Watch and read the full transcript of Tim Post’s TEDx Talk: Lucid Dreaming at TEDxTwenteU conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: lucid-dreaming-by-tim-post-at-tedxtwenteu
Tim Post – Lucid dreaming instructor
Thank you. When I was seven years old, I had this recurring nightmare. I dreamt about this huge and boundless space. There were no trees, no buildings, even no other people in the dream; there was just me. And I was locked up in a tiny iron cage by the old, and awful, and scary-looking Snow White witch not from the fairytale with the poisonous apple.
Now, in that dream I felt truly terrified. So, as soon as I woke up from the nightmare in the middle of the night, I ran to my mom. I was crying. I woke her up, and I told her about my nightmare. And she would always reassure me of the simple fact it was just a dream, that the old witch was just part of my dreaming mind, that there was no real physical danger, that these were just dreams.
And so feeling a bit more reassured and safe, I’d return to sleep, but at one particular night, at the exact same nightmare, in that following sleep period, so, suddenly, I found myself again in that iron cage, holding on to the iron bars, and looking to the old witch, while remembering what my mother said to me just a few hours ago, “Tim, this is just a dream.”
Now, interestingly, that realization did not wake me up, so I knew that I was dreaming while still being in the dream. And I can still vividly recall how I looked around in the dream, had a sense of my own dream body, which felt incredibly real, although I knew that my real physical body was actually lying in bed asleep in some other place called waking life. It was a stunning, very profound experience, and at the same time, I didn’t feel scared by the old witch, because I knew she was just part of my dreaming mind. So, I really felt empowered and free.
Now, as a seven-year-old kid, I had no idea that these kinds of dreams in which you know that you are dreaming are scientifically referred to as lucid dreams, and that these lucid dreams seem to almost exclusively occur in a sleep stage that we call REM sleep, rapid eye movement sleep. And that’s a stage in which we experience our most vivid, most immersive dreams. And so these are not your typical one-dimensional, daydream-like experiences in which you’re just visualizing something, and you still have a sense of your own physical body, and you’re just imagining stuff.
Now, in these REM sleep dreams — that will be true for our lucid dreams as well — we are provided with this fully immersive, three-dimensional, multi-sensory hallucinatory experience. So, it feels like almost being absorbed into your imagination. You own this dream body that you can use and move around with, not just to look at your dream surroundings, but, for example, to touch the dream ground, its texture, its hardness. That’s how real our dreams are each and every night in REM sleep. It’s incredible. You could listen to dream music, or someone’s voice in a dream. You could even smell or taste dream food. Wow!
Now, at the same time, the lucid dream provides for limitless flexibility, as our dreaming mind is continuously listening to and giving shape to our thoughts and intentions while we are dreaming. And so, once you turn lucid in a dream, you could consciously and reflectively refocus your thoughts and intentions in order to reshape the entire dream, and dream about anything that you could imagine while you are dreaming. So, you could allow an entire dream city to appear, or your favorite sports car, or you could give yourself any kind of superhero power that you can imagine, like flying or walking through walls, or you could just consciously decide to explore the dream while knowing that it is a dream, just go to the left, or go to the right, or just leave the dream as it is.
Lastly, that the lucid dream is a learnable skill. So about 20% of the general population of us has at least one spontaneous lucid dream each month, but now through scientific study, there are various cognitive techniques that anyone can learn to apply in order to have these lucid dreams deliberately.
And so, now, today, there are thousands and thousands of lucid dreamers all over the world, who are practicing lucid dreaming to have these extraordinary dream experiences that are impossible or very unlikely according to our ordinary waking life social and physical standards. So, for example, they are an exciting flying dream in which you are a superhero and fly above the clouds, or this exhilarating adventure in which they are the main character in their own blockbuster dream movie, or romantic dream. Of course, there are many other lucid dreams that you can think of, because anything is possible in a lucid dream, right? Kind of incredible.
Now if you take a closer look at these three lucid dream features, and you would kind of add them up, you might come to see that a lucid dream provides for this fully immersive, virtual simulator. Now that functional description is not far from what scientists believe to be the function of our ordinary REM dreams, although, more precisely, the function of threat simulation and its related memory consolidation. So, for example, in the old days, when we would encounter this dangerous bear in waking life, and we would be frightened and hopefully be able to survive, then that following night, our dreaming mind would pick up on those waking life threats, simulate those in our dreams in order for our dreaming mind to reinforce on the neural circuits that are involved with the schemas, the expectations, and the scripts that we need to effectively survive the next waking life threat. The following day, when we would encounter a slightly different bear in a slightly different circumstance.
In modern days, most people don’t dream about dangerous bear encounters anymore. We would dream about an angry boss encounter, or a family member, or a friend, or whatever that we need to cope with in order to socially survive. And through that same process, our dreaming mind picks up on those social threats and simulates those in our dreams in order to reinforce those related to schemas, and scripts, and so on.
Now, imagine turning lucid in those dreams, and to consciously and reflectively enhance that function of psychological development, and use the flexibility of the lucid dream to experiment with improved behavior to learn from in the lucid dream, so that then, the next day, when you would wake up, you could implement those learning experiences and improve your waking life circumstances from what you have learned and experimented within a lucid dream to improve your psychological well-being.
Now the emerging science of lucid dreaming has now generated evidence to suggest just that: that lucid dreaming can be used as an incredibly valuable tool to enhance psychological development, and is now invested into various research areas, like nightmare treatment, mental rehearsal, creative problem solving. So, as a lucid dream practitioner myself, as a researcher, and a trainer, I teach people from all over the world how to have and apply these lucid dreams. I really believe that the application of lucid dreaming is an idea that is worth spreading today at TEDx.
