A Brief Overview of Lucid Dreaming Psychological Research

Jayne Gackenbach

MacEwan University

Gackenbach, J.I. (2011, Sept.). A Brief Overview of Lucid Dreaming Psychological Research. Paper presented at the annual Psiber Dreaming Conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams.

A Brief Overview of Lucid Dreaming Psychological Research in 2011

Inquiry into lucid dreaming has waxed and waned since the publication of “Conscious Mind, Sleeping Brain” (Gackenbach & LaBerge, 1988) and “Control Your Dreams” (Gackenbach & Bosveld, 1989) in the late 1980’s. However, in recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in dream lucidity. This was marked by the recent collection of essays in the International Journal of Dream Research responding to an article by one of the top dream researchers, Alan Hobson. Hobson’s essay (2009) is a call, again, for the use of lucid dreaming as a methodological paradigm which offers the potential to understand more deeply the brain basis of consciousness.

In this introductory chapter to a book of my writing, which came out recently from a Russian publisher (Gackenbach, 2011), I will briefly highlight some of the research that has occurred in the 20 plus years since the publication of the above two books which I co-edited with Stephen LaBerge, and co-wrote with Jane Bosveld. I will then comment on lucid dreams and spirituality, from a framework of a transpersonal understanding of consciousness. This book is a selection of articles, essays and research reports of my work on lucid dreaming and higher states of consciousness over the intervening 20 plus years.

Research Update

Over the course of my professional life I have focused upon individual differences associated with dreaming lucidly (for a review see Snyder & Gackenbach, 1988), the content of the experience of dreaming lucidly (for a review see Gackenbach, 1988), and the spontaneous behavioural antecedents to lucid dreaming (Gackenbach & Bosveld, 1989). Individual differences in lucid dreaming have garnered some additional attention in the years since my books came out. My conclusion was that there were no replicable personality differences but there were cognitive style or spatial skill differences in those who spontaneously experienced dream lucidity. In subsequent research on individual differences some of these findings have been replicated or partially replicated. For instance, Blagrove, Bell and Wilkinson (2010) also found some Stroop task performance superiority among high end lucid dreamers. But the same laboratory reported no differences as a function of lucid dreaming in change blindness performance (Blagrove & Wilkinson, 2010). Also from the Blagrove group was research looking at locus of control (Blagrove & Tucker, 1994; Blagrove & Hartnell, 2000) where lucidity was associated with internal locus of control. Blagrove and Hartnell also found more need for cognition and creativity among frequent lucid dreamers, which was supported by moderated creativity differences (Brodsky, Esquerre & Jackson, 1990; Stumbrys & Daniels, 2010). Indeed in our more recent laboratory work, we found separate associations between lucidity and high end video game play (Gackenbach, 2006; 2009), between creativity and high end video game play (Gackenbach & Dopko, 2011) and between change blindness and high end video game play (Swanston & Gackenbach, 2011).

Field independence, a cognitive style where the individual is able to manoeuvre in space without external referents, was found in our original research program to favour frequent lucid dreamers. This has been replicated by Gruber, Steffen, and Vonderhaar (1995) and in terms of spatial abilities also found by Gittler (1990). However, field independence was not found by Blagrove and Tucker (1994), nor were spatial abilities favouring lucid dreamers found by Doll, Gittler, and Holzinger (2009). Thus the relationship of spatial type abilities to lucidity remains unclear.

The original finding of spatial skills/field independence was thought to be related to vestibular sensitivity (Gackenbach, Snyder, Rokes, & Sachau, 1986), but was not replicated by Slater and Hunt (1997). Again, our current work in our laboratory with high end video game players may offer some insight here. In order to play video games a lot, or at least the first person perspective ones, you have to be able to move in virtual realms and not suffer from motion sickness. In other words your vestibular system needs to be in good shape (Preston, 2007). So the lucid dreaming in gamers may be in part a function of their practice in imaginary realms (virtual reality in gaming) and associated with this vestibular integrity (Gackenbach, Kuruvilla, Dopko, & Le, 2010).

Various personality variables have also been examined in the years since my books on lucid dreaming came out. As with our work years ago on personality and lucid dreaming, Schredl and Erlacher (2004) and Wolpin, Marson, Randolph and Clothier (1992) also found no substantive differences between lucid dreaming groups on personality measures. However, Gruber, Steffen and Vonderhaar (1995) reported that lucid dreamers were better able to manage their emotions. Relatedly, Hicks, Bautista and Hicks (1999) reported an association between lucid dreaming and thin boundaries. Emotional management and thin boundaries may partially explain why lucid dreaming has been explored as a type of dream therapy, which is further discussed below.

