Saturday, 3 August 2019

Lucid Dreaming Myths

The world of lucid dreaming is beset with myths and untruths - perhaps due to the fact that lucid dreaming is not only a difficult and ambiguous concept for many non-lucid dreamers to grasp without experiencing it, and due to the fact it is often a deeply personal and subjective experience which is impossible to objectively quantify. I have noted many anecdotal accounts of lucid dreaming which simply do not match my own experiences. This is not to say that they are dishonest accounts, but it is worth bearing in mind that many people exaggerate their own abilities or skills in this area because, without empirical testing in a laboratory setting, lucid dreaming cannot be independently verified.

Many fictional depictions also exaggerate or skew the concept and experience of lucid dreaming for dramatic purposes. I often read or watch fictionalised depictions of lucid dreaming which do not accord with my own research-derived or experiential knowledge of lucid dreaming. This can lead to misconceptions about lucid dreaming by those who have not yet experienced the phenomenon first hand. 

If you die in a lucid dream, you die in real life
While I have never personally 'died' in a lucid dream, I know plenty of lucid dreamers who have experienced this - and woken up to share their account. To put it bluntly - if you die in a lucid dream, you will wake up perfectly fine. Dying in a lucid dream does not mean you die in real life. In fact, dying in a lucid dream can typically result in the dreamer having a surge of adrenaline which arouses them to the point of waking (especially if they suffer a sudden or violent death, such as an accident or murder scenario). 

Dying in a normal, non-lucid dream can act as a trigger to be 'reborn' into a lucid dream. This experience will be shaped by your own personal or cultural beliefs or understanding about death and the afterlife, so can be a very subjective experience. Many lucid dreamers recount the transition from death to rebirth as involving passage through a portal or moving from darkness into light. 

This myth is apparent in Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, in which a group of teenagers are pursued in their dreams by a dead paedophile child-murderer, Freddy Krueger. When Krueger kills his victims in a lucid dream state, they die in real life. 

Lucid dreaming is a purely spiritual experience
The world of lucid dreaming is inhabited by a great number of dreamers who focus on the New Age or spiritual aspects of the phenomenon. I am not a spiritual person; I do not believe in a mind/brain duality or the existence of a separate consciousness or afterlife. My worldview is shaped by a humanist, atheist perspective and reliance on empiricism, evidence and the scientific method. I am not saying my view is the correct one - I respect the fact that everyone has their own beliefs, which are just as strongly held and valid as my own. However, anyone and everyone can achieve lucid dreaming, no matter what their personal beliefs are. 

The idea that lucid dreaming is the preserve of New Age hippies is nothing more than a stereotype. There is no template for the lifestyle, interests, beliefs or philosophies of a lucid dreamer. Lucid dreaming is a scientifically proven phenomenon which can be observed in experimental conditions, such as using an EEG machine to measure brainwave frequencies associated with lucid dreaming. 

This myth is reinforced by the movie The Good Night (2007).

Lucid dreaming equates to the the ability to control your dream
Dream control is one of the most exciting and rewarding aspects of lucid dream practice, but the ability to control your dream is not necessary for a dream to be lucid. Lucid dreaming is simply the phenomenon of being consciously aware you are dreaming. Many of my lucid dreams lack dream control, which can be extremely frustrating, but does not diminish the fact I was still consciously aware I was dreaming. In fact, my inability to use dream control to perform basic tasks I would otherwise be able to do in my waking reality is often a very good dreamsign or reality check.

Learning the ability to control your dreams often requires experience and practice - but it is possible, so don't give up!

You can get stuck in a 'lucid dream limbo'
You will not get permanently stuck in a lucid dream limbo. Remember, that the experience of time in a lucid dream is pretty analogous to the passage of time in waking reality - Stephen LaBerge's research has found that lucid dreams typically have a 1-to-1 time correspondence with real time, although in normal, non-lucid dreams you may experience time dilation and distortion. 

