By Tim Post
Every night when we are asleep, we dream, no matter whether we would like to or not.
Dreams seem to play a vital role in ensuring our mental health and thus it is outside of our deliberate choice to control whether we dream or not.
Those who report dreams more frequently do not necessarily dream more but are simply better at recalling dreams. Dream recall is just a skill that with practice can be learned by anyone. We dream every night.
We deal avidly with practicing and perfecting dream recall at Lucidipedia, as it forms one of the most important and fun cornerstones of lucid dreaming practice.
REM sleep dreams.There are several times during sleep when we engage on our most vivid and immersive dreams. These are the times in which our brain moves into a particular sleep stage called "REM sleep": Rapid Eye Movement sleep.
REM sleep is a specialized and active brain state that pops up every once in a while when we are sleeping and generates vivid hallucinatory experiences that we commonly refer to as "dreams".
Studies show that when we recall a dream upon awakening it is likely that that recalled dream was rooted in REM sleep.
Being in a dream.So what is it like to be in a REM sleep dream? That I from now on will refer to as mere "dreams".
What is it like to be in a dream?
Since it is rare for most people to spontaneously recall a dream or two in the morning, it is reasonable why many hold misconceptions with regard to the actual experience of being in a dream.
Most of us only remember dreams.
Think about how you would revalue your waking life if the only thing you could "experience it by" was through memory. Surely your valuation of waking life would be quite distorted and nothing like the actual experience of living your life in the moment. A lot is left out when we memorize, let alone recall experiences.
The same goes for dreaming. When you wake up in the morning and recall the occasional dream, it is often the memory of that dream that people naturally mistake for what the actual experience was like: degrading the dream experience to what a memory is like.
Reasonably, dreaming is often said to be something like daydreaming or active thinking. Perhaps this is why dream practices are so commonly underrated and misunderstood. We almost never seem to directly experience what it is like to be in a dream and so we never come to unravel the true intricacies of the dream state while we are still there.
So are dreams just like daydreams? A series of random and spontaneous dream images? Boring stories of the mind? Are we merely "observing" dreams, like when we are watching a movie in the cinema or gazing at at our television screen at home when a show is on? Or are dreams perhaps more interesting than that?
Touching and smelling dreams?In formal terms, dreams are vivid, immersive and multi-sensory hallucinatory experiences during sleep that seem to follow an associative narrative structure in which we actively engage on emotionally charged simulations of our waking life's experiences.
Yeah I know, that is a lot to chew on. Let's decompose that formal description into separate experiential features that are more easy to imagine and work with.
First off, dreams can be very vivid. We can dream amazing looking forests, vast cities, mountain ranges or entire galaxies that cover a full spectrum of colors. Also in terms of visual complexity, dreams can show incredible detail. There are even reports of people's dreams being more detailed and visually stunning than their visual experiences of real life. And dreams are animated too, not just a series of static stills. Dreams seem to be alive almost.
A dreaming human brain is easily capable of simulating a crowded day at Times Square in New York, covering for all the people, their clothing, their movement, their expressions, cars driving by, fumes, the stuffed stores and shops, the city lights, and buildings.
But the sense of sight is just one of the five dream senses that we are able to use in our dreams and lucid dreams. We also enjoy the dreamed senses of sound, touch, taste and even smell. We embody our dream senses in the same way as we embody and enjoy our bodily senses in waking life. We have a dream body, that does not only look like a real body but also feels amazingly realistic. We can voluntarily and deliberately move and control body parts and use our dream body to make sense of our dreams.
Luckily, pain is something that is not part of the neurological wiring of the dream. We could fall, be driven over by a dream car or even shot in a dream and not feel any kind of physical pain. After all, our dream body is not made of flesh and blood. It is a projection.
Walking across Times Square in a dream would then also include the sound of cars driving by, smelling the fumes, feeling your feet walk the pavement, bumping into other people, and perhaps tasting a delicious slice of dream pizza while you are on your way. All while you are asleep, dreaming.
Dreams feel real.Dreams are not boring cartoon-like stories of the mind, where we passively "look at" ourselves doing our typical dream-like things. It is not that our mind dreams about itself. It is more like we voluntarily explore and make sense of a imaginary world that our dreaming mind largely creates for us. Dreams feel much more spacious than people think: like worlds or environments that you can explore, rather than paintings that you can only look at.
If dreams feel that realistic - on a sensory level at least - than being in a dream is pretty much comparable to this waking moment.
Let's do a simple and quick exercise. Take a deep breath now. Look around. Really, look around and disconnect for a moment.
Spot colors, depth and dimension to what you might see. Perhaps people moving on the background. Listen to any sounds. The tone. The volume. Feel a sense of presence come over you while you allow this moment to be and become aware of your surroundings. Touch something in front of you. Feel the texture and the accompanying sensations in your fingertips. Become aware of your full sensory experience of this waking moment.
