Jared Loughner is the man alledgedly responsible for the Tucson shooting last Sunday, which resulted in the death of six people and the injury of fourteen others. Since the shooting, and Loughner’s arrest, several details about his life have come out in the press. His favorite books include Marx’s Communist Manifesto and Hitler’s Mein Kampf. He has an active Youtube profile detailing his political and literary influences, and, according to various sources, has reportedly been fighting mental illness for years.
Jared Loughner is also a lucid dreamer.
Already, several news sources have commented on Loughner’s passion for “conscience dreaming,” as he called it, the ability to control your dreams. Today, CNN followed up with a balanced piece, interviewing several dream researchers. Unfortunately, some local TV networks have not dug so deep, suggesting that conscious dreaming–the actual term for dreaming with self-awareness– is a gateway to mental illness.
Let’s be clear: becoming self-aware in your dreams has never been correlated with mental illness. Knowing when you are dreaming is not a slippery slope into self-delusion, nor a dangerous fantasy realm that leads to the inability to distinguish reality from dreams. Actually, lucid dreaming is a normal part of life for millions of healthy people.
However, I can’t blame those not familiar with lucid dreaming for making these associations. Remember that our Western model of mental illness has to do with confusing a shared reality with internal hallucinations, and behaving as if the two worlds are one.
Well, in popular lucid dreaming culture, you’re instructed to do “reality checks” during the day in order to “question whether or not you’re aware.” The purpose of this activity is to illicit a cognitive pattern that repeats in your dream, so that you ask the same question and then realize, “hey, this is a dream.” Lucid dreamers are also fond of saying that a conscious dream feels as real as waking life, and cannot be distinguished from reality.
But these mental gymnastics do not suggest that lucid dreamers can’t distinguish waking life from the dream while they are awake. Rather, the shock of this “virtual reality” usually bring about joy and awe about the power of imagination. And what people do with the insights from lucid dreaming defines them.
For instance, Tibetan Buddhists practice dream yoga, which is a series of lucid dreaming meditations that allows the meditator to manipulate the content of the dream in ways that poke holes in the self-generated dream architecture. The practice shows that the dream world is an illusion. This insight is further used as metaphor in daily life, to bring about a clarity that the waking senses are similarly an illusion that prevents us from seeing clearly. This is the central philosophical heart of Buddhism, whose adherents are some of the most peaceful people on the planet.
Let’s talk about another troubled young dreamer. He was a sickly writer, holed up in cabin for the winter. He was obsessed about the nature of reality. One night he had a series of dreams which showed him, as objects appeared and disappeared, that his senses could not be trusted. The last dream was lucid, and he interpreted the dream as it occurred. When this man woke up, he felt a sense of awe about the universe, an emotional breakthrough that mirrored the logic in the treatise he had written the day before. The treatise was Discourse on Method, and the young man was Rene Descartes, the father of modern philosophy.
And here’s my point: dreams, lucid or not, tend to mirror our concerns, beliefs and problems we are grappling with. This is called the continuity theory of dreaming, and it’s largely accepted by cognitive psychology. That’s why Buddhists have meditative lucid dreams and Descartes had philosophical lucid dreams.
Perhaps when alleged shooter Loughner began having lucid dreams, the dreams reflected his waking delusions that nothing is real and therefore nothing matters. It’s not my place to diagnose, but as dreamworker Robert Moss noted, it’s more than ironic that Loughner misspelled “conscious dreaming” as “conscience dreaming.” In the final analysis, nihilism does not need evidence, only a lack of compassion.
I’m deeply saddened and disturbed by the tragedy in Tucson. I’m also saddened that the media is grabbing for someone or something to blame, be it political rough-housing, lucid dreaming or mental illness. Let’s hold up the light of our own lucidity and compassion as the public spectacle of Loughner’s trial continues in the month to come.
You may also be interested in this statement about lucid dreaming from the International Association for the Study of Dreams.
I am glad to see someone speak out in defence of lucid dreaming and the complexity within. There is enought misconceived data already without adding to it with more.
Will Black says
Great post, Ryan. I’m going to re-post your article on my Facebook Fan page – it’s good a primer for anyone exposed to lucid dreamer via the shooting Tucson.
Anthony Fleming says
I really enjoyed reading this. The 700 Club did the same piece and talked as if Lucid Dreaming was responsible. It was very irritating to me. I’m not an avid 700 club watcher, just happened to be on at my in-laws. More of the anti-dreaming western Christian method coming into play.
Ryan Hurd says
Thanks everyone. It’s alarming for the entire dream research community to see such uninformed perspectives.
One thing I would like to add that the stigma around mental illness (the “us” versus “them”) is further polluting the way the press is reporting this correlation. There’s an excellent piece on Salon.com in which a woman tells her story of caring for her mentally ill husband, and how they were treated by various therapy communities as his condition worsened: http://www.salon.com/life/feature/2011/01/11/husband_mental_illness_knife_rally_open2011
Alissa Ruppert says
This was a great post. I loved the ending of this… I feel the same way about us not placing blame. Your completely right, I hope that others will only look at this a little bit more further than what this one perception of this confused young man. We all have moments of insanity… he just took it to another level than most of us ever would. He got lost with thinking lucid dreaming was about control, when the real beauty of it lies in loosing control and letting your innerself shine through.
