other historical figures, such as Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas, have mentioned lucid dreaming in their writings. Dreams and How to Guide Them (1867), by Marquis Hervey de Saint-Denis, a professor of Chinese at the College de France, was probably the first extended discussion of this state. Although Saint-Denis’s work was praised by no less a figure than Sigmund Freud, other psychologists discounted the very idea of lucid dreaming, attributing the phenomenon to a partial awakening during the dream state.
For the most part, the intangible nature of this unusual state of consciousness discouraged psychologists from giving serious attention to lucid dreaming until after Stephen LaBerge began publishing the results of his remarkable research in the 1980s. LaBerge, who had experienced lucid dreams since childhood, resolved to study the phenomenon scientifically during his psychology graduate program at Stanford University. The first problem he encountered was the infrequency of lucid dreams, a problem he dealt with by a kind of auto-suggestion—repeating “Tonight I will have a lucid dream” to himself before going to sleep. He eventually developed his own technique, referred to as Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (MILD), which increased his lucid dream rate to greater than 20 per month.
LaBerge’s second problem was to find a way for dreamers to send messages to researchers while experiencing lucid dreams. Using sweeping motions of the eyes—controlled by muscles that are not immobilized during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep—he was eventually successful in controlling his eye movements during sleep. He later devised a more elaborate experiment, clenching his hand muscles in Morse code to deliver a message to non-sleeping observers.
LaBerge continued to expand his experiments, eventually training dozens of subjects to dream lucidly and communicate with researchers while asleep. These subjects were then instructed to perform a variety of tasks in their dreams, from counting to flying, and signal the experimenter when their tasks were complete. The results of these experiments were reported in LaBerge’s popular 1985 book on the subject, Lucid Dreaming. The success of this work stimulated the nationwide formation of dream groups. The mass media also became interested in the idea, and the implications of lucid dreaming were discussed in innumerable articles and talk shows.
The findings of lucid dream research are already beginning to be applied to therapy. One sleep therapist, for example, has taught clients experiencing recurrent nightmares to activate a buzzer during bad dreams. The client is subsequently awakened and the dream analyzed. Alternatively, rather than awaken the patient, the therapist responds to the sleeper’s buzzer by in turn buzzing the sleeper, which in this case is a prearranged signal for the client to take control of the dream and attempt to transform the nightmare into a more pleasant experience.
Other psychologists, such as Patricia Garfield, have suggested utilizing lucid dreams in a manner similar to the way in which creative visualization has been employed for healing. Thus, someone suffering from pains in a particular part of the body, for instance, might picture themselves removing “all sort of junk” (to cite a case mentioned by Garfield) from the afflicted area. Garfield (p. 225—see Sources) suggests the following steps when experimenting with lucid healing dreams:
Before a lucid healing dream:
- Select your healing goal and put it into words. Examples: “Teach me to reduce or eliminate my pain.” “Help me heal.” “Show me contentment.”
- Rehearse your healing goal, repeating it before sleep.
- Visualize your healing goal being fulfilled.
During a lucid healing dream:
- Become lucid in your dream.
- Perform your dream healing or allow it to take place.
- Accept the wisdom of your dream.