I thought everyone could control their dreams. It took twenty-four years for me to find out it's quite rare. I only found out it was because people greeted me with complete disbelief when I discussed it (I had told them in a blasé way, as again, I thought everyone could - namely because my siblings can so it was frequently discussed in my childhood and since then I had taken it as a given), and because I had not researched it, ever. And then by chance, a few days after I'd had such an encounter of disbelief from a friend, and I was becoming increasingly distressed that I had no evidence to support my claim, 'The Conversation' posted a piece on Twitter.
They described it as a phenomenon that could perhaps help us to better understand consciousness as, maybe, it's a higher form of it (being both asleep and awake, and aware that you're doing both), and when it came to testing lucid dreamers, they showed increased gamma wave activity.
But what I've found interesting is the episode of lucid dreaming I've just had, in the last hour. Now that I know it is a fairly rare phenomenon, and that this episode was very distinct, I wanted to write it down, because it is of interest to me. And perhaps to those interested in sleep, cognition, memory, or consciousness generally. It's a completely truthful account with my own analysis. The latter obviously carrying subjective interpretation. I voice dictated all the details as soon as I awoke, as they fade quickly. So it's the most accurate account I could give.
Saturday 26th March 2016 - between 3.30pm - 6pm
It's Saturday in the Easter holidays, I had a migraine and little energy so I decided to have a nap as I was already laying in bed reading.
This episode of lucid dreaming was so clear, and so different it feels quite distinct from my past experiences. A typical scenario is where I am already dreaming, and then slip into some level of consciousness of the fact that I'm dreaming. And then the idea of wishing to 'take part', or be in control of the dream comes into focus. It's as if the concept of 'me' comes into focus where my nose is (between my eyes, as I'm 'seeing' in the dream with them). As though you take control of a virtual game which uses the perspective of the eyes to navigate the imaginary world. And now I'm in control of that person.
I then mess around with plot lines (there's definite future-orientated thinking as you know there would be implications to your changes and that you'd have to change some of those to achieve the desired goal e.g. to remove yourself from a situation in a certain way in a nightmare to avoid a disaster, or to make surely those events simply didn't happen at all.
For example, in the past, in this kind of state, I was standing on beach when I saw that the tide was retracting. Instantaneously I had the memory of the 2004 tsunami and that I'd learnt in a school geography class that this is a indicator of a tsunami wave forming out at sea. For my own safety, if I was to ever see that, I'd told myself I would tell people to evacuate the beach and run for higher ground. And so that's what I did in the dream, drawing on the accumulation of those memories in quick succession - they orientated my behaviour in the dream. Unfortunately, the person I love and my family had been around me on the beach in the dream. Knowing I couldn't direct their behaviour, only my own, in the lucid state, and therefore potentially couldn't save them I did the only thing I could think of to save them - I changed the dream so that they were all on an airplane (the only place the water couldn't get them). Again this all happens incredibly quickly - the speed of cognition becomes extremely apparent in these states. Sometimes there's no 'filling' detail, but just a quick succession of images. As though you're flicking through a book of images at varying speeds, with varying continuity and very quickly getting up to speed on the new context to decide what to do next. Despite ensuring the entire beach fled, I only managed to barely save myself because of the time it'd taken to think to put my loved ones on the airplane. The wave had still been coming this whole time. So there's some time linearity. But again, strangely, that appears to be a choice. I could have chosen to put the wave back further to where it would have been if no time had passed. But I knew I was going to escape, 'just', so I allowed the dream to play on.
Today, however, instead of being in such a state, I was quite simply in no-mans land. I wasn't already dreaming and had become aware of myself - I was in a vacuous state where there was nothing but me, and my brain, and the fact that I was conscious of being asleep. So, as I knew I had time to kill before I awoke, I started to think of things I could dream about. Something exciting, something scary maybe. But instead, as I was thinking about these choices, I became aware of the 'The Conversation' piece, and that the participants who had been studied had used pre-agreed upon, coded eye movements to signal to researchers that they were in a lucid state, and the researchers would be able to recognise that and begin their investigations into their brain waves, and activity. So I began moving my left eye, to the right, twice in quick succession and I did this a number of times (3 or 4). Then I became aware that I wasn't being recorded so I asked myself why was I bothering?
This shows that physiologically I have some control, although I would limit it to my eyes - suggesting it's already in a wave of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep? It also shows that I knew when and where I was sleeping to call off my efforts. I knew I was not in a lab or in an MRI machine. And in what condition I had fallen asleep in (not being researched, at home, comfortable). Which, perhaps, is my consciousness drawing upon the last memory I'd had before I'd fallen asleep (where I was, etc.). However, there's nothing to suggest I couldn't have been moved in this period between falling asleep and now. So how did I know? All I can say is that I knew, and I knew no one else was in my bedroom with me (feeling of a presence, or sound/movement), or that I was under investigation. Which I find fascinating. It's as if I was so 'conscious' I was just laying on my bed, daydreaming and not asleep at all.
