Lucid Dreaming: A Psychophysiological Approach to an Ancient Spiritual Practice

By Eve Frances Lorgen

Imagine experiencing your ultimate fantasy without undesirable risks or consequences. Think about communicating with your own unconscious mind, spiritual beings, or God for valuable clues to your most sought after question. Enlightenment itself.

For those who have an unrelenting quest for understanding dreams – and especially lucid dreaming – a phychophysiological model is a welcome approach. But first, let me define what a lucid dream is: The conscious awareness that one is dreaming while in the sleeping, dreaming state.

Lucid dreams are experienced by approximately 20 percent of the population, the majority are spontaneous occurrences. Fewer people practice lucid dreaming at will on a consistent basis. The percentage of lucid dreamers may be greater in various cultures and groups who practice spiritual traditions such as shamanism – a form of American Indian Medicine, Taoism, Buddhism, Tibetan dream yoga and specific disciplines aimed at developing the ‘witnessing consciousness’ of enlightenment.

As a biochemist, psychologist and lucid dreamer myself, I often wondered what biochemical and neurophysiological processes are responsible for the lucid dream state of consciousness, as well as the psychological and spiritual significance of lucid dreams.

Until relatively recently , sleep and dream researchers did not believe lucid dreams were possible. During the seventies, however, Stanford University Lucid Dream Researcher Stephen La Berge, Ph.D. proved under laboratory conditions that lucid dreams are not only possible, but repeatable occurrences in certain individuals. La Berge and his lucid dream associates developed mental techniques and exercises to enhance dream recall and activate lucid dreams, which were demonstrated to be successful. The team determined that with sufficient intent and mental discipline anyone can learn to lucid dream.

The physiological explanation of sleep and dreams has been largely defined through the study and interpretation of the EEG or electroencephalogram, an instrument which measures brain wave activity, or specifically, the electrical bursts of neuronal activity, muscle tone, and eye movement.

There are five distinct phases of brain activity in sleep: Stages 1, 2, 3, 4, and REM or rapid eye movement phase, the latter also referred to as paradoxical sleep, in which dreaming occurs. The first stage of sleep is light and usually lasts no more than 10 minutes. In this stage one may experience visual hypnogagic imagery. Stage 2 follows, lasting another 10 minutes characterized by slower and more rhythmic theta brain waves of light sleep. As stages 3 and 4 progress, slow delta waves replace the theta waves. Deep sleep takes place in stages 3 and 4. If subjects are awakened during this stage, they are disoriented and report mental activity as being more thought-like rather than dreamlike.

The next phase of sleep, REM – where dreaming occurs – is considered paradoxical because brain wave activity resembles waking consciousness except for relaxed, paralyzed muscle tone. Some believe that the simultaneous muscle paralysis of REM sleep is natures way of protecting sleepers from acting out their dreams which could be harmful – even fatal. Sleepwalking and night terrors do not occur in REM sleep, instead they occur in stages 3 and 4. Both sleepwalking and night terrors are considered a sleep arousal problem occurring mostly in young children. They run in families, suggesting an heredity factor.

Throughout the night, the normal human sleep cycle repeats itself 4 to 5 times, each cycle (stages 1, 2, 3, 4, and REM) lasting approximately 90 minutes. As each sleep cycle progresses, REM time increases and stages 3 and 4 decrease. In some cases, the sleeper alternates between stage 2 and REM, omitting stages 3 and 4. In rare cases of narcoleptic sleep paralysis (and even sleep deprivation), the sleeper may enter REM sleep almost immediately, often consciously and with hallucinations. Some lucid dreamers can enter the REM state consciously, usually right after an awakening while still very relaxed, or during a daytime nap. This, however, is different from narcoleptic sleep paralysis. (A similar state occurs in some alien encounters, and may be a deliberate neurological state the aliens externally impose on their “experiencers.”) The last two hours of sleep contain the largest amounts of REM dream-time, and it is usually these dreams that we can recall most readily upon awakening.

So what is the biological or evolutionary significance and function of REM sleep? It is known that the theta brain wave rhythm is associated with REM sleep. The hippocampus portion of the inner brain is the source of theta and appears to be generated in all mammals during periods which are crucial to learning. All placental and marsupial mammals share theta rhythm during REM sleep. An interesting observation is also the inordinate amount of time spent in the REM cycle of sleep in newborns and very young children, suggesting that dreaming is intimately connected to learning and memory storage.

Lucid dreaming takes place in REM sleep. It is characterized by a higher amount of CNS (central nervous system) activity than normal, non-lucid REM sleep. Normally in REM sleep the critical faculty of the brain is switched off. More specifically, the aminergic neurons in the brainstem are at their lowest levels in REM sleep. The neurotransmitters responsible for activating the aminergic neurons in the brainstem are somehow inhibited, or more accurately, being conserved for the following day. These neurotransmitters are specifically related to the critical attentional and learning tasks. The absence, rest, or inhibition of their function perfectly fits the pattern one finds in non-lucid dreams of a non-critical consciousness, which blindly accepts bizarre events, and loss of contextual and referencing faculties.

Normally, when the aminergic neurons are inhibited in REM sleep, the muscle tone is also inhibited or paralyzed. But somehow, in lucid dreaming the aminergic neurons – hence the critical faculty – is switched on, while muscle paralysis is still maintained. Only when, for some mysterious, accidental, or evolutionary reason, the self referencing faculty suddenly awakens, do we find ourselves in a lucid dream.

As humans, our reflective consciousness or creative attentiveness, is the self same function that we find in lucidity. Dr.Stephen La Berge has insightfully pointed out that lucid dreamers are able to act reflectively, freeing themselves from the compulsion of habit. Seen in this light, lucid dreaming does not appear at all to be a mere abnormality, but perhaps represents a highly adaptive function, the most advanced product of millions of years of biological evolution.

In light of the currently available research on the various aspects of lucid dreaming, I would surmise that the human will alone can alter our own biochemistry and perhaps even change the genetic blueprint for our level of consciousness – and who we are yet to become.

Bibliography

La Berge, Stephen, Ph.D., “Lucid Dreaming” ,Tarcher Inc. L.A., 1985

La Berge, Stephen, Ph.D., “Exploring the World of Lucid Dreams”, Ballantine Books, New York, 1990

• Goodwin, Malcolm, “The Lucid Dreamer”, Simon & Schuster, 1994

• Hishikawa, Y., “Sleep Paralysis, Narcolepsy”, Advances in Sleep Research, (1976) Vol. 3; 97-124

La Berge, Stephen, Ph.D., “Lucid Dreaming: Psychophysiological Studies of Consciousness during REM Sleep.” Amer. Psychological Association, 1990 (pp. 109-126)

 

 

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