Author: Mike

Which Mind Knows Best?

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Most of us have probably seen them by this point, the lists and summaries out there of all the incredible mentally (and sometimes physically) beneficial things one can do in a lucid dream. Some of the highlights include:

  • Adventure and Fantasy
  • Overcoming Nightmares
  • Rehearsal
  • Creativity and Problem Solving
  • Healing (Physical and Emotional)
  • Spiritual Insight and Transcendance

I’ve written before on how appealing this can be to someone at a low point in life, and in interviews since, I’ve been increasingly open about the fact that this was what drew me to lucid dreaming. Obviously, the first step towards having these incredible experiences is to start becoming lucid in your dreams. What follows for many people in those early stages are dreams in which you know you are dreaming, but may find yourself in rather mundane environments unable to exert much control over the dream or over yourself within the dream. You may not even catch a glimpse of the relevant people, places, or things you were hoping to interact with.

This is all perfectly normal by the way. It seems to be part of the process for most of us. As you continue having lucid dreams, dream control and self-control within dreams can be developed. Experimenting with dream incubation or learning how to have WILDs can also help you find yourself in the desired environments and situations you feel are best for accomplishing your lucid dream goals.

I’ve been at this a little while, and I feel I’ve experienced and thought enough about lucid dreaming to at least overcome my imposter syndrome to blog and speak on the topic. So it’s second nature for me to have lucid dreams about the things I want to dream about on a regular basis right? Well… no.

My dream control has steadily improved over the years, but I don’t think I’m a very good dream incubator. I have a tendency to lay in bed too uptight about it. I will wake up in the middle of the night, create an elaborate plan for what I want to dream about and what I want to occur, and get so serious and determined about it that I can’t fall back asleep. Clearly, I need to cultivate a different kind of relationship with effort moving forward. I will definitely continue working on that, but I’ve discovered a kind of non-approach in the meantime that has proved paradoxically effective.

Initially, the mind’s habit of creating dreams for us that bear little resemblance to what we actually want to be doing in our lucid dreams is an irritating obstacle to be overcome. However, as you become more familiar with the contents of your own mind and a more adept lucid dreamer, you may have lucid and non-lucid dreams where the unconscious mind seems like it has a better sense of what you need than the conscious planning mind does. Two examples in particular come to mind from my recent dreams.

Given the unplanned, improvised nature of these examples, it’s hard to say what prompts these lucid dreams or makes them possible. My best guess is it’s primarily a matter of being in touch with one’s self. Yoga, meditation, and other contemplative practices can help in that respect.  Lucid dreaming itself can also help expand self-knowledge and self-attunement. Perhaps the act of having a lucid dream itself develops certain mental “muscles,” creating a positive feedback loop where the moments of lucidity you have now help to develop the “muscles” required to have the lucid dreams you need in the future.

My Literal Worst Nightmare

Last December, I had a dream so bad that the sheer volume of all the awful things that happened in it verges on comical. Let’s run through some of them:

  1. A painful overdose on junk food.
  2. The death and funeral of a family member.
  3. The last people I would ever want to see showed up for the funeral.
  4. I felt guilty about my efforts to avoid those people being more important to me than grieving and paying my respects.
  5. I was naked and going to the bathroom in front of people.
  6. While still on the toilet, my Dad confronted me with his suspicions that I’ve got a cocaine problem.
  7. The deceased family member rose from the dead to call me a failure to my face… I was still on the toilet of course.
  8. Instead of serving as a sign I was dreaming, seeing the dead person made me think I was having a psychotic break.

The list actually continues, but you get the idea. Also, I don’t have a cocaine problem, not in waking life at least. The dream was bad. It felt bad, and when I shot awake in bed at 5:00 AM in the morning, I kept on feeling bad. Compounding everything, it was a Wednesday morning and I had work in a few hours. With no grand plan or vision of how I would have preferred things to go in that dream, I tried to fall back asleep. I tried to focus on physical relaxation and to stay with the emotions I was feeling as best I could without getting wrapped up in the storyline I’d just experienced or what it all might mean.

Against all odds, not only was I able to fall back asleep, I had a lucid dream that felt like the polar opposite of the nightmare I’d just experienced: I ate nourishing food, I had constructive conversations with my parents about what was bothering me in the last dream, I flew through the sky and basked in the rising sun before waking up. Needless to say, I had a pretty great Wednesday after waking up.

What I’m trying to get across by sharing this is that miraculously instant relief from all the negativity dredged up by that nightmare was accessible without the need for focused dream incubation or consciously scripting out what I would have done differently had I been lucid in that nightmare. If I was a skillful dream incubator, I’m sure doing those things would also have helped, but don’t underestimate the momentum of diligent day-time mindfulness practice and the ingenuity of the unconscious dreaming mind either. I have another example to illustrate this as well.

