As scientists get closer to understanding the functions of dreams, they’re increasingly realising their potential to impact our waking lives and inform who we are as people. Find out why embracing the totality of your consciousness could be the key to living a life you really, truly, could only dream about.
There’s a crystal garden in space Peter Maich likes to visit. It’s on a far-off planet and features crystallised plants that make the 3D flora featured in the movie Avatar look second-rate.
Maich will often go there just to sit and admire their beauty. That’s if he’s not wandering around a European art gallery, flying like a sea eagle, or contemplating sex with anyone who takes his fancy. At times Maich can see things with close to 360° vision. He’s even died a few times, once as a tree. And if he really wants to shock people, he occasionally sticks his hands into his head, squishes his brains around and pokes his fingers out from his eyes.
Yes, you could say Maich, a 62-year-old owner of a commercial fishing training business from Westport on New Zealand’s South Island, has lived a rich life. Richer in experience, you could argue, than explorers, kings, conquerors, billionaires and movie stars.
In fact, if you didn’t know better, you might look for a supernatural explanation for the sensational scope of Maich’s endeavours, or even attribute his abilities to superpowers. After all, what else could explain a being who has the capacity to commune with gods, strike down demons and exchange dinner recipes with aliens?
But Maich is very much a flesh-and-blood mortal. He’s just not one who puts his life on hold for eight hours each night the way most of us do. Maich’s superpower, if you want to call it that, is that he is a 10th-dan lucid dreamer. A Brando or De Niro of unconscious night-time entertainment, a legend in his own lucid lunchbox.
It’s an ability he first tapped into over 50 years ago and has dedicated most of his life to – both waking and sleeping – in the truest sense of that phrase. And it’s an ability he firmly believes “bleeds into” his waking life.
“It’s pretty cool,” he deadpans on the phone from Mapua, near Nelson, where he’s spending a few days running maritime licence exams. “The dream world is real to me in the sense that the experiences leave memories. All my senses are working with them and so everything’s absolutely real. I respect it. But I also push boundaries in there. Things you can do, things that you can’t. And so, the freedom to do that in your own mind at night also enhances your daily life.”
So advanced are Maich’s lucid-dreaming abilities that he can wake from a dream, write down its contents, and then return to sleep and pick up right where he left off. He’s had thousands of these dreams over the course of his life, including a record 13 in one night. Some of them lasted hours. He even credits the stupendous possibilities and eye-popping intensity of his dreams for keeping him off psychedelic drugs. His friends’ descriptions of LSD sounded “pathetic” in comparison to the hi-def world he could conjure in his unconscious mind.
Maich is in tune with his regular, non-lucid dreams, too. In fact, he doesn’t much mind if he’s the one driving the bus or just a passenger along for the ride. It’s all just one big mental playground. A nightly “episode in a virtual reality show,” he says.
That ‘show’, both the lucid and non-lucid varieties, is an area that in recent years has been garnering significant scientific attention. Researchers still don’t have a definitive answer to why we dream, but rather a myriad of competing theories. Not unlike other big questions – Why are we here? – explanations for the nightly adventures you embark on inside the universe in your head are frustratingly elusive.
Yet scientists are getting closer to answers and what most agree on is that dreams have the capacity to influence our waking lives. In fact, so important are they that it might be time to stop distinguishing between states of consciousness and to cease prioritising wakefulness over sleep.
“One of the things we’ve lost in the West is a sense of the continuity of consciousness,” says Dr Rubin Naiman, a leading dream researcher and psychologist at the University of Arizona’s Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine. “We think waking consciousness is the gold standard for consciousness. But I think much of what ails us today is because we’ve
Which suggests a tantalising possibility. If, like Maich and many others do, you can begin to let the two states commingle in the shadowy early dawn light, you have a chance, not to live a second life – though in terms of the richness of experience it’s closer to “Triple or quadruple” in Maich’s opinion – but to realise the full potential of the one you have.
