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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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?
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.