Having slept off the effects of my long, less-than-restful night at the Stanford Sleep Center, I'm bidding adieu for a while to the world of standard sleep medicine and traveling out onto the emerging frontiers of sleep research, where some fascinating things are going on.
My first stop: a visit with Stephen LaBerge, a world- famous psycho-physiologist who claims you can control your dreams and make them as tangibly real as your waking life. According to LaBerge, by mastering the techniques of lucid dreaming you can enjoy any fantasy adventure — fly to the stars, swim with a pod of whales, travel in time, make love along the Seine — with your awareness and your senses fully intact.
A Lucid Dream
Skeptical? I'd be, too, except for two considerations. First is the clinical mindset with which LaBerge approaches his work — over more than 20 years, his landmark research has scientifically verified and explored the phenomenon of lucid dreaming.
The second thing is I just had one of my own.
It happened last Tuesday. I woke in my hotel room late at night and rose to visit the john. When I reached for the light switch, it wasn't there. I groped along the wall, searched behind the towel rack, reached behind the door...
My fingers slid across the cool wall tiles and the bumpy grout lines in between. I felt the nubby terrycloth towels as I pushed them aside. I checked behind the curtain and heard rain spattering outside the louvered window. But the wall switch was nowhere to be found.
Puzzled, I wondered if I was dreaming. I'd been working on lucid dream techniques for weeks now, following instructions sent to me by LaBerge, and I knew that the first difficult step toward lucidity was to recognize a dream while you're in one. But I shrugged off the notion that the disappearing light switch was a tip-off. I was too clear-headed; the room around me was too tangible and real. Look, there's my razor, my toothbrush, my Tums.
To be sure, I wrapped my fist around my left forearm and squeezed hard — the arm felt solid and fleshy. Then I spread my hands in front of my face. I recognized the lifeline and the wedding ring and the little scar where Bob Marino stabbed me with a Number 2 pencil in the seventh grade. They were my hands, all right, except that the fingers were as flat and limp as fettuccine noodles.
Making Your Dreams Come True: Power of the Mind
My jaw dropped. At the instant I knew I was dreaming, the room was flooded with light. I saw a vivid reflection of myself in the mirror. When I turned, it turned, then it rotated slowly, as if showing off. A moment later I was outdoors in an inexpressibly beautiful park. A soft breeze rustled the arching treetops above me. There were hillsides of flowers and a deep blue sky. I drank in the dazzling detail — the rough bark of a tree trunk, the gravel path crunching beneath my feet, the iridescent blue songbird splashing in a puddle. No, I decided, this can't be a dream. I have too much presence, too much control. Anyway, how could all this heartbreaking beauty, this incredibly vivid detail, be a product of my slumbering mind?
A Mental Construct
I told LaBerge about the dream the moment we met at his research facility, the Lucidity Institute, in Palo Alto. He wasn't surprised. "Reality is not out there, it's in here," he said, as he gently tapped his head. "Even when you're awake, what you think of as the world is not what you see, it's an inference of what you see, a mental construction built by the brain from the input the senses have provided."
According to LaBerge, the sleeping brain, like the waking brain, tries to construct a model of reality, but with no external sensory input to work with, it draws its building blocks from internal sources: your memories, your hopes, your desires or your fears. "Dreaming shows you the kind of world you'd build if left to your own devices," says LaBerge, and that's why experiences in dreamland can be just as sensually real as the reality built for you by your waking brain.
"Asleep or awake, the vivid reality of experience is in the mind," he says. "Either way, from the brain's point of view, what's happening is really happening."
From personal experience, I have to agree. The most remarkable thing about my own short lucid dream was how firmly, how lucidly, I insisted that I must be awake. Looking back, I wish I'd done something more with the moment. After all, it's as if I'd suddenly been handed my own universe to play with.
But LaBerge's interests in lucid dreaming extend beyond the potential for play. He thinks dream experiences can help us overcome fears, build confidence and, if we open our minds, help us separate illusion from the truly real and transcendent. To further those goals, he established the Lucidity Institute, where tomorrow he will introduce us to a group of accomplished lucid dreamers.