Wake in fright
With apologies to my wife, the most memorable night of my life occurred when I was at university in Canberra. I went to sleep around 10 at night. I had a dream, which I don’t recall, then I woke up. Or at least I thought I did. Rather than my dorm room I was now on the couch in the country town where I grew up. It was around 11 at night and the TV was still on. I figured I must have nodded off, so I got up, switched off the TV and headed to the bathroom. As I entered, I became aware that my vision was a little clouded. I stopped and looked in the mirror adjacent to the sink. There was a thin grey film over my eyes. Confused, I blinked rapidly until suddenly blood gushed from my eye sockets. I woke up – for real this time – my heart racing, back in my room in Canberra.
I recount the dream to Naiman, who’s speaking to me from his home in Tucson, Arizona, where he’s looking out the window of his home office at the desert wilderness under a deep blue sky. “You’re a creative dreamer, that’s for sure,” he says, before telling me my dream is what’s known as a ‘big dream’. “Big dreams can be horrifying, they can be incredibly beautiful, they can be spiritual. Usually, they occur at the intersection between waking and dreaming, and they’re disconcerting because they challenge our sense of waking. You’ll likely never forget it.”
He’s right, I won’t. In the days after, I remember anxiously pondering the meaning of the dream, wondering what it said about me and the life I was living. Was I troubled in some way? Was there something I wasn’t dealing with? Or had I just watched one too many David Lynch movies?
I never did find an answer and the truth is it could have been all those things, or none of them. Understanding the function of dreaming is an inherently difficult field of enquiry. For a long time, researchers could do little more than posit theories. But now, with the opportunity to test hypotheses in state-of-the art sleep labs around the globe, empirical data is leading to firmer conclusions.
Before you can grapple with the functions of dreaming, though, you first need to appreciate the mental architecture in which they occur. Rapid Eye Movement (REM), was discovered in 1953 by University of Chicago researchers Eugene Aserinski and Nathaniel Kleitman. In this state, which follows follows four stages of shut-eye known as non-REM sleep, brain waves are low-voltage and high-frequency. Your muscles are paralysed, your heart beats more rapidly, your breathing quickens and bloodflow to both your brain and penis increases. “Men experience erections. The body kind of parties,” says Naiman.
Active parts of the brain include the brain stem (responsible for basic functions like heartbeat regulation), the limbic system (which controls emotions, learning and memory) and areas of the brain involved in processing sensory information. Off duty, as you might have guessed, are regions of the brain responsible for logical and ordered thought. Babies love REM: it comprises about half of their sleep, compared to a quarter of an adult’s. Dreaming can occur outside of REM sleep, too, particularly in the periods when you’re nodding off and waking up.
Right now, the most robust theories as to why we dream are to consolidate memories, to regulate emotions and to prepare us for threatening situations. There are some researchers who still cling to various versions of Freud’s theory of “disguised fulfilments of repressed wishes”. Others believe dreaming likely encompasses all these functions, and others still that our nightly hallucinations don’t serve any useful purpose, that they’re merely facile mental projections.
Of these theories, the cases for memory consolidation and emotional regulation have become stronger in recent years. In 2018, researchers at Swansea University found that the emotional intensity of the experiences we have when we’re awake is linked to the content of our dreams and the intensity of theta brainwaves recorded in REM sleep. They also discovered that events that had a higher emotional impact were more likely to become incorporated into a person’s dreams than blander, more neutral experiences.
“A lot of our memory tends to be governed by emotion,” says Dr Tore Nielsen, professor of psychiatry and director of the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory at the University of Montreal. “We tend to remember events that have happened to us that are more emotional, whether it’s happy, sad, frightening or whatever. So it could be that both of those things [memory consolidation and emotional regulation] are happening at the same time.”
These functions, which Nielsen refers to as “biological”, can operate without us remembering our dreams. “Probably 90 to 95 per cent of our dreaming is forgotten,” says Nielsen, who delights in describing his profession as his “dream job”. “So biological functions make a lot of sense because they try to explain what’s going on at a completely unconscious level.”
