Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Light & the Mirror Experiment – Testing the limits of dream control

This article is based on research by Stephan LaBerge and Lynne Levitan (2007) into methods of control in lucid dreaming. LaBerge and Levitan stated that it may be possible to test lucid dream control by setting predetermined experiments enabling the dreamer to attempt to achieve certain goals. The definition of ‘control’ within this context is the “ability to determine or influence the course of events” within the dream scenario. 

The dreamer's actions are causes which lead to consequences and effects. However, there must be some distinction between voluntary and involuntary control. Voluntary control means that the dreamer decides to produce specific effects and takes steps to cause them. Involuntary control refers to unintended consequences of the dreamer’s actions. There are many different ways of controlling dreams. One method which does not require a state of lucidity is predetermination – selecting the scenario or subject of the dream prior to sleep. This is very similar to the concept of ‘dream incubation’ in which the dreamer seeks to induce a dream about an important or desired topic in order to answer a relevant question or resolve a conflict (see Patricia Garfield, Creative Dreaming (1995) in which she suggests that a motivated dreamer can choose to dream about desired topics and produces evidence in support of her thesis). 

Post-hypnotic suggestion has also been utilised in order to elicit particular dream topics, again with some degree of success, as described by Charles Tart, Conscious Mind, Sleeping Brain (1988). It should be noted that success in creating a specific dream scenario does not imply an ability to control the sequence of events within the dream. Concurrent control is the ability to alter or determine the course of the dream in ‘real-time’ i.e. as it is happening. This type of dream control is not limited to lucid dreams – any time the dreamer makes a choice or decision in a dream, this is a form of dream control. The dreamer may be unconscious for the reason for making this choice, but the decision nevertheless originates from the self. However, dreamers possessing full lucid consciousness within a dream are able to make deliberate choices and actions with full knowledge that they are experiencing a dream and are able to observe their effects on the course of the dream narrative.

A wide range of theories about the possibility and limits of dream control exist in dream discourse. On one end of the spectrum, some dream researchers deny the possibility of deliberate dream control and even the notion that lucid dreaming is a proven phenomenon. Their beliefs tend to stem from a flawed philosophy that sleep is an intrinsically ‘unconscious’ state with a lack of cognition and mental awareness. LaBerge and Levitan prefer to use the operational definition of sleep as ‘lack of perceptual awareness of the sleeper’s environment’. Without consciousness, clearly a dreamer would be wholly unable to will anything. 

Other scepticism surrounding the possibility of conscious dream control emerges from dream researchers who employ dreams to help subjects achieve better psychological or emotional balance. A large extent of dream-based theory operates on the premise that dreams simply happen to dreamers rather than being events created by the dreamer. Thus, the ‘creator’ of the dream is the subconscious – completely disconnected from the conscious ‘ego’. LaBerge and Levitan state this cannot be accurate as it would prohibit us from recalling our dream experiences – events which do not reach the conscious mind cannot be accessible to the memory. 

The dreaming self – who experiences and reflects on the events of the dream – is the self-aware, conscious ‘ego’, although it may not be aware that the present dream environment is an entirely mentally-constructed world which is not guided by sensory information from the physical reality. In Ullman & Zimmerman, Working with Dreams (1979), the authors – who assert that dreams are a product of the unconscious – argue that a dream is a form of natural resource flowing through the self, shaped by life experience. The flow of this natural resource cannot be changed by urging a new direction upon it. However, if there is an effort to make a change in direction possible, this flow will consequently alter as required. 

This means that there must be more than conscious intent to alter the flow of the dream – there must be a genuine emotional investment. Therefore, dreams are predetermines ‘plays’ programmed out of the dreamer’s current psychological processes, which are nothing like waking-life. In regard to lucid dreaming, the authors state that although the dreamer can influence the subsequent course of a dream once lucidity has been achieved, the element of control occurs only within certain limits i.e. within a predetermined framework. This implies that dream control is restricted to actions appropriate to the original dream scenario which has its own defined boundaries and rules. This would mean that whatever part of the mind which determines the original dream scenario has primacy over other parts of the mind (within the dream-state). 