Changing the Mind’s Broken Record

Last month the sheer scope of all the projects I was involved in and committed to started to really weigh on me. The real flashpoint was getting dinner and drinks with some friends after hearing the introductory pitch of yet another organization I was considering joining. It was just too much.  Working with this group was absolutely something I was interested in doing, but how could I ever make all the pieces fit with the rest of my life? Panic and shortness of breath started to creep in. I did what I think was a smart thing by letting my friends know what was going on for me in that moment and laughing about it with them. I still went to bed a bit anxious and with no clue what I was going to do or if I could make it all work. Lucid dreaming was not top of mind, let alone what I would want to dream about.

And yet, again, the momentum of being a diligent dream journaler and meditator must have taken over because I found myself lucid floating through the hallways of my office building. Jesus Christ, what is that awful, tense music playing? It sounds like the shit that would play while James Bond shoots people and leaps off a nuclear warhead-equipped train. Fuuuuuuuck that, no wonder I’m so anxious. I’m changing the song. What’s the most soothing thing I can think of?

 

The pot lights in the ceiling swell and fade green to the beat.

It’s been a month and a half since that dream. My schedule is probably still overstuffed, and all the activities in my life still don’t quite fit together. The anxiety surrounding these issues however, remains drastically reduced. Without any planning, and in a rather instinctual and spontaneous way, my dreaming mind again seemed to know what I needed better than my conscious mind did.

Interview on The Lucid Dreaming Podcast

On January 21, 2016 I was interviewed on The Lucid Dreaming Podcast by my friend Jay on what it’s like to be an amateur lucid dreaming enthusiast and some of the things I’ve done to get reasonably good at lucid dreaming since I started in mid-2013.

I’ve reposted the show notes below as well:

 

A Potential Alternative to Galantamine: Calea Zacatechichi

Ready for some lucid dreaming heresy? I don’t like Galantamine. It’s not that I doubt that it increases the chances of becoming lucid, I’ve had considerable success with it and scientific explanations as to how it functions are robust and plausible. It’s just a poor fit for me. I have a hard time falling back asleep after taking it, and the odd sensation of cats jumping on my mattress that it can produce certainly doesn’t help.

I wouldn’t discourage someone from taking it though. For those who fall asleep without issue and those who fall back asleep too quickly to work through an induction technique, Galantamine can be incredibly effective. Even if you do have trouble falling back asleep, Galantamine may not exacerbate that for you. Its capacity to boost lucidity certainly makes it worth trying at the very least.

The day could conceivably come when I, through meditation or other means, have developed the equanimity and mental detachment necessary to consistently fall asleep through the odd sensations and additional alertness that accompany Galantamine. However, until that day comes, I’ve found a compelling alternative for both lucid dream induction and enhancing the clarity and vividness of dreams: Calea zacatechichi.

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Calea zacatechichi (which I’ll be referring to as Calea Z for the rest of this post) is a species of flowering plant in the Asteraceae family. The USDA actually prefers the name Calea ternifolia for the plant, but it remains widely known in lucid dreaming circles as its former species name. In its native Mexico it’s used as an herbal remedy, as an oneirogen, and in shamanic practices by some indigenous peoples.

I am the proud owner of the bag of dried Calea Z pictured above. I’ve steeped it and drank Calea Z tea three times so far in a series of decreasing doses. The first night was memorable: I had a lucid dream, I woke up, wrote it down, fell back asleep, and had another lucid dream – my first that took place in outer space. I had a lucid dream the second night as well, but did not on the third night. Given the success I had, I wish had been more precise in recording the doses, but the results were definitely compelling.

There is an issue though: I didn’t set out to take it in a series of decreasing doses. My decreasing capacity to actually choke down the vile-tasting tea is what limited me to taking less and less of it the second and third times. I take a tremendous amount of pride in all the weird stuff I’ve consumed over the years, so I wanted to at least try it this way, but a review of other blog posts suggests that it’s also possible to obtain and consume Calea Z as a:

Regardless of how you intend to ingest Calea Z, my recommendation would to wake yourself up approximately 4 and a half to 6 hours after falling asleep, take your Calea Z, and fall back asleep while performing a mental induction technique. Dream worker Amy Cope suggests that the traditional way to take Calea Z is to do so right before sleep. I haven’t tried it this way yet, so I can’t comment other than to note that some accounts of taking other onierogens without having gone through several REM cycles first sound highly unpleasant (scroll down to “My Personal Experiences”). We appear to disagree on Calea Z’s palatability, but Amy’s post is worth checking out. It has the detailed instructions on how to make Calea Z tea that I used and she is a much better photographer than I am.