Amy Brucker says
Bravo, Ryan. The more we speak the truth about dreaming, the healthier we’ll become as a community. Thanks for speaking the truth.
James Kroll says
Nicely written article Ryan.
One thing to add which I believe is relevant. One of the foundational assumptions in dream yoga is the equivalence between the waking state and the dreaming one.
If one is well versed in this eastern view, then clearly they would appreciate the implications of malicious behavior, even if it were only limited to there dream state. It would cause the collection of additional negative karmic threads, as well as further confusion about their true state.
I do find it disturbing that inexperienced lucid dreamers get caught up in negative “Id driven” behavior in dreams. Fortunately, experience slowly drives us away from this behavior.
Ann Lemke says
Excellent post, Ryan. People often look for simplistic explanations to complex situations. We should not castigate the practice of lucid dreaming any more than we should blame psychotherapy, medications, or other factors that might impinge on how one’s mental illness influences one’s use of lucid dreaming
Glad to see you’ve spoken about this, Ryan. We need as many voices as we can get sharing the facts about lucid dreaming.
Of course lucid dreaming is equated with mental illness. It’s right up there with spiritual growth and strong feelings about ridiculous situations, and paying attention while driving. Let’s face it, lucid dreamers = crazy loons. Don’t they have medication for that?
Thank you Ryan, As a Christian and a practicing lucid dreamer, I’m getting a kick out of reading the posts from people who are associating lucid dreaming with mental illness. These people are so uninformed, they do not realize they are showing their own stupidity. Read the bible you fools, because several profits, and a disciple were lucid dreamers.
Christine Garvin says
Thanks for your thoughts, Ryan. It’s not surprising that once again, the media “determines” that something is based on something they don’t really know anything about. Similar to the astrology hullabaloo this week, they try and make out anything not scientifically accepted in the mainstream as weak, wrong, and often dangerous, when most are the exact opposite.
As a lucid dreamer I have been able to achieve some remarkable events in my dreams. What gives us great power in these dreams is our minds and our hearts. Just because you can do it, does not mean you should. Jared Laughner will answer to us and God for his sins. We also answer not only for the sins we make but for the sins in our hearts. Our morals, empathy and the well being for others should be practiced just as well out of our reality as we do in reality.
Experienced meditators and mental health professional similarly agree that if you are very mentally unstable, you shouldn’t practice dream yoga/lucid dreaming or meditation. If you’re already detached from reality, removing yourself even more, probably won’t help.
To correct and earlier statement; Lets face it, lucid dreamers and psychosis = crazy loons.
It is clear that conscious (controlled) dreaming may lead to some kind of additional happiness especially in unhappy lives and even lead to additional creativity, but never the less it should also be clear that conscious (uncontrolled) dreaming may lead to a situation in which reality gets distorted by the unconscious. This means that unrealistic euphoric dreams may as well suddenly change the behavior of the dreamer in the real world as well as that nightmares take over. Jared Loughner was a practicing conscious dreamer and left out or did not bother about reality checks, which caused his nightmare to become reality. Whether the night mare really came of his own unconsciousness or was put there through a suggestion from an outside source (who was aware from the condition of Jared) we will probably never know.
In the dream forum blog you can find some people who practiced lucid dreaming and forgot or left out the reality check and started to suffer from lack of reality sense even wondering if they could become schizophrenic. I advice every conscious dreamer on this blog to be realistic and to see that how nice lucid dreaming may be there are also risks that need to be understood before causing more victims
Ryan Hurd says
Victor, I don’t think we can say that Loughner’s lucid dreaming practices (or lack thereof) “caused his nightmare to become reality.” In the psychiatric and counseling communities that I have spoken with over the years, I am told that the mentally ill do indeed have lucid dreams, including schizophrenics. However, this does not mean that learning lucid dreaming is a pathway to mental illness. Rather, for those who are already mentally unstable, spontaneous lucid dreams can occurs along with excessive REM dreaming and waking symptoms of disarray.
One more time: there’s no evidence that learning lucid dreaming can cause mental illness, but psychologically unstable people may have symptoms of spontaneous lucid dreams that mirror their anxiety, depression, hopelessness and confusion about reality. If you’re feeling unstable and have a history of depression, then as Liam suggests, it’s best to work on grounding yourself versus actively engaging in imaginal practices like lucid dreaming.
That said, lucid dreaming can cause profound philosophical shifts, and I agree with you that it’s best that beginners have access to a community to share their experiences. Personally, I recommend beginners also have an active meditation practice and body practice as well. Lucidity is not just in our heads.
People constantly bash what they don’t understand. To commit an act of violence based on a dream is indicative of an already disturbed individual. As someone who had four years of dreams that showed me a world on fire, I did not go out and attempt to make it happen.
Good response to the sensational media chatter, Ryan. As someone who has occasionally experienced awareness of my dream state while asleep, I’ve found the experience to be positive and usually fun. And unlike the popular movie, “Inception”, I never had any confusion about what was real during my waking state.
