The Science Of Lucid Dreaming

A lot of what our brain does is synthesize a hallucination, a model of the world that we proceed to live in. This is a model reality; the real reality is completely unknowable. – Dennis McKenna

The earliest known descriptions of lucid dreaming come to us from Hindu scriptures dating back over 3,000 years ago, in the Upanishads and the Vigyan Bhairav Tantra, where there are instructions for how to direct one’s consciousness within a dream and during sleep. Other ancient descriptions of lucid-dreaming meditations, from the Tibetan Bön and Vajrayāna Buddhist traditions, are over 1,200 years old.

In the West, the earliest mention of lucid dreaming comes from Aristotle, some 2,000 years ago. In his treatise On Sleep and Dreams, Aristotle says that when we are asleep there is often something in our minds telling us that what we are experiencing is only a dream. However, as we learned in the introduction, the first attempt at a systematic scientific study of lucid dreaming began with the French sinologist Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denys, in the mid-1800s.

In 1867, Saint-Denys’ book Les rêves et les moyens de les diriger (Dreams and How to Guide Them) was published, and this landmark book is the first known record of a systematic exploration of lucid dreaming.

Originally published anonymously, Saint-Denys’ detailed personal reports span a period of thirty-two years. In this remarkable book, the author describes how he became interested in dreams as a young teenager, and how he learned to become lucid in his dreams and partially direct what happened. Saint-Denys coined the term rêve lucide, “lucid dream,” and he performed many experiments in his lucid dreams.

The first scientist in the West to explore lucid dreaming was Dutch physician Frederik van Eeden, a contemporary of Freud’s who corresponded with the psychoanalyst about dreams. Van Eeden’s famous first scientific paper on lucid dreaming, “A Study of Dreams,” was published in 1913. This landmark paper contains the first mention of the term “lucid dream” in the English language.

D. Ouspensky’s essay “On the Study of Dreams and Hypnotism” was published in 1931. Much of it is based on detailed observations of the author’s own accounts of lucid dreaming, which he calls “half-dream states.” Ouspensky, a mathematician, made a number of fascinating observations as well as perhaps generalized assertions based on his own experiences, which may not be as fixed as he believed, but they were an important part of the growing body of knowledge on lucid dreaming that eventually would lead to legitimate scientific study.

In 1965, psychologist Charles Tart wrote a paper for the Psychological Bulletin titled “Towards the Experimental Control of Dreaming,” where the idea of signaling from a dream state was first proposed. He writes, “To what extent could a ‘two-way communication system’ be developed, whereby the experimenter could instruct the subject to do such and such while dreaming, and the subject could report on the events of the dream while they are occurring?”1

Then in 1968, Celia Green, a British writer on philosophical skepticism, twentieth-century thought, and psychology, paved the way for a scientific study of lucid dreams with her seminal book Lucid Dreams. In this book she says, “In view of the fact that subjects very frequently report that the lucid dream arose out of a previous non-lucid dream, we may tentatively expect to find lucid dreams occurring, as do other dreams, during the ‘paradoxical’ phase of sleep characterized by fast low-voltage EEG waves, rapid eye movements and muscular relaxation.”2 It was Green’s book that inspired sleep-laboratory researchers Keith Hearne and Stephen LaBerge to carry out the studies that led to the scientific demonstration that people can make conscious decisions, and carry out instructions, while their bodies are 
fast asleep.

Signals from Another World

While SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence) researchers scan the skies and monitor electromagnetic radiation for signs of transmissions from civilizations on other worlds in vain, the first person in human history to send signals from the outer limits of the dream state to the earthbound waking world was Alan Worsley, a British shopkeeper. Worsley was recruited by Keith Hearne, who in the mid-1970s was a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Hull, in Yorkshire, England, when he conducted this experiment. Hearne had read Celia Green’s book and was keen to demonstrate the reality of lucid dreaming. So after recruiting Worsley, a proficient lucid dreamer, he designed the ingenious experiment that I described in the introduction of this book.