There's also a huge sense of freedom in this state, not only in mental exploration but in the sense that you feel you can think of many, many things (sometimes even 'whatever' you want), but also I don't feel 'disabled' by sleep, or 'paralysed' as you do when you're dreaming normally (as I also do). But I feel as though I could move my limbs, walk around - I feel conscious.
Another interesting thing was the emotions I was feeling. They were more childlike, even though I had access to my faculties (memory, forward planning - prefrontal cortex functions), they felt more about 'base pleasures'. I'd asked myself for a dream that was 'exciting', 'frightful', 'entertaining'. When I became aware I wasn't being researched I became like a 'spoilt brat' (because I wanted it to be recorded), and my subsequent dream that I chose to have turned into one of 'fear' and 'excitement'. Perhaps the limbic system, amygdala and hippocampus - white matter/mid-brain - are playing a larger part here (memory, emotion (fight/flight), physiological response (which I'll mention later)). These are also areas of the brain close to the thalamus which has been strongly linked to consciousness ('brain stem' > 'mid brain' > 'thalamus').
Once this period of realising I wasn't being researched was over I decided to have a dream because I wasn't going to be waking up yet and you can't just sit there twiddling your thumbs. At this juncture something interesting happened which I can't decide upon. Either my Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA) became active (my airway becomes obstructed and my oxygen decreases triggering tachycardia (fast heart rate) and a 'fight or flight' type response to wake me up as the brain becomes aware of the diminishing oxygen), or I simply was continuing to look for emotional stimulation. Because as soon as my dream started, and I gained the context of the situation, it turned into a disaster situation - but one that was both fun and exciting. Basically, my friend is currently on holiday and I decided that the reality was that she'd asked me to flat-sit for the week. But the flat looked distinctly like a apartment I'd stayed in recently, in Norway via AirBnB. So here I'd filled the gaps of what her flat looked like, because it wasn't reality that she'd asked me to do this and I've never been her flat before. So it unravels that I'm not supposed to be in the flat at all! I'm in her house, using her belonging and there's baked beans on the stove, her bed is messy and I've got the TV on loud. Her neighbours could hear me, she could be back any minute, or her parents could be to check on the flat. Panic mode. I start frantically clearing up and all around appear signs (which I think I was placing there to encourage me to hurry up) that she would be back TODAY, from her holiday), and it seems to take a really long time.
After clearing up the flat and realising I was going to escape 'just in time' (as I always make sure I do - it's about the buzz, not actually wanting to get caught) I decided that I'd had enough and I wanted to wake up now. So almost as if I was violently, mentally shaking myself, I pushed myself into full consciousness. I wanted it to all be over, like when you're lucid dreaming in a nightmare, so I made it so. Whether I'm fully in control of this or I just understand that my sleep apnoea is going to be waking me up soon, is up for debate.
What was obvious to me when I awoke was that I'd had an adrenaline rush. An unmistakeable feeling of being 'wired'. This could be that the body had responded to the perceived imaginary threat in the normal physiological way, or that I had been having an episode of my airway becoming obstructed which would trigger the same feeling. However, in the past, with the latter, I wake up feeling not 'elated' by my experience but concerned. This was a happy rush, not a 'danger-your-vital-source-of-oxygen-is-in-decline' rush. Nor was I tachycardic.
What I'm particularly interested in is that there is a clear level of almost 'complete' consciousness when I was 'choosing' what dream to have, completely aware of being in this vacuous state; the emotional aspect of feeling more 'child-like' when choosing what I'd like to experience in the dream or when I became upset that I was not being studied; that I had a physiological response to what I knew I was doing to myself (it appears amazing to me that I could be unconscious (asleep), but aware of that (conscious), making my own situation (conscious), aware that I'm doing that (aware that I'm awake in my sleep (very conscious); but unconscious enough that my brain has just 'gone along' with the physiological response of becoming excited/scared during the dream, when it should know it didn't need to have any response at all because its all imaginary and it knows it's dreaming? Although paralysed during sleep, this is a testament to those who have night terrors and the feelings we experience during nightmares - our bodies are feeling strong emotions as though we're conscious. So if someone tells you they've had a nightmare maybe they do need your sympathy because how would you feel emotionally if in real life someone chased you with an axe? They might be feeling a little of that physiologically upon waking, and almost certainly whilst they were asleep. I also find it interesting how much of my memory I have access to and how 'in control' I was in this instance. I felt completely conscious, but fully conscious of the fact that I was unconscious. It's a strange, but wonderful feeling.
'The Conversation' piece: http://theconversation.com/the-ability-to-control-dreams-may-help-us-unravel-the-mystery-of-consciousness-52394