Robert Waggoner says
Once when giving a talk at a university, someone asked if lucid dreaming was for everyone? I thought about it for a moment and replied, “If you can not handle waking reality, then you should not mess around in the dream realm. You need to have a firm grasp on waking reality, before you get into dreaming.”
So in general terms, I suggest that as a “rule” for who should be involved in lucid dreaming.
Sadly, many people have little to no knowledge of dreaming (let alone, lucid dreaming). This dream illiteracy rate is shocking, given that everyone dreams! However it indicates the disrespect dreaming receives from so many circles.
The one good thing that may come from all of this is that lucid dream forums adopt the idea: If you can not handle waking reality, then you should not mess around in the dream realm.
Nice article Ryan. Thanks for sharing it with so many!
Ryan Hurd says
thanks everyone for contributing to this discussion. A point that has been raised several times that I am still unsatisfied with my response to is – can lucid dreaming push someone “over the edge” who is perhaps mentally unstable? We know lucid dreaming does not cause mental illness, but can it act as a catalyst? This has been a concern of psychologists for decades (see the Lucidity Letter for some classic dialogue) but there still no clear answers. Victor and Robert Waggoner’s advice is sound, though, a good benchmark to work from.
Still, my hunch is that self-awareness and metacognition in dreams of the mentally ill are best seen as a symptom, not a catalyst. Indeed, those dreams may be working to restore order, not further the chaos.
Here’s Scott Sparrow’s letter to the Lucidity Letter, penned in 1988. He doesn’t focus on mental illness, but how lucid dreaming also necessarily involves the bringing to light of dark and troubling material for all those who are brave enough to become more aware during the dream:
Thanks for the news and links, Ryan. Of course, I think it’s a bit absurd for anyone to suggest lucid dreaming would cause violent behavior or mental illness.
The killer most likely ate cereal too. Does this mean Frosted Flakes leads to insanity? Geez.
Robert Waggoner says
Thanks for posting the link to Scott Sparrow’s article. He writes, “I believe there is no sure way to obtain informed consent from a prospective lucid dream induction subject” – basically because no one, including the lucid dreamer or his teacher knows with certainty what the lucid dreamer may encounter, and if at some point, it may feel destabilizing.
However, I do want to mention that a person can do what I basically suggested to workshop participants, before I met with them, and what Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche mentions as his “entry” into lucid dreaming. Encourage each person to incubate a dream on “Please show me in a dream, what to expect if I follow a lucid dreaming path.” And then provide the dream/s to the workshop leader or guru.
In Tenzin Wangyal’s case, he dreamt of handing people the symbol A as they boarded a bus. His teachers found this extraordinary and encouraged him to take the three years of dream yoga training.
At my recent wokshop, I pre-asked the participants to incubate on a dreamsign that would help them to become lucid. By hearing their various dreams on this incubation, I felt that I got a peek into their dreamsign and its reflection of their possible success or difficulties. In this way, one gathers some sense (from the dream wisdom) of possible issues to be addressed.
John Sanford wrote that dreams show us both the light and dark of our selves. Jeremy Taylor reminds us that generally “Dreams come in the way of health and wholeness.” And Scott Sparrow lets us know that deeper lucid dreaming may require real struggle, self growth and transformation. May we all understand the responsibility we have to our self, as we proceed down whatever path we take.
I seriously doubt Loughner was even a lucid dreamer. Not just because he called it conscience dreaming instead of conscious, but because his views are so skewed. His favorite books were on communism and fascism, two opposite political ideologies. Loughner also made a video about how to use “mind control” on people, but half of the video wasn’t even related to mind control, and the video failed to ever explain it. I’ve known very weird people like Loughner in my life, and a lot of the things they say are just talk. They tell people they lucid dream when they don’t, they tell people that their favorite books are books that they have never even read. They have these delusions in their head that saying and pretending to be interested in these things makes them socially “cool” and makes them feel special and condescending toward the majority. In my opinion, it’s pretty obvious he’s full of bologna. He contradicts himself and doesn’t display any actual knowledge about anything. He’s just delusional and mentally ill. It’s just a shame he wasn’t receiving the help he needed, and that his delusions were allowed to amount to this atrocity.
I have been experiencing more and more lucid dreams. My best “reality” check within the dream to distinguish it from real life is simply to see if I can draw myself up (usually into a horizontal position) and float on air. Also, if I ask myself within the dream “Is this a dream” is usually enough as we usually can distinguish that fact without asking in RL. Disturbing thing last night though was, I desperately wanted to wake up, even though I was semi-controlling the ebb and flow of what was happening. I tried water in my face, slapping myself, even WILLING myself to wake and nothing worked! Other than the frustrating sexual encounters, this was my worst experience with lucid dreaming. How do you wake up? It was like being trapped down the rabbit hole.
Ryan Hurd says
hey Dawn, what works for me is sitting down in the dream and closing my eyes. this will usually pull me into a hypnagogic state and from there it’s easy to wake up withoug distractions or limitations due to the scene I happen to be in. also try opening and closing your eyes rapidly (in the dream) as this can trigger the actual eye movements, and break the REM paralysis.