No matter what happens in your lucid dream, you will eventually wake up. Also, it is worth noting that lucidity is a state which is very close to wakefulness, and you are much more likely to wake up prematurely than experience a prolonged lucid dream - most lucid dreamers report lucid dreams which only last a few minutes. As lucid dreaming occurs during the REM stage of the sleep cycle, at the very most, a lucid dream will last for the duration of a period of REM sleep, which is typically 45 minutes to an hour in length. Anything which arouses you during a lucid dream - such as a strong emotional reaction - will wake you up. 

Performing a physical action, such as opening your eyes or increasing your rate of breathing in a lucid dream can cause you to perform the same actions in real life, waking you up from the lucid dream. You can also shout 'wake up!' which often does the trick. 

My closest experience to being stuck in any kind of dream limbo involves having a series of false awakenings which I find difficult to escape from. This is a terrifying experience for me at the time, but I have to remind myself (using my conscious awareness) that I am dreaming and will soon wake up naturally, even if I cannot force myself to wake up immediately. 

It is also possible to experience being stuck in non-lucid nightmares - where you aren't able to intentionally wake up, because you are not consciously aware you are in a dream. In this scenario (or the concept of a dream limbo generally), becoming lucid and exercising dream visualisation or control would be the best method of escaping the limbo!

This myth has been validated by the movie Inception (2010), which appears credible due to the mixing of elements of actual dream science with fictionalised or overly-dramatised/exaggerated aspects. 

You are always able to think rationally in a lucid dream
It is true that you are often able to think rationally in a lucid dream, but this is not an inevitability. I often find myself thinking and doing incredibly irrational things in my lucid dreams - just as I sometimes do in my waking reality! If our lucid dream presents us with a completely bizarre, unprecedented or terrifying dream experience or event, there is no guarantee you will always respond or behave rationally - just as you might not if confronted with something equally unpredictable in real life. Logic is often absence in dream thought - even when we are lucid and therefore, consciously aware. Lucidity is a form of meta-knowledge - being conscious of our consciousness. However, our cognitive and logical thinking may be fractured and distorted by the dream experience.

You can experience lucidity for hours at a time
This is simply impossible. For starters, everyone requires deep (slow-wave) sleep, which is the stage in the sleep cycle which is characterised by low brain activity and restful/restorative benefits. Dreams - and by proxy - lucid dreams occur during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of the sleep cycle - and REM sleep accounts for approximately 100 minutes of the typical 8 hour sleep cycle. Therefore, eve if you were able to achieve lucidity for the full duration of each stage of REM sleep you experience, at most this would be just over an hour of lucid dreaming out of 8 hours of sleep. There is no way a dreamer can experience lucidity for the entire sleep cycle, every single time they go to sleep. The sleep cycle has a way of calibrating and adjusting itself, so if you are skipping any stages of the sleep cycle, you will eventually need to catch up. If you go too long without deep sleep, you will experience any lost deep sleep the next time you fall asleep, and therefore it is impossible to be in REM sleep for hours and hours at a time, as your physical and mental health would suffer and you would be forever exhausted. 

This myth has been popularised by Inception (2010).

There are absolutely no consequences of what occurs in a lucid dream
While it is true to say that lucid dreaming is just a mental experience which cannot physically harm us, and presents us with almost limitless ability to escape into the dream world and do things which might be impossible in real waking life, there can be consequences of what we do in lucid dreams. 

For example, our experiences form neural networks in the brain - and this is just as true for lucid dreaming as waking experiences. Performing acts in a lucid dream which are taboo or cause mental trauma or distress can be problematic for a number of reasons - by intentionally pursuing things you have moral objections to (in waking reality) you could end up normalising or desensitizing yourself to particular stimuli or feeling guilt, shame or remorse about things you consciously choose to manifest and experience in the dream world. Examples might be choosing to commits criminal acts of violence or acts of infidelity; or behaving in ways which are socially or morally unacceptable. The solution is to set your own boundaries here and only choose to lucid dream about things you are comfortable with.