In his book The Dream Machine, Hearne tells us what it was like on that magic morning when the first signals from Worsley arrived in the sleep laboratory:

Suddenly, out of the jumbled senseless tos and fros of the two eye movement recording channels, a regular set of large zigzags appeared on the chart. Instantly, I was alert and felt the greatest exhilaration on realizing that I was observing the first ever deliberate signals sent from within a dream to the outside. The signals were coming from another world—the world of dreams—and they were as exciting as if they were emanating from some other solar system in space. A channel of communication had been established from the inner universe of the mind in dreaming sleep.3

Yet despite the extraordinary nature of this scientific breakthrough, Hearne’s study was not immediately published. He shared the results with several other researchers, and he delivered his paper at the 1977 Postdoctoral Conference in Behavioral Sciences held at Hull University, but the research still didn’t become widely known for years. Hearne submitted his paper to the British science journal Nature, and it was rejected because the committee thought that it wouldn’t be interesting to a wide-enough audience in the scientific community; other mainstream science journals rejected Hearne’s paper on similar grounds. It wasn’t until 1980 that Hearne’s findings about lucid dreaming were made available in a small publication called Nursing Mirror, which didn’t receive widespread distribution.4

Mainstream Science and 
Lucid Dreaming

Meanwhile, independently of Hearne, Stanford University psychophysiologist Stephen LaBerge came up with his own study on ocular signaling from within a lucid dream. Being a proficient lucid dreamer himself, LaBerge functioned as his own test subject, and he recorded the first ocular signals from within his own lucid dream in 1978. Although LaBerge also had some difficulty finding a science journal that would publish his work, he managed to get it into the peer-reviewed journal Perceptual and Motor Skills in 1981.5

More precise physiological evidence for lucid dreaming came from studies conducted at Frankfurt University and the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Germany in 2009 (and later), where researchers discovered specific alterations in brain physiology that occur when people become lucid while dreaming.6 The researchers discovered that when lucidity was attained within the dream, activity in areas of the brain associated with self-assessment and self-perception markedly increased within seconds, creating a hybrid state of awareness from the simultaneous activation of two distinct brain regions.

At a neurophysiological level, EEG7 and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRi) studies8 have shown that lucid dreaming is accompanied by increased phase synchrony* and elevated frequency-specific activity in the lower gamma frequency band centered around 40 Hz, especially in the frontal and temporal regions of the brain. The temporal and frontal lobes play an important role in decision-making, behavioral control, language, and emotions. Activity between the frontal and temporal lobes in this frequency band is related to “executive ego functions” and “secondary consciousness,” which is characteristic of the human waking state and is atypical for REM sleep.9 Yet this is what we find is going on in the brain when people lucid dream.

*Phase synchrony occurs when neuronal groups that oscillate in the gamma range enter into precise phase locking over a limited period of time.

As a result of these extraordinary scientific studies, the contagious idea of lucid dreaming—as an understandable concept and an achievable reality—began to seep out of the sleep laboratories, through our bedrooms, and into the zeitgeist.

Influence on Popular Culture

Although Keith Hearne was actually the first researcher to conduct a successful ocular-signaling lucid-dream study, Stephen LaBerge was the first to have such a study published in a peer-reviewed science journal. Additionally, LaBerge acted as an unusually charismatic promoter of lucid dreaming, helping to create a burgeoning, mainstream interest in the subject.

As I have mentioned, it was LaBerge’s seminal 1985 book Lucid Dreaming that initially sparked my interest in the subject. This important book is currently out of print and is difficult to locate because a much briefer book by LaBerge, with the same title, was published in 2009 by Sounds True with the subtitle A Concise Guide to Awakening in Your Dreams and in Your Life. This shorter book is currently in print, so it’s easy to confuse the two books. Much of the material in the original edition of Lucid Dreaming was included in LaBerge’s 1990 book, which was coauthored with Harold Rheingold and titled Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming, now a classic reference on the subject.

In any case, LaBerge began popularizing ideas about lucid dreaming in the late 1980s, and soon a thriving subculture arose that has influenced mainstream culture, through such Hollywood films as Inception, Waking Life, Vanilla Sky, The Science of Sleep, Avatar, The Matrix, Dreamscape, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Lucia, and The Nightmare on Elm Street series. What was once an esoteric subject years ago when I first interviewed LaBerge is now regularly featured in the media. It appears that the editors at Nature were pretty far afield when they rejected the initial papers by Hearne and LaBerge about lucid dreaming on the grounds that the topic would not be interesting to a wide enough audience in the scientific community. It’s certainly of interest to the population in general.

