Theory and practice of lucid dreams according to Western psychology

Italian version

The practice of lucid dreaming aims to maintain waking consciousness in the dream state. It’s integrated into the body of many traditional doctrines and, in recent times, has also received attention from experimental psychology. The fundamental difference between the two approaches lies in the purpose: the scientific perspective strives to explore the dream states to stimulate the potential for self-healing, particularly in the treatment of nightmares; from the traditional, esoteric and initiatory point of view, the practice of lucid dreaming aims to unify the states of wakefulness, dream and deep sleep across the continuum of a single presence. Beyond the differences in orientation, it is helpful to recognise that the scientific techniques for inducing lucidity have strong similarities with the corresponding practices of spiritual traditions.

The psychological theories of lucid dreaming

The theory of thought duality

According to this interpretation, the human mind splits into two operating modes: a logical, rational one, guided by the Freudian principle of reality, which manifests itself in the ordinary state of consciousness; a hallucinatory one, which follows unconscious motivations and is the prerogative of the dream state and daytime reveries. For the switching hypothesis, these two modes alternate without ever overlapping. In the masking hypothesis, the diurnal modality is dominant most of the time, while the perceptive modality remains outside the awareness; in the dream state, the latter predominates. However, the appearance of fringes of everyday operational thinking leads to the experience of lucid dreaming.

Cognitive maps and perceptual construction processes

According to this interpretation, the human mind uses two cognitive models: the cognitive map, a long-term model assumed by past experiences stored in memory that allows the individual, through a simplified and functional structure, to orient themselves in the world; and the perceptual process, a pattern of construction of the world and oneself deriving from sensory perceptions, which are immediate and constantly changing. The interchange between perceptual processes and the cognitive map provides a plausible perception of reality based on recognising what is already in memory; the sensory elaboration of one’s inwardness supports the knowing subject in the self-identification process, without which there would be no perception of the world. The reality model derives from internal and external sensory information and their adaptation through the cognitive map.

The elaboration of this cognitive process produces different hypotheses and reality models, but only the most stable one is used to build the current model. Others are discarded or used to create imaginative or dream realities. In sleep, the lack of external sensory inputs allows the acceptance of alternative facts, sometimes inconsistent or bizarre as in the normal dream state. Conversely, based on the cognitive model, lucid dreams, false awakenings, and out-of-body experiences naturally arise from creating models not based on external sensory inputs. In particular, the out-of-body experience would attempt to construct a cognitive map as similar as possible to external reality, whose information would be experienced as if they were external inputs.

Lucidity induction techniques

The techniques inducing dream lucidity, according to experimental psychology, consist of:

  1. Preliminary exercises. They include noting one’s dreams in a diary, considering that dream memory favours a lucid dream activity [1].
  2. Recognise the conditions associated with lucidity. These conditions are the accentuation of physical, emotional or cognitive activity. Specific events in the dream context can inform the dreamers of their dream state (false awakenings, the discrepancy in the dream plot, dreaming of flying, events that occurred in previous dreams, questioning the place of the dream, nightmares).
  3. Creating the right conditions. For example, schedule awakening in the REM phase [2] preceding dreams (usually before dawn), engage in an activity and then go back to sleep. Sleeping on the right side [3].
  4. The reality taste technique. Like Naropa’s dream yoga practices [4], the method considers the waking experience as a dream, associating this thought with specific acts performed during the day (opening a door, seeing a traffic light, etc.).
  5. Creative imagination techniques. They consist of re-dreaming one’s dreams while awake, trying to relive them as intensely as possible and transform them, in the imaginary, into lucid dreams.
  6. Intentional techniques. They consist of programming actions in the waking state to recognise them in the dream state as dream signals.
  7. Mnemonic techniques. Among the mnemonic induction techniques, the best known is this:
    1. During spontaneous or programmed awakenings after a dream, relive the dream until you memorise it.
    2. Go back to bed, telling yourself that you will remember dreaming during the next dream.
    3. Visualise your body asleep in bed and, simultaneously, see yourself in the previous dream getting up and realising that you are dreaming.
    4. Repeat b and c.
  8. Continuous techniques. Enter a dream directly from the waking state, preferably after a nocturnal awakening.
  9. Phenomenological observation. Observe reality as though through the camera lens, detaching oneself from the identifications that occur with the various aspects of reality itself.
  10. The practice of perceptual awareness. Focus attention during wakefulness on kinaesthetic sensations.
  11. The practice of constructive awareness. Perceiving reality and the flow of experience as one’s creation.
  12. Resolution technique. It consists of making the final and absolute decision to maintain uninterrupted awareness during wakefulness and sleep, thinking that all things are of the substance of a dream. It is a practice described in Tibetan dream yoga.
  13. Travel. Changing your environment or sleeping in a different bed than yours would promote lucid dreams.
  14. Combined techniques. Apply more than one of the techniques described, according to your sensitivity and experience.
  15. The nap. It would favour lucid dreaming, especially if done in the morning, anticipating the time of usual awakening.

Once the ability to obtain lucid dreams has stabilised, it is possible to move on to techniques to increase the time of lucidity, such as reflecting on the dream situation, leading the dream, forcing oneself to perform previously fixed actions, and dreaming of flying.