You are dreaming right now… Real as it all seems, this is a dream, or perhaps it is not, but how would you know, how would you propose to investigate the nature of your world, so as to distinguish it from your physical state of familiarity?
My name is Dr Rory Mac Sweeney and I have pondered this question endlessly, why is it that we encounter the world of dreams with such acquiescence? We are thrust into a nightly nebulous of infinite possibility, the likes of which would nurture the soul with endless fantasy, an invitation to experience the impossible and yet, we miss it completely, because something in the psyche is missing, an ability to be present and critically aware enough to ask the question “Am I dreaming?”
Lucid dreaming is different; in this case the dreaming subject gains sufficient insight into their state of consciousness, and recognises the fact that they are dreaming. This is nothing short of a miracle by any modern account, as we are plunged into the deepest of philosophical concerns about the nature of consciousness.
Our conventional view of consciousness was a rather binary affair, with sleep indicating a state of unconsciousness and waking implying the opposite. Although dreaming was a more dubious affair, with some evidence of consciousness awareness being precipitated and measured by both experiential and empirical data, it was still safely assumed to be a state of non-critical awareness.
I would like to draw the reader’s attention to this term, non-critical awareness, so as to distinguish it from the normal sense of awareness that we have in dreams. The latter state is very much a stimulus-response type motif, which is not a great deal different, in terms of intellectual supervision, from withdrawing your hand from a hot surface. The critical self alludes to something far more sophisticated, with the sense of a satellite perspective emerging into the picture, please allow me to elaborate.
You see, in this case, not only am I reacting to the environmental stimulus, but there is also a kind of meta-consciousness being observed and commented on by my prevailing mind. I am able to make enquires to myself, about the nature of my circumstances. This is what we would normally define as self-reflective awareness, and it is the kind of consciousness that ordinarily associate with human beings.
It is because we are critically self-aware, that we can describe the world the way that we do in the first place, and this is what allows us to build a language frame to distinguish between waking and dreaming. In this regard, lucid dreaming is therefore something that is only ever likely to be experienced by higher thinking animals. There is certainly evidence to suggest that many animals do dream, but the likelihood is that they lack the intellectual function to question the fabric of their existence, in the way that we do, and hence would unlikely ever encounter a lucid dream.
Being able to lucid dream has countless implications for us as a species; it is a step over the threshold of consciousness as we have historically defined it and an invitation to explore the mind from the inside out. Familiar fields like Psychology and Psychiatry will certainly be entering into a new paradigm of possibility, as we no longer sit at the table of idle speculation of whether or not this is a scientifically verifiable state of mind, on the contrary it has not only been proven by the work of Stephen Laberge and Keith Hearne, both of whom were able to show experimental evidence of the state over 30 years ago, but we also are now looking at more sophisticated imaging technology, to show us what actually happens to the dreaming brain when lucidity occurs.
Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry in Munich have been able to peek into the dreaming brain, and have literally watched the light of lucidity switch on in their test subjects who, became critically self-aware during the dream. This ground breaking exercise has allowed the team to observe which specific areas of the brain became excited during the event, thereby giving an indication of where the seat of meta-consciousness might actually be in the brain. The areas detected included the right dorseolateral prefrontal cortex, to which commonly the function of self-assessment is attributed, and the frontopolar regions, which are responsible for evaluating our own thoughts and feelings. The precuneus is also especially active, a part of the brain that has long been linked with self-perception” according to Michael Czisch, head of a research group at the Institute.
In terms of our scientific appraisal, one might ask what the potential side effects of lucid dreaming are. Our current model does not speculate any particular impact on the mind although one must consider the ontological affair that we so commonly address as our reality. J. Alan Hobson remarks that the dreaming brain is actually an essay in schizophrenia as we (in normal dreaming) become disoriented, dissociated and co-confabulators in a fantasy world, that has no other consensual observer. One might have to question whether or not engaging this world warrants a degree of caution, especially for the less psychologically stable person.
If lucid dreaming is something one would like to pursue, then how might we best achieve it? This is certainly a question to which there are many answers, but I expect most people would agree that a familiarity with the landscape of your dreaming mind is a foremost. We normally experience our dreams retrospectively and the memory we attain decays promptly, so what we essentially have, to examine our dreams, is a very narrow window of opportunity. On this basis, we would best record our dreams in a diary. We can then look for certain patterns within our dreams, to help to focus our awareness, in order to flag a future event as a potential dream scenario. To make this process easier and more effective, I would advocate the Dreamboard design, as their online facility helps you to orchestrate your often irregular dreaming activity into more coherent patterns, in order for you to familiarise yourself with. These are precisely the kind of tools that will help bring more opportunity for you to become lucid, and I, for one, am a firm advocate.
So in summary, what we are witnessing here is a transition in the state of our consciousness, a step up the evolutionary ladder, one cannot help but to speculate, for what is it to be essentially human, but to ask the question “What am I?” The answer it seems, may prove to be even more queer than we imagine, or to quote J.B.S. Haldane “even queerer than we can imagine”
Dr Rory Mac Sweeney