Despite evidence that some dreamers can pre-determine (incubate) specific dream scenarios and topics, for the most part dream scenarios appear to originate from some source which is not part of the conscious mind. However, there is no solid evidence for Ullman and Zimmerman’s theory that dream control is limited by the framework of the original dream scenario and many dreamers refute this, based on their own experience. For example, Tibetan Buddhists – creators of ‘Dream Yoga’ believe that it is possible to control every aspect of dream imagery and use dream control as a method of comprehending the illusory nature of all experiences, with the ultimate goal of transcending the Relative and embracing the Absolute. In “Doctrine of the Dream State” from Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines, translated by Evans-Wentz, the dreamer is instructed to realise the form or matter of the dream imagery in all its dimensional aspects is entirely subject to the dreamer’s will once mental powers have been sufficiently developed by the dreamer. The dreamer learns from actual experience – resulting from psychic experimentation – that the character of any dream can be changed by transforming or willing that it shall be. A step further, he learns that all forms in the dream-state and all multitudinous content of dreams are merely ‘playthings of the mind’ and therefore are as unstable as a mirage. He will then gain knowledge that the essential nature of form and sensual perceptions in the waking state are equally as ‘unreal’ as their reflexes in the dream-state. 

The Tibetan Buddhists, however, were not given to sharing their personal dream experiences and so it is not possible to examine the nature of their dreams and their efforts and successes in controlling them.

Some notable Western dream experts give insight into their experiences and what they have been able to accomplish. The Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denys was an extraordinarily successful lucid dreamer who wrote instructively about his dream experiences. In his study, Dreams and How to Guide Them (1867) he stated that those dreamers who perceive their dreams to be a mere succession of mechanically produced impressions over which there is no possibility of control may lack the necessary will or effort to produce any results in dream control. Therefore, attention and will are the two essential elements necessary in taking the first steps in directing and modifying the course of dreams.

One of the most prolific lucid dreamers is Alan Worsley, who is thought to be the first dream researcher able to signal lucidity with eye movements, in controlled experiments within a dream laboratory. He states that “non-lucid dreams use many principles that can be used in lucid dreams. For instance, it is likely, in a non-lucid dream, that if one believes that one looks into a book about a certain subject, one will find relevant pictures in it. In lucid dreaming, one can use this principle by deliberately selecting a book about a subject which ones wishes to study.” Worsely has documented his attempts to influence dreams, rating the various tasks as Easy, Medium and Difficult based on the percentage of times he was able to succeed at them. He finds that all attempts to penetrate dream matter with his dream body as ‘Easy’. Additionally, making sounds by striking items or speaking is also rated as ‘Easy’, as is reading simple words or short phrases, although reading long phrases is ‘Difficult’. He has never been able to suddenly turn on a light in a dark room, although he has been able to do so easily in a light room. Flying close to the ground was ‘easy’ but this task would become progressively more difficult the higher he would try to go.

LaBerge and Levitan suggest that because dreams are illusory in nature it should be (in theory) possible to experience anything imaginable. Thus, failures at dream control may arise due to an insufficiently strong imagination or not believing that a certain experience is possible. On the other hand, there may be psychological limitations on the ability to influence and control dream imagery. Their theoretical approach to dream control is based on the notion that perceptual experiences in dreaming arise from the same areas of brain activity involved in producing perceptual experiences in waking-life. This may be why people sometimes have difficulty in distinguishing dream experiences from waking experiences and have to employ special techniques to recognise that they are actually dreaming. 

Physiological constraints in dream perception may occur if the brain area is not in a state conducive to the desired dream experience. For example, it may be difficult to make a dark dream light because the visual cortex is not sufficiently active during the dream-state. The authors wish to see further research into the relationship between dream perception and brain activity to test this hypothesis. The NightLight Study (Freefall issue - no. 4, vol. 4) was designed to assess how successfully dreamers would be at accomplishing certain well-defined tasks whilst experiencing a lucid dream-state.

Light Switch Tasks
The dreamer is tasked with finding a light switch indoors, turning it on and seeing what happens. They then must turn the light switch off and see what happens. Next, they must turn the light switch on and off by willing it to happen and observe the results. In subjects, these tasks were counterbalanced, so some subjects used the physical switch first and some used ‘magic’ first.

Mirror Tasks
The dreamer is tasked with finding a mirror and observing their reflection. They then must move their hand to their face, whilst watching in the mirror and observing how their reflection behaves. Next, they must pass through the mirror and see what is on the other side.

Results of the Tasks 
These tasks represented a variety of types of dream influence – ranging from tasks which are easy to accomplish in waking and impossible in waking. In addition, some tasks might be impeded by brain state. The purpose was to see what effect belief might have on the outcome of the task. The subjects were asked to try to perform each task in the waking-state, prior to attempting the same tasks in a lucid dream-state so that they were well-rehearsed in the required procedure. They then had to try each task at least once during a lucid dream. They did not have to complete all tasks in one single dream, but instead, could utilise as many lucid dreams as necessary to attempt each task. So that they would not forget details, the subjects were asked to awaken immediately after the experimental lucid dreams and report on their experiences.