I watched every movie about lucid dreaming that I could find. Some of the less known and more interesting titles that I watched include an amusing romantic comedy called The Good Night, a pretty scary horror thriller titled Lucid, a wonderful Japanese anime called Paprika, and a science fiction film about someone’s rebellion against a globally oppressive system called The Dream Parlor. Director Rodney Ascher’s documentary The Nightmare explores the frightening phenomenon of sleep paralysis. On television there was a Simpsons episode, “Treehouse of Horror VI,” where Bart and Lisa had to become lucid in their dreams to stop Groundskeeper Willie from trying to murder them in their sleep—a parody of The Nightmare on Elm Street series. On the science-fiction series Fringe, Olivia has a chip implanted in her brain so that she can lucid dream on command. Lucid dreaming has appeared as a plot device in episodes of Star Trek, Futurama, SpongeBob SquarePants, and many other popular television shows.

Incidentally, the classic 1936 Max Fleischer animation film Somewhere in Dreamland is about the shared (seemingly lucid) dream of an impoverished brother and sister who enter an enchanted, toy-filled wonder world together in their dreams; there clothes sprout from trees, rivers run with syrup, ice-cream cones grow in fields, and you can ride atop animal crackers on carousels. After the children wake up to a surprise feast, the little boy even performs a “reality test” (a lucid-dream practice technique that I’ll be describing in the next chapter) to see if he was dreaming or not, by poking himself in the butt with a fork.*

*As we’ll see in the next chapter, as a “reality test” this would likely produce poor results, because one would probably feel the poker in the dream, just as in waking life.

The fantastic dreams portrayed by cartoonist Winsor McCay (1869–1934) in his much-loved comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland (which originally ran in the New York Herald from 1905 to 1911) contained extremely beautiful and unusually imaginative imagery reminiscent of psychedelic journeys and lucid dreams. And there’s a wonderful short animated film, made in 2008 by Erica Kobren, specifically about lucid dreaming called Oneironaut: Explorer of the Dream World that can be found online.10

In addition to these popular representations, an active and growing culture of lucid dreamers exchanges useful tips and experiences on numerous Internet forums, such as Dream Views and the World of Lucid Dreaming; these people also meet at conferences such as those put on by the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD), a nonprofit international organization dedicated to the investigation of dreams and dreaming. Typing lucid dreaming into’s search engine brings up hundreds of offers for books, electronic devices, audios, DVDs, supplements, herbs, aromatherapy oils, dream pillows, and more.

Psychologist Jayne Gackenbach did a number of studies that offer insight into some of the activities and characteristics that appear to increase the frequency of lucid dreaming. Gackenbach found that there are correlations between lucid dreaming and various other states and activities, including meditation, having androgynous gender role identities, and having better performance on an oscillating balance board as well as with playing video games.11 Gackenbach’s research draws important parallels between the effects of meditation and video-game playing, which include improved attention and spatial skills, deep absorption and flow experiences, as well as an increased frequency of lucid dreaming.12 Gackenbach theorizes that building virtual worlds in one’s mind while awake may carry over into one’s dreams. As a result of Gackenbach’s work, video games have been developed with the specific intention of inducing lucid dreams, such as computer scientist Sune Pedersen’s Lucid Dreamscapes. And I would think that with the growing interest in virtual reality technology, one can probably expect to see a corresponding rise in interest in lucid dreaming.

The excitement around lucid dreaming apparently strikes a strong cultural nerve, as most people are intrigued by the idea of being awake in their dreams simply because it can be so much fun. But can it also improve our health and make us happier?

Lucid Dreaming and Healing Research

One of the most obvious applications of lucid dreaming is as an adjunct to psychotherapy in the treatment of chronic nightmares. Many people who suffer from chronic nightmares have discovered this on their own, since nightmares are a common trigger of lucidity while dreaming. As far back as 1921, British psychologist Mary Arnold-Foster suggested that lucid-dreaming techniques could be used to relieve the suffering of children who were plagued by chronic nightmares.13*

*More recently, Mom’s Choice Award–winning author Renee Frances has written a series of books to help children who are “reluctant sleepers” stay in their beds at night, and the second book in her series, titled The Good Night Fairy Helps Via Change Her Dream, teaches children how to lucid dream as a way to overcome frightening nightmares. See

In 1967, Russian psychiatrist Vasily Kasatkin reported on a twenty-eight-year study of over ten thousand dreams, concluding that dreams could predict the onset of a serious illness several months in advance of any symptoms.14 Medical researcher Robert C. Smith conducted a number of studies in the late 1980s that demonstrated that dreams can sometimes help predict medical problems in their early stages, thus helping to save poeple’s lives.15 These studies provide evidence that disturbing dreams could be the warning sign of an underlying medical disorder, although many frightening nightmares are psychologically based, resulting from traumas in our lives. Notably, there are differences in the types of dreams that men and women have with regard to predicting illness. Smith found that in men dreams about death and in women dreams about separation correlated with the severity of heart disease in both sexes.