As always, please be careful when trying any substance for the first time, and get the opinion of a qualified health profession familiar with your conditions and any other substances or medications you are taking. I experienced no side effects, but you may. Reported side effects are rare, but include hallucinations, nausea, and vomiting. Reported allergic reactions are rare as well, but there have been a few.

Calea Z is not a federally controlled substance, but the state of Louisiana does place some restrictions on its cultivation. It is a controlled substance in Poland contained in the same list as opioids like heroin and hydrocodone. Erowid has some details and relevant links on the legal status of the plant.

I’ve come across one study from 1986 that suggested a pronounced in the subjective reports of dreams, but the study did not examine effects on lucidity. I hope the effects are rigorously studied in the near future, as my experiences and those of other lucid dreamers suggest it is a worthwhile substance to at least design experiments around. My subjective experience of the dreams I had after taking Calea Z was hugely positive. It felt like I considered a wider range of activities and visited a more diverse set of locations than I normally do in my lucid dreams. It felt like new possibilities were opened, and my skill at things like flying in my dreams was improved.

I’ve bought a jar of honey specifically so I can try taking Calea Z tea again soon.

Interview with Benjamin Baird, Lucid Dream Researcher, Part 2

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Benjamin Baird is a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience and cognitive science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. On November 21, 2015, while I was staying at the sleep center attempting to have a lucid dream under his care and supervision, he kindly agreed to record an interview with me about his interest and work in lucid dreaming.

Ben is looking for additional participants for the research study on lucid dreaming. If this interests you, if you have more than several lucid dreams per week, and you live close to Madison, Wisconsin or are willing to travel there, please contact Ben at bbaird@wisc.edu.

M: This is a good opportunity for me to throw out some of the “common knowledge” about lucid dreaming and meditation and what has been “scientifically proven” about them. I’m curious about the extent to which you’ve actually come across the findings that people seem to think exist.

The relationship between meditation practice and increases in lucid dreaming is a good one to start with. I’ve seen it in a few places, and have likely propagated that idea myself, that we know of a correlation between meditation and having more lucid dreams.

B: You’re asking what those studies are?

M: I’m curious if you, as a scientist working in this field, would be comfortable saying, “Yes, we have strong data suggesting this.”

B: I’d say no, we don’t right now, unfortunately. It’s kind of an obvious thing for people who are practitioners of meditation and lucid dreaming.

M: Sure. My personal experience suggests there’s a link.

B: Me too. There’s been a few studies that have shown links, but in general it’s far from proven. We need a lot more work investigating this. It’s still an open question in my mind. It seems obvious, but it would be nice to have more objective data to quantify the extent to which meditation has these influences.

Likewise, what types of meditation have these influences? It seems to be the case that there may be some traditions that really don’t have a strong dream practice, or people that meditate for a long time and don’t actually report having lucid dreams. It might be that certain types of meditation practice lend themselves more to lucid dreaming than others. This hasn’t been studied.

Likewise, what’s the amount of meditation that’s required to have an effect? All we really have from prior work is correlations; there’s never been a causal intervention. It’d be really nice to take a group of people that are naïve to meditation practice, train them in a specific set of practices, and then evaluate whether that has an influence on their awareness in sleep.

I also have the sense that major changes in awareness in sleep are something that may come from quite a bit of training in meditation, and that just an introductory course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction isn’t going to have enough of an impact to generate a huge difference in sleep awareness. So, it may be that we see the largest effects for these kinds of things from looking at long-term practitioners, but that can sometimes be tricky to interpret causally.

M: I’ve also seen the claim made, and am probably guilty of making it myself, that we know lucid dreaming improves metacognitive awareness. It sounds to me, based on what you said before, that we can’t even really pin down that meditation improves metacognitive awareness.

B: You’ve seen the claim that lucid dreaming improves metacognitive awareness?

M: Yes.

B: Or at least that there’s a link between the two? I think you could probably read it a little bit softer.

M: Yeah, that’s probably fairer.

B: There’s a lot of tricky things in interpreting some of the current literature on lucid dreaming. One of which is being able to have a robust definition of what a “lucid dreamer” is [laughs]. Or a frequent lucid dreamer, however you want to define it. It seems clear that we need some better tools for being able to make rigorous definitions of individual differences in lucid dream frequency and, likewise, what constitutes a lucid dream in a sleep lab setting, for example.

Again, it’s sort of strange from one perspective. It’s kind of this obvious thing: of course lucid dreaming itself, by definition almost, is a kind of metacognitive skill, to be able to recognize the state of consciousness you’re in at a certain time. That is a metacognitive act, so from one perspective, almost definitionally, there has to be a relationship with metacognition somehow.