As mentioned above, some individual differences in associations to lucidity imply good reasons to use it as dream therapy. For instance, Doll, Gittler, and Holzinger (2009) reported that high end lucid dreamers were higher on mental health, freedom from complaints, expansivity, autonomy and self-esteem. Several researchers and clinicians argue that lucidity in dreams can aid in dealing with nightmares (Zadra, 1996; Zadra & Pihl, 1997; Tanner, 2004; Lancee, van den Bout, & Spoormaker, 2010). Drawing from our work on video game players and lucidity, we have found in several studies that high end gamers seem not to suffer from the negative effects of nightmares (Gackenbach & Kuruvilla, 2008; Gackenbach, Hall & Ellerman, 2011). We postulate that this effect is due to practice in waking virtual realms in dealing with threat, such that when it emerges in a nightmare it is less frightening and more to the point due to their enhanced dream control (and perhaps lucidity) combated directly.

I always preferred to view lucid dreaming in its “natural” setting and did not address issues of how to have a lucid dream. Hobson (2009) seemed to reduce the induction methods that have been explored to “pre-sleep autosuggestion”, when clearly the emergence of lucidity is predicated by both individual differences, as just reviewed, and various life circumstances. LaBerge and others (LaBerge, 1986; Zadra, Donderi, & Pihl, 1992; Paulsson, & Parker, 2006) have shown that autosuggestion does work. So too, Laberge and Levitan (1995) have shown that light triggers, in a mask worn while in REM sleep, can also elicit lucidity when paired with presleep suggestions. Interestingly is the finding by Prescott and Pettigrew (1995) who reported a positive association between lucidity in sleep and a desire for control while awake, which is certainly substantiated by our video game player data where their game play is all about being in control. However, the incidence of success for such techniques does not come close to the spontaneous emergence of lucidity in sleep as a by-product of the practice of meditation (Alexander, 1987; Gackenbach & Bosveld, 1989; Hunt, 1989; Gackenbach & Hunt, 1992; Swanson & Gackenbach, 2011). The intent of meditation is typically not to specifically have a lucid dream, but rather is more broadly motivated, and indeed the outcomes of meditation can be developmentally framed as ultimately naturally occurring (Alexander et al., 1990; Mason & Orme-Johnson, 2010).

Relatedly, many years ago I also found in an obscure study that for those in some types of self reflective therapy, increases in lucidity through increased dream recall may occur (Gackenbach & Bosveld, 1989). Indeed, the lucidity/dream recall confound is so substantive (Gackenbach, 1988) that if not controlled for, dream recall can become synonymous with lucid dreaming. As mentioned earlier, in the last decade I have turned my attention to the effects of electronic media exposure on dreams. Our laboratory has repeatedly found that interactive media use, especially video game play, is more often associated with lucid dreaming than its spontaneous emergence in those less often using such media (Gackenbach, 2006; 2009).

In none of these cases is having a lucid dream the express purpose of meditation, psychotherapy, dream recall or video game play. Yet in all cases the incidence of lucidity is the same as spontaneous lucidity emergence (in the case of psychotherapy and video game play) or higher than such emergence (for meditation). Now it may be that “pre-sleep autosuggestion” is as viable as these other activities, but as far as I can tell this research has not been done. This is a research question that should be undertaken especially if, as suggested by Hobson, lucid dreaming is finally coming into its own as a research paradigm for investigating the nature of consciousness.

In-dream triggers for lucidity have been investigated as part of LaBerge’s effort to elicit lucid dreams on command and as part of my inquiry into the content of lucid dreams (LaBerge & Gackenbach, 2000). While noticing bizarre elements (as suggested by Hobson regarding his own lucid dreams) was found in our lab, this only accounted for one-third of the lucid dreams which emerged spontaneously in college students. The other two ways that lucidity emerged were as a result of a nightmare and the dreamer indicating that they “just knew” (Gackenbach, 1988). A recent case inquiry along these lines found lucidity associated with sleep apnea, where the patient reported that in some lucid dreams he forgets to breathe (Rao, 2009). While this serves as another trigger for lucidity, it also illustrates that dreaming lucidly can be adaptive. The adaptiveness of lucid content was directly addressed in a study by Erlacher and Schredl (2010), who found that a simple motor task practiced in lucid dreams resulted in improvements in follow-up waking. While in this preliminary study lucid dream practice did not show as much improvement as waking physical practice, it was larger than two control groups. Interestingly, in an earlier study these same two researchers (Erlacher & Schredl, 2004) found that time needed for motor activities in lucid dreams is longer than that needed in wakefulness. Before we leave the motor activities in lucid dreams area, a brief mention should be made of a study by Barrett (1991), who investigated flying and lucidity in dreams. She found that lucidity preceded flying when they both occurred in the same dream.

