Lucid dreaming research is growing up. At least, that is Allan Hobson’s take on the recent burst of scientific studies published on conscious dreaming. Once a myth of Carlos Castaneda, and then a topic guaranteed to instantly transport researchers to the margins of academia, lucid dreaming has become a hot topic for neuroscience and cognitive psychology because it promises to isolate one of the hardest-to-pin-down objects of all time: consciousness itself.
In the 2009 article “The neurobiology of consciousness: lucid dreaming wakes up,” Hobson reviews the last twenty years of lucid dreaming research as moving from tenuous self-reports to empirical observation via brain activity. The result is not only viable research, but fresh inspiration for a new science of consciousness. This post reviews Hobson’s take on this exciting trend.
Paradox of lucidity
Let’s look back. Stephen LaBerge’s early work at Stanford (1981) empirically demonstrated that it is possible to be self-aware in the REM sleep state (and let’s not forget Keith Hearne, who was the first to signal lucid dreaming in a sleep lab in 1978, or Robert Oglivie and company, who also demonstrated lucid dreaming in REM that same year).
Many doubted this finding because the conceptual problem is so hard to wrap your head around…. how can one be asleep and aware simultaneously? Slowly, the scientific community, emboldened by the growing interest in a new science of consciousness, accepted that being awake and aware are two different concepts.
40Hz empowerment and consciousness
Now, a new generation of brain technology supports LaBerge’s original claim that lucid dreaming is not a new-age fantasy or a “micro-awakening” from sleep. EEG sampling is more sensitive than ever. In 2009, Ursula Voss and company from the University of Frankfurt found a unique brain signature: a 40Hz spike in brain activity in the frontal lobe during lucid dreams. Read my riff about this study here.
What makes this 40Hz finding so intriguing, argues Hobson, is it has previously been correlated with waking consciousness—as well as meditation and hypnosis, I should add. Waking consciousness is not just one state, either, remember, but continuously shifts around between linguistic thinking, emotional day dreaming, focused attention and problem-solving, and creative flow states that are quite dreamy in their own right. This connection of lucid dreaming to meditation has been noticed before (most notably by Harry Hunt and later Allan W. Wallace), who have further drawn parallels between lucid dreaming and the states of consciousness sought after in Eastern mystical traditions.
In between worlds
We’re zeroing in on something that philosophers and scientists have been looking for since Descartes saw his first pineal gland: the seat of the conscious mind. Recent brain imagery experiments on lucid dreaming performed by German researcher Michael Czisch found more evidence for unique activation patterns during lucid dreaming that exceeds “normal” dreams, not only in the frontal lobe but also parietal and temporal structures. Voss’s team noticed this too.
What does this mean? There’s some strong synchronous firings going on during lucid dreaming that researchers don’t quite understand yet, but we can say for sure that lucid dreaming is a globally activated state that parallels other classically defined states of waking consciousness in terms of its complexity and coherence. It appears that lucid dreaming is a bridge between the imagination of the dream state and the insight of our most prized conscious states. We are literally in between two worlds. In fact, Hobson is now leading the charge that lucid dreaming deserves to be called its own state of consciousness, separate from ordinary REM dreams.
For Hobson, the implications are not only philosophical but also address psychiatry’s founding aim to heal and ease the suffering of mental illness. For example, because lucid dreaming is a learnable skill, the ability to self-monitor 40hz power could open the doors to learning how self-awareness can mediate behavior, identity and those other classic markers not only for sanity but for creativity and high-functioning genius.
This is the first essay of several more than will explore the new neuroscience of lucid dreaming.
Intro image: Light sphere by piji
Hearne, K. (1978). Lucid dreams: electrophysiological and psychological study. Doctoral dissertation: Liverpool University.
Hobson, A. (2009). The Neurobiology of Consciousness – Lucid Dreaming Wakes Up. International Journal of Dream Research, 2(2), 41-44. Retrieved from http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/ojs/index.php/IJoDR/article/viewFile/403/pdf_1
LaBerge, S., Nagel, L., Dement, W., Zarcone, V., (1981). Lucid dreaming verified by volitional communication during REM sleep. Psychophysiology, 20: 454-455.
Olgivie, R, Hunt, H., Tyson, P., Lucescu, M., Jeankins, D. (1978). Searching for lucid dreams. Sleep Research, 7: 165.
Voss, U., Holzmann, R., Tuin, I., & Hobson, J. A. (2009). Lucid Dreaming: A State of Consciousness with Features of Both Waking and Non-Lucid Dreaming. Sleep (Rochester), 32(9), 1191-1200. Associated Professional Sleep Societies, LLC. Retrieved from http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=2737577&tool=pmcentrez&rendertype=abstract