Whether that translates, and how, to other kinds of metacognition, such as reflecting accurately on your performance in tasks, which is the classic cognitive psychology definition of metacognition, is unclear. I actually did a few studies on that which I haven’t published, which failed to find a link. I was comparing people who reported having lucid dreams more frequently than once a month to people who never report having them. That’s a fairly loose definition. Once a month is not bad, but I’m not sure whether we should call them frequent lucid dreamers. These are some basic things we need to decide on going forward. It would be great if we could come to more of a consensus. At that level there doesn’t appear to be a direct correlation between those kinds of metacognitive skills and the metacognitive skill of becoming lucid.

Similarly, I think the studies you’re talking about are showing a link between activation in the frontal brain regions and so forth during metacognitive-type tasks and the extent of that activation and the extent of lucidity. I think in reading those studies we have to be very careful about how lucid dreaming is being defined as well as its frequency, and I think that needs to be done much more rigorously moving forward, especially controlling for the potentially confounding influence of individual differences in dream recall.

M: The last one is the most nebulous: the idea that a frequent lucid dreaming practice (with this idea of frequent itself being pretty nebulous) will improve one’s waking life. I think research was done on the correlations between lucid dreaming and the big 5 personality traits: neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.

B: The only correlation that seemed to survive in the years since those studies that I know of was some association between lucid dreaming and openness to experience. It would be nice to see those results replicated, but who knows.

M: Personally, I want the scientific support for all these things. I’m more than happy to publish a conversation like this that hopefully encourages some in the lucid dreaming community, and me most of all, to slow down a bit [laughs] and choose words carefully when we talk about what’s “scientifically proven” and what we do and don’t have data for.

At the same time, the progression of my life since starting to have a regular lucid dreaming practice gives me the suspicion that I am more metacognitively aware as a result of the practice. I think I am becoming more agreeable and open to new experience, and my relationship to fear has improved over the course of all these lucid dreams.

What do you think is a good approach to balancing scientific rigor with one’s own intuitive sense of things?

B: Well, one might think about it as different domains in a way. You have your own personal life in which you have to find what works for you. In fact, the clock is ticking so we can’t wait 30 years to have scientific evidence for everything or it would be too late by that point. So you have to find what works for you, and that’s fine.

Science, as a body of knowledge, really has to adhere to more rigorous standards. For those of us who are interested in finding out what’s true about the world and reality, science is a good way of doing that because we can separate out the sense of whether something is working or not from whether it actually works or not. One person can say one thing works and think it does, but it could actually be something else.

M: What does a good balance between those domains look like for a scientist?

B: In a way, we all have a little bit of faith, if you want to call it that, going into a topic. You have to decide what you’re going to spend your time on, scientifically or otherwise. For me, it started out by having the experience of lucid dreaming. Many other pioneers of the scientific study of lucid dreaming, including Stephen LaBerge, came to it through similar lines. They had lucid dreams, they were fairly convinced from their own first-person experience it was a real phenomenon and then, from there, went and spent a decade doing a PhD trying to validate that it’s real. If you didn’t have those experiences, you might not want to do that.

I think there’s definitely a critical role for that kind of thing, especially in inspiring research, choosing a path, and exploring it further. Not just at the beginning, I think it’s ongoing, this interplay between the third-person and the first-person that can really help push the potential of a field like lucid dreaming forward. You can use the first-person side to push the boundary of what’s possible and explore it for yourself, and come back to the third-person and say, “How can we test this?” Whereas, if you were just fully in one perspective or the other, you may get a little bit stuck.

M: Thanks a lot Ben.

In true enthusiast fashion, Ben and I continued talking about lucid dreaming for another 35 minutes after I turned off the recorder.

Interview with Benjamin Baird, Lucid Dream Researcher, Part 1

Ben attaches electrodes to me before bed in the University of Wisconsin sleep lab.

Benjamin Baird is a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience and cognitive science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. On November 21, 2015, while I was staying at the sleep center attempting to have a lucid dream under his care and supervision, he kindly agreed to record an interview with me about his interest and work in lucid dreaming.

Ben is looking for additional participants for the research study on lucid dreaming. If this interests you, if you have more than several lucid dreams per week, and you live close to Madison, Wisconsin or are willing to travel there, please contact Ben at bbaird@wisc.edu.

It may be helpful for understanding the interview to see a brief definition of metacognition that Ben gave me: “In general terms, [metacognition] just means reflecting on your own cognition or thinking about your own cognition.”

Part 2 can be found here.

Mike: You shared with me that, like myself, you didn’t grow up having spontaneous lucid dreams. How did lucid dreaming initially catch your interest?

Ben: I’ve been interested in consciousness since I was a little kid. Well, probably not a little kid, but about 13 or 14 years old, and I started exploring different things and came upon lucid dreaming a few years later within that context. It struck me as a potential method of exploring consciousness and the mind.

M: So something to be explored from that angle. It wasn’t so much about the different experiences you could have in lucid dreams?