What you do recall of your dreams, which usually consist of re-imaginings of events that occur either yesterday or around a week ago, can have real-world applications, Nielsen believes, such as promoting empathy and helping with problem solving. “I might remember a dream then apply it to my
waking-life problems,” he says. “I could be having a relationship problem. And this dream shows me interacting with this person in a different way. Maybe I could try that?”
Memory consolidation has an obvious link to learning but Nielsen cautions that the dream space is not a straightforward rehearsal zone. “We know you’re not just going into a dream and practising your juggling or downhill skiing.” Instead, he says, you dream indirectly about things you learn, embedding memories and skills the way a poet might write a verse or an abstract artist flick oil on canvas. Despite the seemingly random nature of the process, though, “You are learning things better than if you don’t dream about them,” says Nielsen.
As well as impacting cognition, dreams may also affect your ability to process and deal with trauma and depression, in what some refer to as the ‘dream-therapy’ paradigm. “Dreaming in one respect is a kind of endogenous psychotherapy,” says Naiman. “People heal more quickly from various losses when they dream.” He likens the brain to a second gut. “If the gut is a second brain during digestion, the brain becomes a second gut during REM sleep,” he says. “Metaphorically speaking, if we don’t dream well, we’re not digesting daily life experiences, and they get stuck inside of us. Anxiety might be considered psychological indigestion.”
Indeed, the one instance where your dreams do become literal, to the extent that they’re close to replays of real-life events, is in the recurring nightmares that occur after traumatic events. “It’s very possible that this is a sign of emotional regulation failure,” says Nielsen. “In the case of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), a person might wake up in the middle of the attack or end up running as hard as they can to get away, but never do they try to fight back or change something,” he says.
I recall my bloody eyeball nightmare and feel relieved that it was isolated and not connected to any apparent trauma. I also wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t woken up? Would I have had the courage to fight my demons in my sleep?
The evening before talking to me, Dr Antti Revonsuo, a Finn who is a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Skövde in Sweden, dreamt about an excavator digging into the ground, breaking down large pieces of rock. When the excavator lifted up one particular rock it turned into a grand piano.
Revonsuo, who’s chatting to me on Zoom in front of a bookcase filled with various sci-fi comics and a stone buddha, is the researcher behind the threat and social simulation theories of dreaming, making it tempting to conclude that he’s afraid of pianos being dumped on his house. As a teenager he, like me, had an intense dream in which he thought he’d woken up. The experience triggered Revonsuo’s interest in the field and several decades later he concluded that dreaming is an evolved survival mechanism that sees our brain run virtual-reality simulations to prepare us for threatening real-world situations. Given our evolutionary ancestors lived in a constant state of either anticipating threats or recovering from them – a perpetual state of PTSD – our brain continues to run these simulations today.
“Our worst nightmares reflect quite primitive kinds of threatening situations, like being attacked, being chased, being in some natural catastrophe or fighting other aggressive, violent males,” says Revonsuo, who adds that in dream reports he and others have recorded, up to 70 per cent of dream content comprises threats, much higher than the actual number we’re confronted with in real life.
For further evidence, Revonsuo points to the dream content of children, which tends to be heavily weighted with animals and monsters. “I have argued that this reflects a default value in the dream simulator, that it expects to be born into an environment where nature is all around and simulating how animals behave is very important,” Revonsuo says. In modern Western societies, he adds, the number of animal characters in dreams drops dramatically as we age, from 30-50 per cent as kids to just five per cent as adults. In hunter gatherer societies, however, animal dreams persist into adulthood, he says.
What about positive or fantastic dreams? How does threat simulation account for those? It’s a criticism the theory has faced
from the beginning and led Revonsuo, together with his colleagues, to formulate the complementary social-simulation theory. “It shares the same principles that, if neutral and positive dreams have a function, it must be something that was very important in evolutionary history,” he says. “That is, other people. You need to create strong social bonds in your group so that you’re protected and so you take care of the people close to you.”
