Theory and practice of lucid dreaming according to Western psychology

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Lucid dreaming is a practice that involves maintaining a state of consciousness during the dream state. This practice has been incorporated into the traditional doctrines of many cultures and has recently gained traction in experimental psychology. The primary difference between the scientific and traditional approaches lies in their respective scopes: the scientific perspective aims to explore dream states to stimulate self-healing potential, with a particular focus on addressing nightmares. Conversely, the traditional, esoteric, and initiatory point of view seeks to unify the states of wakefulness, dream, and deep sleep through a continuous presence. It is noteworthy that scientific techniques for inducing lucidity share many similarities with corresponding practices in spiritual traditions, despite their differing orientations.

The psychological theories of lucid dreaming

The theory of thought duality

This interpretation posits that the human psyche operates in two distinct modes: a rational and logical mode, which adheres to the Freudian reality principle and manifests itself in the ordinary conscious state, and a hallucinatory mode, which is determined by unconscious motivations and is primarily observed during the dream state and daytime reveries. The switching hypothesis suggests that these two modes alternate without ever overlapping. In the masking theory, the diurnal modality typically dominates while the perceptual modality remains outside the sphere of awareness; conversely, in the dream state, the latter prevails. However, the emergence of elements of everyday thinking leads to the experience of lucid dreaming.

Cognitive maps and perceptual construction processes

This interpretation assumes that the human mind utilises two cognitive models: the cognitive map and the perceptual process. The former constitutes a long-term model that taps into past experiences stored in memory, enabling an individual to navigate the world through a simplified and functional structure. The latter involves a model of world- and self-construction that arises from sensory perceptions, which are immediate and constantly changing. The interaction between perceptual processes and the cognitive map creates a plausible perception of reality by acknowledging what is already in memory. Concurrently, the sensory elaboration of one’s interiority supports the knowing subject in the process of self-identification, without which there would be no perception of the world. The reality model is derived from the internal and external sensory information and their adaptation through the cognitive map.

The cognitive process generates a series of hypotheses and models of reality. Only the most stable models are utilized to establish the current perception of reality. Other hypotheses are either dismissed or employed to create imaginative or dreamlike realities. During periods of sleep, the absence of external sensory input can lead to the acceptance of alternative, at times inconsistent or bizarre facts, as is commonly observed in regular dream states. In contrast, lucid dreams, false awakenings, and out-of-body experiences emerge naturally from cognitive models that do not rely on external sensory input. Specifically, the out-of-body experience strives to construct a cognitive map as similar as possible to external reality, with the resulting information being experienced as if it were external inputs.

Lucidity induction techniques

Experimental psychology outlines specific techniques that can trigger a lucid dream-like state. These techniques include:

  1. Preliminary exercises. They may involve maintaining a dream journal to enhance the likelihood of experiencing lucid dreaming. It is widely acknowledged that dream memory can significantly influence the ability to achieve lucidity during sleep [1].
  2. Recognise the conditions associated with lucidity. The identification of lucidity is associated with a particular set of conditions. Increased physical, emotional, or cognitive activity often characterises these conditions. Within the context of dreams, certain events can signal to the dreamer that they are in a state of lucidity. These events may include false awakenings, discrepancies in the dream’s plot, dreams of flight, elements from previous dreams, uncertainty about the dream’s location, and even nightmares. By thoroughly understanding these conditions and circumstances, individuals can better recognise when they are experiencing a lucid dream state.
  3. Creating the right conditions. For example, waking up during REM sleep [2] is advisable, which is the pre-dream stage and typically occurs before dawn. Additionally, engaging in a relaxing activity before going back to sleep, such as reading or meditating, can be beneficial. It is noteworthy that sleeping on your right side can promote these optimal conditions [3].
  4. The reality test technique. The reality test technique involves treating the waking experience as a dream in a manner similar to Naropa’s dream yoga practices [4]. This involves mentally associating specific actions performed during the day, such as opening a door or observing a traffic light, with the concept of dreaming.
  5. Creative imagination techniques. The implementation of creative imagination techniques involves re-envisioning one’s waking dreams, with the aim of reliving them with maximum intensity and subsequently transforming them, utilising one’s imagination, into lucid dreams.
  6. Intentional techniques. . Intentional techniques involve the deliberate programming of actions during the waking state, which can subsequently be recognised as dream signals in the dream state.
  7. Mnemonic techniques. Among the mnemonic induction techniques, the most widely recognised approach is as follows:
    1. During instances of spontaneous or premeditated awakenings after a dream, re-experience the dream until it is committed to memory.
    2. Return to your bed and consciously remind yourself to recall any dreams that occur during your subsequent sleep cycle.
    3. Visualise your body asleep in bed and, simultaneously, see yourself in the previous dream, waking up and realising that you are dreaming.
    4. Perform steps 2 and 3 again.
  8. Continuous techniques. Enter a dream state directly from a waking state, preferably following a nocturnal awakening.
  9. Phenomenological observation. The practice of phenomenological observation involves adopting a detached perspective, akin to that of a camera lens, through which one can observe reality without becoming overly identified with its various aspects.
  10. The practice of perceptual awareness. Perceptual awareness involves directing one’s attention to kinaesthetic sensations while in a state of wakefulness.
  11. The practice of constructive awareness. The concept of constructive awareness pertains to the perception of reality and the flow of experience as being created by oneself.
  12. Resolution technique. The resolution technique involves the deliberate decision to maintain uninterrupted awareness during both waking and sleeping states by considering all experiences as the substance of a dream. This method is commonly employed in Tibetan dream yoga practices.
  13. Travelling. Travelling is a viable means of inducing lucid dreams. The change in environment and sleeping arrangements can also facilitate the occurrence of such dreams.
  14. Combined techniques. It is recommended to employ a combination of the techniques outlined, considering your personal level of sensitivity and expertise.
  15. The nap. Taking a nap can be beneficial for inducing lucid dreaming, mainly if it is done in the morning, anticipating the usual awakening time.

Once an individual has achieved a stable ability to acquire lucid dreams, they may employ various techniques to prolong the duration of lucidity. These techniques may include introspection regarding the dream scenario, taking control of the dream, compelling oneself to execute predetermined actions, and envisioning oneself in flight.