B: I don’t know if I really had a logical, coherent set of reasons at that time for going into it. Looking back now, I can cast it in certain ways. For sure it’s true that it emerged for me from a broader framework of an interest in consciousness and the nature of the self, but my initial interest wasn’t in doing a particular thing in a lucid dream. I didn’t have any specific motivation along those lines.

I’ve heard funny stories about other people going into it for very specific reasons. One woman apparently went into it because she had dreams of Michael Jackson and she wanted to essentially continue having a relationship with Michael Jackson in her dreams.

M: I’ve met that woman [laughs].

B: Really? [laughs]

M: She was cool. She was self-aware about it, and there was a lot more to her and to her lucid dreaming practice than Michael Jackson, but yeah, that was also the most interesting motivation I’d ever heard. Although, like her, I had a very specific motivation for learning to lucid dream.

B: What was yours?

M: I had just gone through a breakup that was very sudden and unexpected, at least on my end, and it was keeping me up at night. You got a little taste of my struggles with insomnia last night [trying to fall asleep in the sleep lab]. I kept waking up from bad dreams related to the breakup at odd hours of the night. My idea was if I could become lucid in one of those dreams, I could use lucidity as a platform to achieve some closure.

I’ve never had one of the grand, cathartic dreams where the issue gets completely resolved in one night that you sometimes read about but, little by little, I worked at it and worked with it. None of this is much of an issue for me anymore. I’m pretty grateful and my interest level in the topic has remained sky high well past resolving that particular issue.

I’d heard of lucid dreaming a few years prior to this and thought it sounded cool, but it sounded like too much work. It took that low point to help me get serious about it.

B: I think I mentioned before, I never really had the sense that it was going to be a lot of work. Even though I never had them naturally growing up, I guess I had a bit of an innate knack for it. I’m one of these people that read about it for the first time and had my first lucid dream that night. Just with a little bit of practice I started having them fairly frequently.

When I first stumbled on to it, it was kind of like, wow! I did not even conceive of this as being a possibility. I was fortunate enough to stumble upon The Lucidity Institute website. I was just poking around online and found a good resource with good information.

When I actually had a lucid dream, it felt like a whole new continent of the mind; it’s a whole new way of experiencing this domain of experience, and a new way, potentially, of exploring the mind.

M: That’s incredible, having one that first night.

B: I’ve actually heard that a lot. It happens to a lot of people because it’s very salient. It’s something you never considered before, so it can be on your mind. I was also sleeping a lot at that time. I slept in super late and it happened after going back to bed in the morning.

M: Do you recall how old you were at the time?

B: Pretty old. This was a number of years after I first started getting interested in consciousness. I was probably about 18.

M: It was later in life for me, I didn’t start until I was 27. It seems like it’s never too late. I recall some of the other people at the Lucidity Institute workshops got discouraged and self-conscious about the fact that they were starting at 55, or whatever the case may be. I don’t see why that has to be a problem.

B: Yeah, totally. I mean an older friend of mine has definitely learned. He struggled to have regular lucid dreams, but he’s improved a lot and he does have them.

M: In some ways, for the reasons you mentioned about sleeping a lot and sleeping in late, it seems ideally suited for retired people, depending on their schedule.

B: Sure. Likewise with meditation.

M: Was your progress pretty rapid after your initial lucid dream? What were those early months like?

B: It’s hard to reconstruct accurately looking back. I definitely had a number of them in a short amount of time after that. I can’t give you a numerical answer, but there was a lot of increasing interest in the topic. I started reading a lot about it, learning about the techniques that Stephen LaBerge and other researchers had developed. I started implementing those and training up my dream recall. My dream recall rapidly improved over a short amount of time from doing those techniques of just waking up in the morning and writing down every single thing I could remember. That is a whole cool practice in itself of course.

It did progress from there. Over the next 5 years or so, my practice really continued to improve until I reached a pinnacle. Then, as I mentioned, about 5 years after that was when I was starting grad school is when everything came crashing down. I became overwhelmed with the intellectual commitments of doing a PhD, which is hugely unfortunate. It’s a big regret of mine that I wasn’t able to balance my commitments more. It’s possible in principle, I know researchers who have done that, but many of the people I talk to really struggle with this as well. I think it’s just a large number of things that we can talk about, I don’t know how interesting that is…

M: I’d be curious. It strikes me as unfortunate that some of the people most motivated to study lucid dreaming in an objective, third-person way tend to find their opportunities to continue having the first-person experience of lucid dreaming decreased. Even split between you and Anna, who is helping you with the study, the requirements of looking after me in the sleep lab certainly don’t leave a lot of time for your own sleep. What else contributes?

B: Yeah, totally. Now that I’m doing sleep science, it’s way worse; staying up nights and having an irregular sleep schedule. Also, when I sleep now, my body is basically in survival mode, trying to meet the physiological requirements to stay alive [laughs].