You can physically heal yourself in a lucid dream
If this was true, this would be amazing! Unfortunately, lucid dreaming does not lead to the magical ability to heal ourselves from physical conditions or diseases by dreaming of 'healing thoughts or powers'. Any improvement of a physical condition after a lucid dream is likely to be nothing more than the power of positive thinking and the placebo effect. However, dreaming can have therapeutic benefits which can help heal psychological trauma or issues - such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or phobias - and there is good evidence in support of this assertion. Dreams are essential for psychological wellbeing, and therefore, lucid dreaming can be advantageous in this respect.

Only advanced Yogis are able to lucid dream
This is not true. While meditation and other practices which raise conscious awareness can significantly boost your potential for lucid dreaming, it is not a requirement. Everyone and anyone can lucid dream. Children often lucid dream spontaneously and naturally - due to their vivid imaginations and tendency to visualise dreams as they fall asleep. 

It is true to say that some lucid dream induction techniques are more difficult to master than others, and require more groundwork, experience, practice and focus. Many beginner lucid dreamers want to begin their lucid dreaming journey by attempting the WILD technique (Wake-Induced Lucid Dreaming, which is the transition from wakefulness into a lucid dream with no lapse in consciousness). The WILD technique is referred to as the 'holy grail of lucid dreaming' and as such is not the best method for beginners, who would be best advised to attempt mnemonic induction methods (i.e. the MILD - Mnemonic-Induced Lucid Dreaming) to train and programme their brain for lucid dreaming before moving onto the more complex WILD technique.

Sleep paralysis is dangerous, abnormal and linked to demonic or paranormal experiences
I have witnessed many people ask whether sleep paralysis is dangerous and if the hallucinatory experiences which often accompany this experience are related to demonic or paranormal events. I have also witnessed many people perpetrate the myth that yes, indeed sleep paralysis is inherently negative. This is simply not true. Almost every  species of mammalian animal that has the ability to dream experiences some form of muscle atonia when asleep - this is a biological necessity to prevent the acting out of dreams, which could put the dreamer at risk of hurting themselves or putting themselves at danger. When we are in REM sleep, our muscles become 'paralysed'. If we are in a paradoxical sleep (so somewhere between wakefulness and sleep), we might have conscious awareness because our brain is 'awake', but due to our body being in sleep mode, we notice the muscle atonia, which can be very scary. Think about how many times you have tried to run away from something in a dream or nightmare and found you are unable to move properly. Or when you've wanted to shout or scream, but you cannot make any sound, or your voice cannot be raised above a whisper. This is the effect of muscle atonia being experienced through the dream, although you might not be aware at the time.

Sleep paralysis is often experienced during false awakenings - and false awakenings are often accompanied by hypnagogic imagery or hallucinatory sensory experiences, because we are in a dream state. It is not unusual to hear people talk about these experiences as having a paranormal/supernatural or religious connotation - this might be prevalent in particular cultures or faiths, and indeed research shows that there are many belief-based interpretations for sleep paralysis and hypnagogic hallucinations ('Old Hag Syndrome'). However, it is important to note that these are universal experiences, it's just that some people becomes consciously aware of what is happening to their body (and mind) in this state, whereas for others it can be deeply disturbing and traumatic.

The mind awake/body asleep paradox we experience in these states is like a light switch being stuck midway between on and off, and this is why experience of sleep paralysis and hypnagogia can be used as a gateway to lucid dreaming. In fact this is a key aspect of learning how to induce lucidity via Wake-Initiated Lucid Dreaming, where the lucid dreamer intentionally creates the mind awake/body asleep paradox and attempts to remain conscious during the onset of sleep paralysis and hypnagogia. 

Recreational drugs/narcotics enhance the lucid dream experience
This is not a blanket myth - it very much depends on the drug/substance and how/when it is ingested. Many myths surrounding ingestion of narcotic substances to enhance lucidity come from misinformation about cultural/ritualistic practices, or claims by those who use drugs and self report experiencing intense lucid dreams, which in fact might simply be the side effects of hallucinogenic drugs, rather than being a true lucid dream. There are many supplements on the market which are known to increase the likelihood of experiencing a lucid dream. However, there is absolutely no requirement to consume any supplement, vitamin, drug or substance to become lucid. 