As Revonsuo points out, we are rarely alone in our positive dreams. “We’re always socially interacting, usually with two to four others,” he says. For the theory to be valid, there must be more social simulations in dreams than instances of social interaction in real life, something Revonsuo and his team have confirmed by analysing both the dreams and daily diaries of participants in studies.
Revonsuo’s aim is to combine the two theories to create an all-encompassing simulation theory. Between threats and social interaction, he says, there isn’t room for much else. But as I bid Revonsuo farewell, my eyes linger on a stack of Weird Science comics on his bookshelf, and I have a rather alarming thought. What if the real world, as some philosophers posit, is the simulation? Wouldn’t that make dreams a glitch? (Sure, in the Matrix.)
Dare to (lucid) dream
If you want to stretch the Matrix metaphor a little further – and in a story about consciousness it seems remiss not to – what happens if you effectively ‘take the red pill’ and become lucid in a dream? The answer, in Maich’s case, is that you’re able to access precious insights into yourself. All that time knocking around in his subconscious has allowed the Kiwi father-of-four to push and prod at the malleable edges of his psyche in ways few people ever get the chance to do.
“It was self-exploratory, so I had no limits or boundaries,” Maich says of the years before the internet gave him the chance to connect with others who’d had similar experiences. “I didn’t know what I could or couldn’t do.”
Blissfully ignorant, Maich has been able to confront his fears and his foibles, to explore his hopes, even lay the groundwork for the pursuit of goals. The experiences, he believes, have allowed him to approach the real world with a degree of confidence and self-assuredness, sometimes an expectation, that things will go his way. Similarly, if faced with a problem, he believes he has the skills to overcome it.
“I’m very comfortable in my own skin, I like myself and I’m confident,” he says. “The world feels like a big playground to me. If I want something, I’ll get it. I’ll put in the effort. The ability to do that leads through to the dream space and the dream space leads back through to your daily activities. Between the two of them you can get, I reckon, a much better quality of mental health.”
It’s possible that dreaming has been the bedrock of Maich’s psychological wellbeing. That without the crucible of the dream sphere he wouldn’t have been able to tackle what real life has thrown at him. Which has been a lot. “I was at sea for a lot of years,” he says. “Between 20 and 30 I think I had 18 of my friends killed in drowning, boat, car and helicopter accidents. A lot of people died, sometimes two or three in a week. I went through a family separation. I’ve had extreme loading to my mental health. But I come from a position of strength.”
That strength allows Maich to confront and interrogate the psychological assailants that sometimes bob up in his dreams. Anyone can, he says, but first you have to be able to dream and then you have to have the confidence to engage with those dreams.
A growing field of research aims to help PTSD sufferers do just that. Dr Denholm Aspy, who conducted the National Australian Lucid Dream Induction Study, says lucid dreaming allows sufferers to flip the scripts of recurring nightmares by confronting trauma head on. “So, if you’re being attacked you might say, ‘What do you want from me?’ Or you might fight the attacker or take on superpowers to overcome the aggressor,” says Apsy. “Either way, people that do this often will either have diminished fear and diminished frequency of their nightmares, or sometimes they stop happening entirely, which is remarkable.”
You might be asking how we know lucid dreaming is actually occurring in subjects? While the field was initially met with scepticism, trials in sleep labs in which subjects made deliberate eye movements while in REM sleep have confirmed they were lucid when they said they were. Other tests have involved getting subjects to do exercises, such as squats, while dreaming. “What we see is minor activation of the quadriceps muscles,” says Aspy. “It’s the same with things like pointing, moving the wrist, where the sleep laboratory data matches up perfectly to what they’ve done.”
Indeed, lucid dreaming isn’t just real. The phrase many researchers and lucid dreamers use is “realer than real”. “It’s enhanced,” says Maich. “Our ability to create a virtual playground internally is more powerful than our ability to sense in the external world.”