M: On a physical level?

B: That’s how it feels. Just blackout, slow-wave sleep. Doing sleep work is even more difficult for maintaining a practice for all those reasons. It is a shame, and many, many people I talk to within cognitive and brain sciences feel this way too. These are people who are very interested in meditation and have very strong practices coming into the programs.

Another reason is the conceptual nature of intellectual and academic work. You’re required to think all the time. They want you to constantly think and read and engage with conceptual material and write and design new studies. The constant thinking, thinking, thinking is, in a way, anathema to some of the things that likely promote lucidity, such as mindfulness and more observational types of awareness. You are so caught up in the intellectual churning of data and information.

It’s kind of a different level of mind that does seem to butt heads with the monitoring kind of awareness that many people have suggested, and this holds true in my experience, to be related to success with lucid dreaming in the long run.

M: I would suspect, and you can confirm or refute this, that even when you get breaks, it can be hard to turn that analytical processing off.

B: Yeah, it’s like turning the Titanic around. It takes some time to turn it around. For myself, I’m able to do it in not too long of a time. It’s more natural for me to be in those [contemplative] states rather than the intellectual zone. Maybe I’m not really an intellectual at heart and more of a contemplative.

That’s one point. Another point is just the sheer time commitment. It’s just so overwhelming and these days it’s getting completely crazy with the publishing requirements of academia. It’s too much, and I think everyone is overburdened in the sciences in particular.

M: You’ll have to remind me if it was in your time here at the University of Wisconsin or during your PhD at the University of California-Santa Barbara that you were involved in studies on meditation as well.

B: Both places actually. At UC-Santa Barbara, my advisor Jonathan Schooler’s work is most focused on the opposite of mindfulness: mind-wandering. That’s the major thrust of the research in that lab. They started looking at mindfulness and meditation as potential ways to curb distracted thought and increase attention skills. They’re doing a variety of interesting projects now, including studying the effects of mindfulness in schools. So they’re actually implementing mindfulness programs in elementary, middle and high schools in the Santa Barbara area and studying how that impacts reading comprehension and simultaneously impacts their attention.

We also did a few studies looking at the impact of meditation practice on metacognition. The relationship between meta-awareness and mind wandering, as well as metacognition in the traditional sense of being aware of your own faculties and cognition and so forth is a tricky topic. We did a first pass on that question.

My thesis work, by the way, was all on metacognition and the brain connectivity underlying individual differences in metacognitive skills. For all that work we focused on memory and perception as the two domains of interest. This was mostly because that’s where pretty much all the work over the history of psychology and the history of science has been in metacognition: the field of meta-memory and confidence judgments in perceptual decision making. We focused on those as a first target area to see whether meditation has any influence on metacognitive skills in general, and we found a small, but significant, improvement in metacognition for memory, but nothing for perception. Why that is, we still really don’t know.

It’s a preliminary study. We essentially assessed the effect of a mindfulness meditation intervention that lasted 2 weeks…

M: …on school-aged children?

B: No, this was university students. Pre-post, compared to an active control condition, which was a nutrition training course. We found this modest improvement in metacognition in the memory domain. It was totally preliminary, and clearly requires follow-up. I’d like to see it replicated and extended to other realms as well. It’s an interesting question though, to what extent meditation influences our meta-awareness or metacognitive skills. Of course, this is one of the classic traits that’s hypothesized to be influenced through meditation. It makes intuitive sense why it would be, since you’re not only training your ability to maintain focus, but also your ability to recognize that your mind has drifted to something else. It’s a sort of monitoring of the intentional relation between yourself and your intended object of focus. It makes intuitive sense, and we got some interesting preliminary results, but clearly much more work is needed there.

M: What about your work here at UW?

B: When I first came to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I came under a large grant that was a collaboration between my current advisor, Dr. Giulio Tononi, and Dr. Richard Davidson, who has really been spearheading most of the mainstream work on meditation within the cognitive and neuro- sciences. That’s a huge grant funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to look at a large number of variables. It’s really an exploratory study to further evaluate the effects of mindfulness meditation and long-term meditation.

Our side of it here at the sleep center is to see what effects meditation has on brain activity in sleep and also consciousness in sleep, along with some of these other variables while awake like attention and decreased mind-wandering.

M: That’s still in process right? Are you able to share any findings there?

B: It’s still launching. We’re just beginning the first phases of data collection. In fact, no long-term meditators have been brought in yet. Only a few groups have been through the first mindfulness training. There aren’t any results yet, it will be in the data collection phase for a long time, probably a few years. It’s a monster project.