Now scientists were initially quite skeptical about this phenomenon of lucid dreams, “This is impossible.” By definition, dreams lack this reflective awareness, right? Therefore, they are dreams. So, this cannot be possible. Others said, “Well, perhaps a lucid dream is just an ordinary dream in which we merely dream about being lucid, which is something different, right?” Others said, well, still say today, actually — “Well, ordinary REM sleep just cannot allow for lucidity. So, the lucid dream must be some kind of a hybrid state of consciousness in which one part of the brain is awake, while the other part is dreaming, or some brief awakening from sleep in which our mind still lingers a bit in REM sleep, and through that we could know that we are dreaming.”
In the early 1980s, a sleep researcher called Stephen LaBerge, at that time working at Stanford University, conducted this ingenious experiment to scientifically verify the existence of lucid dreams. And he’d done this through basing his experiment on an earlier study that had shown that our dream eye movements are reflected by our actual eye movements behind closed eyelids when we are in bed, dreaming.
So, for example, when you would be in a dream, or a lucid dream, you could look to the left, right, left, right, left, and our actual eye movements behind closed eyelids in bed would also show the same kind of left-right-left-right movement. So, Stephen thought that’s interesting and quite useful, because obviously, we could instruct lucid dreamers as research subjects to make any kind of distinctive eye signal in their lucid dream, therefore, verify that they are lucid, and that the lucid dream is real. And that’s what he did.
So, what you see here is a one-minute episode of someone who is in the sleep lab, hooked up to all kinds of electronics, electrodes, and you see four different data channels. Here, the uppermost channel shows the brain activity, in this case, characteristics of REM, left eye movements, right eye movements, and the muscle tone, completely absent in REM sleep, also characteristic of REM.
So, Stephen instructed all of his research subjects, including this single case, to make a left-right-left-right eye movement as soon as they – that he – turned lucid in a dream, and make that signal twice once he thought he’d awaken from sleep. So, that next very minute, this subject successfully signals from his REM sleep dream that he’s just lucid. “I’m lucid”, making the eye signals. The next minute, something strange happens. The subject signals that he is awake, while the data shows that he is clearly still in REM sleep — I mean, no muscle tone, brain activity is characteristic of REM, and obviously, the subject seems still being asleep — so hmm, what’s happening here?
Then the next minute, the subject makes a lucid eye signal again, but makes incorrect one first, and corrects for it. Only a few moments later, he actually awakens from sleep. You can see the muscle tone reappears, and the according to brain activity, that is characteristic of wakefulness. At that point, the researchers came into the lab, approached the subject and said, “What were you just dreaming about?” The subject said, “I had a lucid dream, and I successfully signaled that I was lucid, but then, a few moments later, I only dreamt about waking up in the sleep lab, and some weird-looking sleep researcher came to me, ripped off the electrodes from my skull, and I thought, “That’s bold. That’s not the correct procedure. Perhaps I’m still dreaming. So, I rediscovered that I was dreaming, did the lucid signal again, and made a mistake first. So, I waited a moment for you guys to know in the sleep lab that I would redo the signal, did the lucid signal again, until a few moments later, I woke up.” Incredible. This piece of evidence clearly shows, undoubtedly, that lucid dreaming is real, and that it happens during uninterrupted REM sleep dreaming.
Today there’s much more advanced technology in which we can study the lucid dream state and compare it to the waking state and the state of REM sleep. So now, scientists are discussing whether REM sleep could allow for this reflective awareness, or whether the lucid dream is this hybrid state of consciousness, a different state in which one part of a brain is awake, while the other part is dreaming. Many more future studies are needed to turn these theories into facts.
However, all of this research has led us to a far better understanding of how to train people to become frequent lucid dreamers, and to assign them to all kinds of interesting lucid dream experiments in which they could do all kinds of things in their lucid dreams. And so then scientists could study and explore the way, the effect of those lucid dreams on their waking life performance.
So now, scientists are venturing into nightmare treatment. Think about someone who is suffering from a post-traumatic disorder, who has for example, served in wartime, and still has these terrible nightmares about being in war and fear for his life. Our lucid dreams can be used to treat those nightmares and to complement their daytime therapies by training such a patient to become lucid in his nightmare, and to resolve and rescript a nightmare while he is having it, rather than only in a retrospective way the next day in just talking about it. The evidence shows that lucid dreaming can even be used for that purpose, to treat nightmares, which is incredibly valuable application.
Mental rehearsal: think about sport athletes, how they can make use of the immersive lucid dream to rehearse peak performances, to prepare for sport competitions, and rehearse all kinds of complex sport movements. Again, evidence is showing that lucid dreams can be used for this purpose. Incredible.
Creative problem solving: how we can make use of the creative nature of our REM sleep dreams to come to new ideas, visualize a business solution, visualize your new refurnished home and experiment with it in a lucid dream, or rehearse and develop your TEDx presentation. Despite the fact that lucid dreaming is not yet formally employed in psychiatric practices, and many more future studies are needed to support the claims that I just made, research clearly shows the use and power of lucid dreaming to improve our psychological well-being.
And so I would really like to encourage researchers and training professionals to embrace this phenomenon of lucid dreaming, to inspire and more effectively equip patients, athletes, and our general lucid dream practitioners of tomorrow. And I would also like to encourage you to have a lucid dream, and to explore this fascinating state of consciousness, and not just to empower and improve your dream life but your waking life as well.
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