More recently, lucid-dreaming therapy (LDT) has been successfully used in clinical situations to help reduce the frequency of nightmares.16 LDT aims to train people to become lucid during sleep and to control their dreams, or at least experience them without fear, knowing that they will wake up.

One medical study found that lucid dreaming might be able to help people with chronic pain.17 Los Angeles psychiatrist Mauro Zappaterra and colleagues presented a case study that demonstrates the complete resolution of chronic pain in a subject (“Mr. S.”) after twenty-two years of suffering as a result of a healing lucid dream that occurred after two years of multidisciplinary “biopsychosocial” treatment. The authors of the study view these results as evidence for the therapeutic value of “neural plasticity,” the brain and nervous system’s ability to reorganize and rewire itself.

Part of the rationale for investigating lucid dreams as a possible means of physical healing comes from studies that show how mental states can influence bodily functions. For example, studies by neuroscientist and pharmacologist Candace Pert (1946–2013), who discovered the opiate receptor in the brain and became a leading advocate of mind-body healing, demonstrate that purely psychological factors could influence the body’s immune system.18 In other words, the placebo effect—the ability for sham medications and fake treatments to have genuine therapeutic value—is one of the most extraordinary discoveries in medicine; it means that the mind has the power to help heal or harm the body.

Despite the reality of sleep paralysis, research suggests that you can get actual physical exercise in your lucid dreams. A fascinating study conducted by Daniel Erlacher and Michael Schredl at the University of Bern in Switzerland showed that people who repeatedly squat in their lucid dreams had significantly increased heart rates relative to strictly counting.19 Although this kind of dreamtime exercise takes 44 percent more time as the same activity in waking life, it’s possible to get a bit of a cardiovascular workout in your lucid dreams! Other lucid-dream activities also correlate with the body’s nervous system. Using eye-­movement trackers and EEG and muscle-tone monitors, as well as fMRI and neuro­imaging techniques, in experiments that involved having people perform different activities (such as calculating mental arithmetic problems or singing aloud) within the lucid-dream state, it was found that these actions elicited the same neurological responses as identical actions performed while in a waking state.20

DrWiAwOther research, which I describe in my book,  Dreaming Wide Awake, found that these same correlations existed for a wide range of lucid-dream behaviors, including such activities as estimating the amount of passing time, holding one’s breath, or clenching one’s hands. This means that the human nervous system doesn’t actually differentiate between experiences that are had while a person is awake or while dreaming with lucidity. This has huge implications because it means that dreaming lucidly isn’t like simply imagining that one is doing an activity; from the brain’s point of view, performing a lucid-dream activity is like really doing it.

1.Tart, “Towards the experimental,” 88.
2.Green, Lucid Dreams, 128. 
3.Hearne, Dream Machine, 11.
4.Hearne, “Insight into Lucid Dreams.”
5.LaBerge et al., “Lucid dreaming verified.”
6.Voss et al., “Lucid dreaming.”
7.Hobson and Voss, “A mind to go out of.”
8.Voss et al., “Lucid dreaming.”
9.J. Hobson, “REM sleep.”
11.Gackenbach, “Video game play.”
12.Gackenbach and Hunt, “Deeper Inquiry.”
13.Arnold-Foster, Studies in Dreams, 30–31.
14.Kasatkin, Theory, 6–9.
15.R. Smith, “Traumatic dreams” and “Do dreams reflect.”
16.Taitz, “Clinical Applications.”
17.Zappaterra, Lysander, and Pangarkat, “Chronic pain resolution.”
18.Pert, Molecules of Emotion, 28.
19.Erlacher and Schredl, “Cardiovascular responses.”
20.Dresler et al., “Dreamed movement.”


Excerpted from Dreaming Wide Awake by David Jay Brown, © 2016 Park Street Press, Available now at and other good bookstores. Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International.
About the Author: David Jay Brown holds a master’s degree in psychobiology from New York University. A former neuroscience researcher at the University of Southern California, he has written for Wired, Discover, and Scientific American, and his news stories have appeared on The Huffington Post and CBS News. A frequent guest editor of the MAPS Bulletin, he is the author of several books including Mavericks of the Mind and Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse. He lives in Ben Lomond, California.

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