In part, it’s based on a previous grant and project along similar lines in which they found that long-term meditators had increased gamma activity in the parietal-occipital cortex during sleep. Now, they didn’t measure dreaming or consciousness in sleep, so the obvious questions are: first of all, does this difference in gamma activity replicate; and secondly, is it related to changes in conscious experience during dreams? An obvious candidate is, of course, changes in awareness such as lucid dreaming. It’ll be interesting to see if we find something there.

Unfortunately, we’re not looking at people who are really practitioners of meditation in sleep, such as the dream yoga tradition. This is more focused on what you might call serious hobbyist meditators: people who have an ongoing practice of an hour a day for an extended period of time. It’s not clear whether we’ll find differences in lucid dreaming in this group, but all of these are ripe areas for future work. There’s been a few studies on this, but I think much more work is needed to elucidate the relationship between meditation practice and increases in lucid dreaming and awareness in sleep.

Part 2 can be found here.

Stephen LaBerge at SAND15 October 22, 2015.

SAND15

{An earlier version of this post listed the pre-conference workshop as taking place on the 24th. This has been fixed to reflect the correct date: October 22, 2015. Stephen will be presenting during the actual conference as well}

I’ve had the tremendous privilege of meeting Stephen LaBerge several times. I consider myself very fortunate that he’s been serving as a bit of lucid dreaming mentor to me in recent months (which is not to say he endorses any of the content or ideas on my site!).

For anyone in the Bay Area, or with the means to travel there, Stephen will be holding a 3-hour workshop immediately prior to the Science and Nonduality Gathering 2015. Stephen’s workshop will take place on Thursday, October 22, 2015 from 2 PM – 5 PM. at the Dolce Hayes Mansion. You can register here.

Stephen will also be engaging in panel discussions on  lucid dreaming throughout the conference. Among the other speakers and presenters on lucid dreaming, Fariba Bogzaran and B. Alan Wallace are favourites of mine as well.

Toronto Lucid Dreaming Seminar – Monday, September 28

Wassertropfen

About a month ago, I tweeted some ideas for articles I would be publish here in the near future. That obviously hasn’t happened yet. If it’s any consolation, it’s because I’ve been quite busy with lucid dream-related projects. Of course, I can’t actually talk about most of those projects yet, so the consolation it provides may be limited.  

The one thing I can talk about now is that I’ll be giving another introductory talk on lucid dreaming at the beautiful Float Stress Relief and Wellness Centre at 7 PM Monday, September 28th.  It’s $10 or pay-what-you-can.

The Centre is located north of Lawrence Ave. on Yonge St. It’s north enough of Lawrence that I’d recommend taking the bus a few stops from Lawrence Station if you’re planning on taking transit. Google will make it look like you could also walk from York Mills station, but that way is quite hilly.

The talk will focus on 4 foundational practices I think can really help a beginner start to have lucid dreams without the 3 months of frustration I went through before I finally had one.  They are:

  • Dream Journaling
  • Reality Checks
  • Understanding Sleep and Good Sleep Hygiene
  • Mindfulness Practices

The content will be similar if you attended the previous introductory talk I gave in August, but this stuff has been on my mind non-stop since then, and I’ve refined some my thinking and approach in several areas.

The Gaping Lotus Experience

sonic

I was poking around the Lucidity Institute FAQs this afternoon (What? That’s not how you spend your Saturday afternoons?) and came across this factoid:

Drugs in the LSD family, including psilocybin and tryptamines actually stimulate REM sleep (in doses small enough to allow sleep), leading to longer REM periods. We do not recommend the use of drugs without proper guidance nor do we urge the breaking of laws.

I also do not recommend the use of drugs without proper guidance, nor do I urge the breaking of laws. Longer REM periods help, but there are much, much easier ways to have lucid dreams. However, I was asked about this at the seminar I held last month and I incorrectly speculated that psychedelics could wreak havoc on sleep cycles and should be avoided by aspiring lucid dreamers. Sorry about that. While there are no specific studies referenced here, I consider the Lucidity Institute a reliable source. The FAQs itself can shed some light on their scientific qualifications.

 

Lucid Dreaming Experience (Vol. 4, No. 2)

 

This quarter’s issue of the Lucid Dreaming Experience focusing on healing lucid dreams came out this morning. I helped with the editing of submissions and submitted one of my own dreams this quarter. They also agreed to advertise this very website among the weblinks on the last page. A baby step towards an active and passionate readership here I hope.

I’ve scanned through it a bit and this seems like a pretty rich issue. The interview with G. Scott Sparrow is particularly good.

Reframing Insomnia

I just got back from the Awaken in Your Dreams program yesterday. It was a five day intensive lucid dreaming and dream yoga program held at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado with Stephen LaBerge and Andrew Holecek. It was incredible in all the ways I could have hoped: met a lot of great people, learned a lot, and had 3 lucid dreams in 5 nights (including a pretty profound one).

