Lessons from Thinking About Lucid Dreams

This article was inspired by an article on Lucid Dreaming at The Urban Spiritual blog, a beautifully illustrated blog that’s a great source of daily inspiration for anyone interested in spirituality.

I will talk about Lucid Dreaming, discuss some objections to the concept, and see what arises upon confronting those objections.

A Lucid Dream is a dream in which the dreamer knows s/he is dreaming.  Often this is accompanied by greater vividness and the ability to control the dream.

Lucid Dreaming seems uncontroversial, but there are some objections to its plausibility.

The Bandwidth Objection: Claims the brain doesn’t have enough power to generate the on-the-fly vividness Lucid Dreaming requires.  Regular dreams are ok because they are pre-determined and can be constructed in advance.

The Consciousness Objection: Claims that dream and waking consciousness are mutually exclusive.

The False Memory Objection: Claims that dreams don’t really happen, but are false memories constructed when we wake up.  Curious features of dreams are used to support this.  For instance, one person had a long and vivid dream about being led to a guillotine and beheaded, then woke up to find something fell on his neck. Considering this would have woken him instantly, this means the entire dream unfolded in under a second or it was a false memory, implanted by the sensation of something falling on his neck.  The latter is more plausible.

These objections may have no merit, but it’s useful to think about them.  Fortunately, they only attack the reality of the dream, not the experience itself.  Since the experience is all I care about, both the objections and the (relevant portion of) Lucid Dreaming can both be true.  I’ll illustrate this with a true story.

A long time ago, I had a Lucid Dream.   I woke up, recalled it and recalled being aware it was a dream, and being in control of my actions.  I concluded the latter because I felt a sense of intention preceding each dream act and all my actions were logical — they were exactly what I would have chosen to do.

How solid were these reasons? Each reason can be attacked.

First, I could have been dreaming that it was a dream. After all, in any dream I can “know” things, so why wouldn’t I “know” I was dreaming as part of the dream? Is that even coherent?  What’s the difference between knowing something as part of a dream and knowing it because my waking consciousness is in on it, considering my experience and the truth of the knowledge is identical in both cases?

Second, my actions could have been determined, yet happened to coincide with what I would have done.

Finally, the intention was just a feeling. I could have had no control, yet felt the intention, and it would have been indistinguishable from having control.

So in theory, this could have been a non-Lucid Dream — a dream of a Lucid Dream.  Granted, it’s improbable to have a dream with all those features, but I also was trying to Lucidly Dream during this period, and I sometimes dream about things that occupy my attention, so is it that far fetched?

A dream of a Lucid Dream would seem just like a Lucid Dream.  What’s more, since it’s a regular dream, it would not be subject to any Lucid Dreaming objections since events would be determined, it would not involve waking consciousness, and it could have been constructed upon waking up.

So in every way that matters, a dream of a Lucid Dream might as well be a Lucid Dream — unless my motives involve this being “real”.    In fact, the reality of a Lucid Dream is so nebulous a concept that it seems incoherent.  What does it mean to really know vs. to think one knows, where in both cases the thing known is the same?  What does it mean to really control something or believe one controls it when the two experiences are identical even down to the sense of agency?

In fact, arguing that something appears identical to X but is not “really” X is substance ontology, the claim of an undetectable identity that is somehow real enough to be the necessary and sole condition for X.

Reflecting on Lucid Dreams can raise fascinating questions about our waking life.

First, that a dream may just be a false memory makes me wonder if my life is the same. How do I know any past event happened?  In fact, considering how vanishingly thin the present is, memories are the bulk of my life — if not my entire life. Even “ongoing” events are mostly memory. For example, if I watch a car drive by, I get a meaningless jumble of impressions, which only takes shape as an event when combined with memories (of previous positions).

Next, if my dream was determined, yet seemed free because of after-the-fact logic and a sense of intention, then  how do I know I’m free in real life? After all, these (and often, not even the first) are how I decide I’m free in real life. In fact, the (faux?) Lucid Dream I recounted above made me doubt free will for the first time.

Lucid dreaming is fun, and that’s reason enough to do it. Worrying about whether it’s real is to ask an incoherent question that not only misses the point, but reveals the kind of looking-a-gift-horse-in-the-mouth tendency that may be the biggest barrier to happiness in general. That’s not to say thinking about its reality is unimportant; it could be important, as it can provide insights into our waking life.  But as an experience, it can and should be enjoyed on its own merit and not ruined by ontological assertions.

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4 thoughts on “Lessons from Thinking About Lucid Dreams

  1. No objection. I’ve had plenty of lucid dreams since I was a kid. As you say, whether it happens in one second or in thirty minutes is irrelevant. Your life could be exactly the same. After all, most of what we believe is a fabrication of our unconscious mind anyway.

  2. Very well thought-out and written. I agree with your final statement. I once had a lucid dream in which I’d felt several years had past. I remembered very specific events and progression of my life in that dream. It was an incredibly profound experience for me. Living another life in just one night. Whether it was a fabricated memory or not, it was real to me. I have a journal entry chalk full of details to prove that. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for the referral to my blog!

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