This adaptiveness of lucid dreaming brings my discussion to the question of the content of lucid dreams. That has been another psychological question I have investigated in the past and is summarized in a chapter in my edited book (Gackenbach, 1988). Dream control is probably one of the most studied of the content questions (Yu, 2008; Erlacher & Schredl, 2010; Boerger, 2009; Hicks, Bautista & Hicks, 1999; Wolpin et al, 1992). With various subtle variations, the conclusion reflects my own early work that lucid dreams often show some associated control of dream content. But an important caveat is that one can have some control over dream content and still not know it’s a dream, as has been the case in our research on gamers (Swanston & Gackenbach, 2011).

A major question in the literature on lucid dreaming has been: how does one code a dream as lucid or not? While in my work in the past this has been with the use of a recognition phrase – e.g. then I realized I was dreaming – it became clear even 20 years ago that sometimes one can know that it’s a dream but it does not show up as an explicit recognition in the dream transcript. This task of lucid content coding has been taken up by Stewart and Koulack (1989-90) and Barrett (1992). But cognitive inquiries into lucid dreaming have been more often investigated. Kahan and colleagues (Kahan, 2001; Kahan & LaBerge, 1994; 1996) and Kuiken’s group (Kuiken, Lee, Eng, & Singh, 2006; Kuiken, 2009; Lee, Kuiken, & Czupryn , 2007; Lee, 2010) have investigated lucid dreaming in metacognitive and phenomenological terms taking the discussion beyond the recognition phrase limitations. Their respective refined analyses, along with examinations of self in lucid dreams by Kunzendorf et al. (2006), should be included in any comprehensive understanding of the psychological side of lucid dreaming.

Spiritual Implications

The question “can lucid dreaming be in some sense indicative of spiritual growth?” is another aspect of lucid dreaming inquiries. Historically, and continuing today, there are noted lucid dreaming experts who stress that they are, or can be, spiritual experiences. First, it should be mentioned that several research studies have examined various transpersonal or alternative states of consciousness experiences (i.e., experiences that seem to go beyond the limits of the self in world and are often labelled “spiritual”) and lucidity in sleep, often finding positive associations (Hunt, Gervais, Shearing-Johns, & Travis, 1992; Zingrone, Alvarado, & Agee, 2009; Alvarado & Zingrone, 2007; Soffer-Dudek & Shahar, 2001; Mason & Orme-Johnson, 2011). Alvarado and Zingrone (2007) conclude in a survey with Spanish speaking individuals that the belief that one has had paranormal experiences (including lucid dreams) is associated with thin boundaries, dissociation and fantasy proneness.

This echoes the work of Hunt (1989) who also points out that lucid dreaming can be seen as an experience of turning around on the self. Thus, the often cited correlations to out-of-body experiences reflect this turning around. This openness to experience, or absorption, has often been associated with lucid dreaming.

But let me put aside the science and try to explain where I have come over the years in trying to understand the place of lucid dreaming. First, I think it is a unique state of consciousness, as has increasingly been appreciated both in and outside of academic research. But because something is unique, it does not make it spiritual in and of itself. And indeed the very idea of an experience being spiritual is largely in the eye of the beholder. Thus we see lucid dreaming as potentially having a deeply spiritual depth, but also as having various practical implications and applications. I don’t think one supersedes the other. Similarly, with the meditation research it is clear that practicing meditation can have various psychological and physiological benefits without ever considering it as a spiritual practice. Yet meditation as a spiritual practice has a long and revered history.

When I co-wrote “Control Your Dreams” I was cautious about calling dream lucidity alone a spiritual merit badge or achievement and today that caution remains. It can be, but if sought in its own right it can also lead to missteps along the path. I still think that the best model and deep understanding of the potential of lucidity in sleep is the work started by Alexander and colleagues and recently summarized by Mason and Orme-Johnson (2011). They distinguish between lucid dreaming and witnessing dreaming/sleep. While acknowledging that they fall along a continuum, Mason and Orme-Johnson offer a model and physiological analysis of a higher form of lucidity, i.e. witnessing dreams/sleep.


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