That subjective sense of reality has some interesting spiritual and supernatural implications. Many people who experience supernatural phenomena in their dreams are convinced it’s real, says Nielsen, who’s anxiety around an oral exam at university once led to an intense dream involving being choked by the devil. “He wrapped his ethereal body around mine and was just choking the life out of me,” Nielsen recalls. “The whole time, I’m thinking that this was absolutely real.” He managed to escape when, within the dream, he realised that the figure was a manifestation of his anxiety and that by relaxing it would go away. Afterwards Nielsen wrote an unpublished paper arguing that many people’s belief in supernatural and spiritual beings originates in dreams. “If I hadn’t been an agnostic scientist, I could have very well interpreted it, and many people do, as a genuine supernatural encounter.”
Maich has been similarly spiritually untethered in his dreams, allowing him to roam around his subconscious with something close to abandon. “If you were very religious and you were to meet a god within your dreams, you might be in awe of that,” he says. “But I’d probably ask him for a Mintie or tell him his shoelaces were undone. I don’t have anything that restricts me.”
Eyes slightly open
The idea of getting down with gods or confronting a spectral presence in your sleep can seem exhausting, particularly if you’ve already had a long day battling real-world wraiths, like line managers and branch supervisors. But if you do want more out of your dreams and, by extension, your life, then you probably need to re-evaluate how you think about sleep. To do this you can start by physically dissolving the borders between wakefulness and sleep by aligning the light that enters your eyes with the natural onset of dusk. “Most people don’t experience dusk because lights go on everywhere,” says Naiman. “What happens if we don’t ‘douse’ dusk with light is we produce more melatonin. When people want to dream, they need to dial down the light at night.”
On the other side of sleep, you need to wake up more gradually, lingering in the dual state of sleep and wakefulness for as long as you can to help recall your night-time adventures. “When you first wake up, you’re more asleep than awake,” explains Maich. “You’re pretty much still in an REM state. And if you just lie there and don’t move anything, not a single muscle and cast your mind back and say, ‘What happened?’ you’ll likely recall something and then the doors will open.”
Naiman agrees, encouraging the embrace of grogginess. “Grogginess is an exquisite state of consciousness. It’s a mix of sleep, dreaming and waking. If we’re willing to linger in grogginess, the dream will, on its own, emerge and then we’re able to carry it into waking life.”
The French have a phrase for the light in the periods between dusk and dark and between dark and dawn, called Entre Chien et Loup. In that shadowy light, Naiman says, you can’t distinguish a dog from a wolf. And here’s the thing: perhaps you shouldn’t try.
Experiment with the cognitive techniques and supps below to become cognisant while unconscious. “Employing multiple approaches at the same time is going to give you the best chance,” Aspy says. And be prepared to work at it. “I think most people can have lucid dreams, but it takes a lot of trial and error to get to a point where you can have them consistently.”
RT: Reality Testing. RT involves performing a reliable test that differentiates between waking and dreaming, repeatedly throughout the day. This might
be pushing your fingers into your palm and asking, ‘Am I dreaming?’ The rationale is that if RT becomes habitual, it will eventually be performed while dreaming, triggering lucidity.
MILD: Mnemonic Induction to Lucid Dreaming: every night as you’re falling asleep, repeat the same phrase to yourself, such as “I will know that I am dreaming”. Keep repeating it until you fall asleep.
WBTB: Wake Back to Bed: wake after five hours and then return to sleep after a certain amount of time has passed. WBTB is often used in conjunction with the MILD technique.
SSILD: Senses Initiated Lucid Dreaming: this technique also requires waking up after five hours. On returning to sleep focus on your senses – sight, sound, touch – for 20 seconds each before going back to sleep.
B6: Aspy found a 64 per cent increase in dream recall when people had a B6 supp before sleeping, compared to an inactive placebo. “There weren’t any extra lucid dreams, but there was more dream content in general. And to learn lucid dreaming, of course, you need to be able to remember as many of your dreams as possible.”
Galantamine: A drug used to treat Alzheimer’s, only available on prescription. “This can dramatically increase the rate of lucid dreams as well as dream content,” Aspy says.