Theory and practice of lucid dreams according to Western psychology

Italian version

The practice of lucid dreams aims at maintaining the 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 of lucid dreaming to stimulate the potential for self-healing, in particular 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 spiritual traditions’ corresponding practices.

The psychological theories of lucid dreaming

The theory of duality of thought

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. The hallucinatory modality remains outside the awareness, and in the dream state, the latter predominates. However, the appearance of fringes of the daily operative thought 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 from past experiences stored in memory that allows the individual, through a simplified and functional structure, to orientate himself 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 into 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 several hypotheses and models of reality, but only the most stable one is used to construct the current model. The others are discarded or used for the creation of 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 result from creating models not based on external sensory inputs. In particular, the out-of-body experience would attempt to build a cognitive map as similar as possible to external reality.

Lucidity induction techniques

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

  1. Preliminary exercises, which summarily result in noting one’s dreams in a diary, in the consideration that the memory of the dream seems to favour 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 dreamer of the dream state in which he is (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 [2] phase preceding dreams (usually before dawn), engage in an activity and then return 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 the 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 certain specific 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 at the same time see yourself in the previous dream as soon as you get up and realise 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 detaching yourself from the identifications that occur with reality’s various aspects.
  10. The practice of perceptual awareness. Focus attention during wakefulness on kinesthetic 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 a state of uninterrupted awareness during wakefulness and sleep, thinking that all things are of a dream’s substance. It is a practice described in Tibetan dream yoga.
  13. To travel. Changing your environment or sleeping in a bed other than your own would promote lucid dreams.
  14. Combined techniques. Apply more techniques among those described, according to your sensitivity and experience.
  15. The nap. It would favour lucid dreaming, mainly if carried out in the morning, anticipating the time of habitual 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, dreaming of flying.