It’s going to take me awhile to digest and metabolize the experience. One thing stands out immediately though:  people live in great fear of insomnia, even the minuscule subset of us interested in lucid dreaming and engaged with our sleeping patterns. My severe insomnia was actually the principal motivation for me to learn to lucid dreaming two years ago in the first place.

As someone who is naturally a bit wired and prone to waking up in the middle of the night anyway, maybe I’ve been blind to the concerns people have with the lucid dreaming induction techniques that require a period of wakefulness in the middle of the night. These concerns are absolutely valid. I’ve woken myself up to take Galantamine and get into the right frame of mind only to find myself unable to get back to sleep a few times. Further compounding the issue is that insomnia is one of those insidious things that becomes more likely and more severe the more we worry about it.

I’d like to share recent breakthroughs I’ve had with insomnia, as I believe the less we see it as a Big Deal, the less it will pop up. This is not to trivialize the tremendous amount of suffering it can cause, but to point out that insomnia derives some of its power to cause this suffering from the fear and trepidation we approach it with.

A Good Night’s Rest

The first thing I’d recommend is unlearning the assumption that a good night’s rest necessarily requires a good night’s sleep. I’d highly recommend this video by meditation teacher Shinzen Young on the topic (the YouTube channel has unfortunately disabled embedding). Shinzen is talking specifically about meditators experiencing insomnia, but I think his recommendations are applicable to anyone awake when they’d prefer not to be.

Shinzen recommends we:

  • Keep the body still, make sure it gets rest.
  • Try to keep the mind relatively still and rested by engaging in a loose meditation technique (in my opinion, relaxed concentration on the breath works well).

It’s not always easy, and sustained attention on the breath (or whatever) for an extended amount of time can seem a bit intimidating at first, but it’s empowering. Just the idea that there are concrete things we can do in the absence of sleep that will keep us from being caffiene-addled zombies the next day can immediately take some of the sting out of insomnia.

And boy, did I ever have the chance to test this out my first night on retreat in Colorado…

A Bad Night’s Rest

A use has been found for everything but snoring.

-Mark Twain

When on a lucid dreaming trip, it’s probably best to avoid sleeping in 7 person dorm rooms. When sleeping in a 7 person dorm room on a lucid dreaming trip, it’s best not to have 4 of those 7 people on a completely different schedule that involves waking up and getting dressed at 6:00 AM. When sleeping in a 7 person dorm room on a lucid dreaming trip with 4 of those 7… you get the idea.

Suffice to say, one of those 7 people had the worst case of undiagnosed sleep apnea I have ever heard. It was like trying to sleep next to a locomotive full of defective buzzsaws that have had their off-switches soldered off. I figured (correctly, it turned out) that I’d be able to weasel my way into more appropriate accommodations the next day, but I had to survive that night with my sanity intact.

The torrent of counter-productive, self-pitying thoughts arrived on schedule. Here are some highlights:

  • Fuck.
  • $**** spent on this trip, and I’ll be lucky if I fall asleep, let alone dream.
  • Why would this guy, of all people, opt for shared accommodations? Does he hate his fellow man that much?
  • I’m going to be a disaster tomorrow. I will be brain dead, say the wrong thing, and everyone will hate me.
  • Fuck.

Such is the self-perpetuating nature of insomnia. The inability to fall asleep gives rise to fears about the consequences of not being able to fall asleep, and those fears makes it even harder to fall asleep. Thankfully, having taken Shinzen’s advise to heart a few months prior, I was able to see what my mind was doing and start taking my internal theatrics a lot less seriously.

Yes, it was loud in there and there were going to be interruptions outside my control. Yes, these were not the conditions under which profound lucid dreams typically flourish. That’s life sometimes. At least by staying still and keeping a loose meditative focus on my breath, I’d get some much needed rest. With this in mind and my anxieties about not being able to fall asleep largely subdued, I was able to relax and fall asleep for a bit.

Finding myself awake again and in the same situation at 4:00 AM in the morning wasn’t great, but I had a revelation. I’m not that great a meditator. Maybe if I use the snoring itself as the object of my meditation, my mind will do what it always does and lose focus on whatever I’m trying to focus on. It worked, I tricked myself into ignoring the snoring! Freedom from the noise came from diving into it completely.

Life After Insomnia

I have little doubt that I will wake up in the middle of the night again sometime soon. I don’t think there’s much any of us can do to prevent that. But now that I’ve changed the way I think about insomnia and have a few tools at my disposal to mitigate it’s impact, it just doesn’t seem like a very big deal anymore. The lucid dreaming techniques that rely on sleep interruption have become far more palatable and effective because I don’t feel like the stakes are as high if they backfire and I can’t fall back asleep.

It’s actually quite elegant. In some ways, insomnia is not unlike the dream figures in our nightmares: we have given it much of the power it has over us, and we can reclaim it.