A lucid dream is when you wake up to the fact that you’re dreaming, but you still remain in the dream—that is, you’re dreaming and you know it.
The term “Lucid dream” was hinted at by the scholar Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denys (1822–1892), but was coined by the Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden (1860–1932). In the West, lucid dream accounts go back as far as Aristotle, with the first Western lucid dream report written in 415 c.e. by Saint Augustine.
The Scientific Study of Lucid Dreaming
The validity of lucid dreaming was scientifically proven in 1975 by the psychologist Keith Hearne at Hull University, and then independently by Stephen LaBerge in l977 at Stanford. LaBerge is arguably the father of modern lucid dreaming, and his books Lucid Dreaming: The Power of Being Awake and Aware in Your Dreams (1985) and Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming (1990, coauthored with Howard Rheingold) are classics.
Prior to these pioneering studies, the idea of “lucid dreaming” was mostly dismissed by the scientific community. How can you be awake and dreaming at the same time? LaBerge proved that you can, and lucid dreaming gained a foothold in the West. With a doctorate in psychophysiology from Stanford University, Stephen has dedicated his life to the scientific exploration of lucid dreaming. His contributions are seminal. The rigor that he brings to this field is important.
Lucid dreaming is still on the fringe of science and academic study, often relegated to the mystic, the poet, or the New Ager. In the face of many obstacles, LaBerge has doggedly spent his life bringing needed discipline to a field that is dominated by speculation and metaphysics. He is a pioneering voice of clear and precise thinking in a fuzzy world.
What Happens in a Lucid Dream?
In that magical instant of awakening within the dream, everything changes. What just a moment ago had total control over you now comes under your control. Instead of being blown around helplessly by the dictates of the dream, you now dictate the dream. You can do whatever you want, and no one can see you. You can fly, have sex with a movie star, or rob Fort Knox.
Researchers have shown that flying and having sex are indeed the two most frequently engaged activities for lucid dreamers. Other common adventures are doing things that are impossible in waking life: breathing under water, walking through walls, talking with animals, time travel, or being someone else.
Lucidity is not an “ all or nothing” affair. There is a spectrum ranging from barely lucid to hyper-lucid, and from the shortest flashes of lucidity to lucid dreams lasting over an hour.
Being barely lucid might involve acknowledging on some level that you’re having a dream, but not acting with full comprehension. You might still flee from perceived danger, or treat dream characters as if they were real.
Hyper-lucid dreaming would be full comprehension of the dreamlike nature of your experience in the dream, recognizing that even the sense of self in the dream is being dreamt. Hyper-lucidity could also refer to colors and forms in the dream that seem more vibrant and real than anything in waking experience.
You can also be non-lucid in a dream, become lucid to it, then drop into non-lucidity again.
The good news about lucid dreaming is that even though it may take practice to have such dreams regularly, it just takes one instant of recognition and you’re “in.” One flash of recognition transforms a non-lucid dream into a lucid one. I’ve been to many lucid dream seminars where people get discouraged by their inability to trigger lucidity, but then the next night it suddenly happens. That single instance is often enough to ignite a passion for lucid dreams. There’s nothing quite like a lucid dream, and when you have one it’s irresistible to want more.
To learn more about lucid dreaming and the practice of dream yoga, check out my book, “Dream Yoga: Illuminating Your Life Through Lucid Dreaming and the Tibetan Yogas of Sleep”