This is what a dream would feel like, while you are dreaming.
Let's take it one step further down the road. Imagine - for a moment - that this would actually be a dream.
Even though you might think that this is your real body, your real body is actually lying in bed in the real waking world. This would be your dream body. Everything you could see, feel, taste, smell and hear around you now - as real as it might seem - would be a product of your own dreaming mind.
No wonder why, in my first lucid dreams, I spent virtually all my initial dream time on just seeing, hearing, and touching arbitrary things like grass, animals, water, people, my own dream body. To me this level of immersion and brain power is still utterly fascinating. It is the paradox that is most intriguing to me: knowing that everything in the dream is essentially illusionary but at the same time feels as real as it feels like in the waking world.
Objects like a dream chair or a dream table for example would have real physical weight in the dream, even though you know that your dreaming mind simply derives and projects the ordinary physicality's of objects from waking life experiences onto any dream object in the dream. There is no real mass in dreams, obviously. It is all made out of mind-stuff.
Dream control.Next up: our dreaming mind does not force us to act out any pre-devised dream plot. Dreams are unrehearsed. Dreams unfold by the way we behave, feel and think while we are dreaming.
In this way dreams are mostly governed and guided by our own expectations during the dream - the dream plot is associative and follows our rules that we either consciously or subconsciously project upon our dream reality. You are always the director of your dreams, no matter whether you are aware of this or not.
Dream control is thus not something that is only relevant to lucid dreaming, we control our dreams all the time, no matter whether we are lucid or not. The art of dream control is not original to lucid dreaming and not like an "on or off" switch. In all of our dreams and lucid dreams we control. This might be part of the very function of dreaming.
Dreams are emotional.And last but not least: dreams are emotionally engaging. In dreams we can feel happy, angry, jealous, sad, in love; the same variety of emotions that we experience in our everyday waking lives.
Funny enough, there are generally no reports of people telling about dreams in which they were feeling bored - sitting on a park bench, doing nothing, just gazing around, wondering what to spend time on doing.
While dreaming we create emotionally charged situations that require our attention and solving; situations that are in certain ways rooted in our waking life's experiences and circumstances.
It is no wonder that our dreaming brain is as active during dreaming as when we are awake. Both in physiological and psychological terms, dreaming has very little to do with resting. Dreaming is about activation and learning.
Turning lucid while dreaming.So to revisit the definition we stated earlier: dreams are vivid, immersive and multi-sensory hallucinatory experiences during sleep that seem to follow an associative narrative structure in which we actively engage on emotionally charged simulations of our waking life's experiences.
What are lucid dreams like, then?
Lucid dreaming means dreaming while you know that you are dreaming. And once you know that you are in a dream, you can dream about anything you like. Pioneered by Dr. Stephen LaBerge at Stanford University, lucid dreams are natural to most people and scientifically studied since the early 1980s.
Lucid dreams seem to occur exclusively during REM sleep and so build upon the same fundamental experiential features of dreams that we just elaborated on. Also in lucid dreams we enjoy the same vividness, the same level of immersion, and multi-sensory engagement as it is for non-lucid dreams is concerned.
The Times Square dream case would also transfer to a lucid dream.
Imagine what it would be like to consciously explore the Times Square dream, emerged in the moving crowd, knowing that everything you see is a dream. You could think and reason clearly, would be able to recall circumstances, experiences or plans from your waking life, and could act and make decisions as usual. Like being "awake" in your dreams.
Make all your dreams come true, literally.But that does not quite answer why so many people are interested in learning lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming is not just about attaining dream awareness in the dream state, even though that by itself is spectacular enough for most to pursue and master the practice.
The thing is that once you know that you are dreaming, you know that your dreamworld is mostly directed and confined by your own expectations and associations at that time. It is your dream. Your imagination. Your brain.
In other words, lucidity is acquiring explicit knowledge of the dream context. That alone is enough to change your perspective on things and understanding your interconnected relationship to your dreamscapes. You are the dream.
Since dreams are unconstrained by any external physical or social laws, only your imagination would set the limits to what you might experience in dreams. When you are lucid, you suddenly realize: this is my world, this is my dream. I can do anything I want to do in my dreams.
You could decide to guide the dream plot to something that you might be more interested in to dream about, reshape the entire dreamscape - including the people, the setting, the buildings, the place.
You could adopt any kind of extra-ordinary superpower to travel mysterious dreamlands, meet amazingly wise and attractive people, be the main character of your favorite movie, or fly across the most stunning looking skies that you have ever seen in your life.
All in a hallucinatory world that is natural to our human evolution and feels almost as real as waking reality. That is - lucid dreaming.
And it is yours.