27 subjects submitted reports – 14 women and 13 men.  In total there were 65 lucid dream reports, an average of 1.4 per subject. The maximum number of reports from a single subject was four. The reports were assessed by a judge, who rated each task as a ‘success’ or ‘failure’. The results of the tasks received scores of ‘expected’ if the result achieved the goal or ‘unexpected’ if something unpredictable occurred. Examples of ‘unexpected’ results included “the [light] bulb slowly filled with what appeared to be thick, black tar”; the outside porch light coming on instead of the room light when the switch was used; a hallucinogenic breakdown of the reflected mirror image (finger detaching from hand/holes appearing in face/finger disappearing into mouth); or a reflection which did not resemble that of the dreamer. ‘No result’ meant that no effect occurred at all – for example, no reflection in the mirror; or seeing grey swirling mist instead. When passing through the mirror, an ‘expected’ result would include an ability to move through the mirror and finding oneself in a different setting. ‘Unexpected’ results included moving through the mirror, but finding oneself in a “world of cartoon-like images”; whilst ‘no result’ meant that the subject found the mirror to be solid and unyielding, not allowing them to pass through to another setting on the other side. The results revealed that using a switch and willing a light to come on were both found to be equally easy by subjects. There was a greater amount of ‘no result’ in the task requiring the subject to will the light to come on, but this was not statistically significant overall. 

The data showed that it may be easier to will a light to turn off rather than on, although LaBerge and Levitan suggest that this conclusion may be premature, as prior to willing the light off, the subject had been able to successfully will it to turn on and stated that there may be a condition in which if you can turn a light on in a dream, you can also successfully turn it off. Subjects also had no problem in performing a simple task such as looking at their reflection in a mirror, although it was likely that the dreamer would perceive an altered appearance (as opposed to their waking appearance). This occurred in 41% of the subjects. In 12 cases (28%) the subject’s image transformed as they watched in the mirror. It was reasonable to expect that passing through the mirror to another setting would be the task which subjects found to be the most difficult. 

However, almost half of the subjects were able to do so, and 86% of subjects were able to pass through the mirror at least once, even if they did not experience a new dream setting on the other side. An example of an ‘expected’ result for this task was found in the report of one subject who imagined the mirror to be like water so that they were able to easily slide through. When fully through the water, they rose to the surface to find themselves in a bright, sunlit backyard swimming pool with a roof shelter.

The lack of large differences in the ease of accomplishment of the various tasks in this experiment is interesting. Lucid dreamers are able to exert a large amount of control over their dream experiences, although it is far from perfect. Most notable in the results was the lack of reluctance in the mirror images to show normal reflections and in some cases, the occurrence of fascinating instability of the image. Self-image is an incredibly psychologically-loaded concept – with complex internal representations, which the authors suggest may be responsible for the differences in waking and dream perception of the subjects during the mirror task. The instability points to the most prominent difference between waking and dream perception – because dreams change and may be in a constant state of flux. Dreamers can exploit this in lucid dream induction, by examining written phrases repeatedly and watching for changes to occur. 

An interesting question is whether perceptual instability results from the lack of anchoring sensory input from the physical senses or from a brain-state which is peculiar to REM sleep patterns (when dreaming occurs). Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denys and Alan Worsley observed something which they referred to as the ‘light switch phenomenon’ – the inability to change the illumination of a room on demand. LaBerge and Levitan’s study shows that sometimes this phenomenon is present and sometimes it is not. Some subjects who were able to turn on the light reported no concurrent change in general illumination whilst others reported a significant increase in brightness. 

A key target for research would be to discover what the brain is doing in both circumstances. Further, although the passing through a mirror to a new setting task should be the most difficult – and in some cases, impossible for certain subjects, a separate study published in Omni (April, 1987) reported that 51 subjects attempted to arrive at a particular pre-determined target by spinning in a dream. 18 (35%) succeeded in arriving at their target, therefore showing that it is not only possible to create a new scene in a dream, but also to create one which is specifically desired. It is the view of Tibetan Buddhists that all dream images are transmutable and this experiment provides support for this theory. If a dreamer is able to control the stability of dream imagery; create lasting dream-scenes/objects and exert an influence over the dream environment, it may be possible to achieve a state of virtual reality, almost without limit.

No comments:

Post a Comment