I have heard numerous accounts of people who state that cannabis helps them lucid dream. This is not strictly accurate - cannabis actually inhibits REM sleep and dreaming, which is why regular users of cannabis will often state that they do not ever dream. However, cannabis is known to cause the REM Rebound Effect - where an individual will experience intense, bizarre and vivid dreams (and perhaps false awakenings), with a higher potential for lucid dreaming after the THC in the cannabis has been metabolised or the cannabis user stops smoking/consuming cannabis. REM Rebound Effect is when you experience enhanced or increased REM sleep (above the normal baseline level) after a period of restriction or deprivation. Because cannabis inhibits/deprives you of REM sleep while the THC is still present in your system, once it is metabolised, you experience a 'rebound' - and longer, increased periods of REM sleep mean more opportunity for dreaming and lucidity.

Frequent lucid dreaming risks the dreamer being unable to distinguish between dreams and waking reality
This is untrue. Lucid dreaming is based on increased conscious awareness and the majority of lucid dream induction techniques and methods require the dreamer to actively increase their self-awareness (via reality checks, for example). This would mean they are better at distinguishing between dreams and reality, because unlike normal non-lucid dreamers who are consciously aware of their waking reality, but experience dreams as a form of reality without conscious awareness they are asleep and dreaming, lucid dreamers programme themselves to distinguish waking reality from dreams in both states. I have never met nor heard of any anecdotal accounts of long-term or frequent lucid dreamers becoming unable to distinguish between their dreams and waking reality in their real life. 

The closest thing to confusing dreams and reality would be the experience of a normal non-lucid, vivid dream - but this is perfectly usual and the default position; we are psychologically preset to believe in the reality of our dreams!

That being said, some mental disorders or conditions may result in sufferers being unable to distinguish their dreams from reality.

Lucid dreams are always hyper-realistic
I've witnessed many anecdotal accounts which suggest that dreamers who are new to the concept of lucid dreaming misinterpret recall of a particularly vivid, realistic dream as being a true lucid dream experience. To put it simply, if you fully believe in the reality of your dream because it feels like real life, it is most likely a vivid dream without lucidity - to be a lucid dream, the dreamer must be consciously aware they are experiencing a dream, not their real life.

Many lucid dreams are hyper-realistic, but this is not always true. Many of my lucid dreams have been extremely vague and distorted and I often experience them as being disconnected from reality.

Lucid dreaming effects the quality of sleep
It may be true that sometimes a lucid dream leaves the dreamer feeling unrefreshed or exhausted upon waking, but on the converse, many people report feeling more refreshed and invigorated than usual following a lucid dream. I have experienced both scenarios. If lucid dreaming means you feel tried and unrefreshed the next day, simply limit your lucid dream induction to nights when it is convenient for you or enjoy it during daytime naps, rather than during your normal sleep cycle.

You can learn new information in a lucid dream
Lucid dreaming can be extremely fruitful for enhancing creativity and innovation and practicing existing skills. However, as all dreams are based on and created from our expectations memories, knowledge and experiences (real or imagined), the material on which our dreams are based already exists somewhere in our brain (although it may be distorted or symbolised and thus appear to be 'new' or different). Our subconscious mind can be incredibly creative with how it invents and presents the content of our dreams, but it cannot acquire information we do not already possess somewhere in our mind while in the dream state. 

Shared dreaming is possible
This is a myth held by very many lucid dreamers who recount their personal experiences of sharing dreams with others. In fact, many lucid dreamers pre-plan shared dreams with fellow lucid dreamers - and this may account for them both experiencing the 'same' dream. However, this is the product of shared waking experiences, desires and expectations, rather than proof they actually experienced a shared dream. There is no credible scientific evidence for the existence of shared dreaming. Many lucid dreamers have encouraged me to try and share a dream with them (or meet them in the dream world), but I have never come anywhere close to even remembering them appearing in my dream as a dream character, despite my best efforts to prove myself wrong! While in theory, future technological progression may enable us to come closer to experiencing shared dreams, at present this is just a myth. 

This myth is depicted in Inception (2010) and in the A Nightmare on Elm Street movies.

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