This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare a 1,000ish word post on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.
The Technology of Lucid Dreaming by Cody Boatman
The idea of delving into a world with limitless possibilities is incredibly enticing. In such a world, there are no codes of ethics or morality, no physical limitations, and the creative depth of your subconscious mind abounds. This is, to many, the world of lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming is the awareness that you are dreaming while you are in a dream state. This dream awareness is often coupled with a sense of clear, rational thought, giving you control over your dreams, allowing you to become the master of your sleep world!
However, there is a problem…
While lucid dreaming – meaning being aware of that you are dreaming – is quite well established, many people try and couple this with an unproven idea – that of dream control. As detailed in an earlier post, one of the issues is our current inability to measure its full breadth through experimentation. Although the phenomenon is often accepted by the masses as being real in one sense or another, there are several key elements of this dream state that are purely pseudoscience.
The most widely posited claims are those dealing with the technology used to induce lucid dreaming and dream control. The classic and most commonly used techniques are reality checks, markers, and triggers. There are practitioners who claim that touch is key to inducing lucid dreaming. For example, if you touch the side framing of every door that you pass through, asking yourself if you are awake or dreaming, and critically evaluate your senses, you will carry this practice with you into your nightly dreaming. While in your dream, your sense of touch will be lacking or nonexistent, allowing you to realize that you are dreaming.
Using the thought of an object in place of the door touching to trigger a lucid dream is also said to be a useful technique. For an example of this method all we have to do is turn to sci-fi (which, lets face it, is always a good place for awesome anecdotal examples). There is an episode of Star Trek: Voyager in which one of the characters, Chacotay, chooses the moon as his marker. After he went to sleep, or was put to sleep, he notices the Earth’s moon, which induces the realization that he is in a dream world.
These things are all well and good if you want to spice up your non-awake hours for personal entertainment purposes, but when lucid dreaming is being used as a platform to sell “tools” for up to $600 a pop, issues begin to arise. The things being hawked as scientific tools for dream induction are sound machines, headbands, and full lucid dreaming masks. The makers of these tools make claims that are flatly false and cite data that lacks the original context. There is very little effort currently being put in to the verification or falsification of the data used to support claims made about these products and related literature.
REM Dreamer: Lucid Dream Induction Mask is a sleep mask that currently sells for up to $300. It is designed to measure your eye and head movements in order to determine when you are is REM sleep. The actual science behind this device is legitimate. Known as actigraphy, the sensors measure minute muscular responses associated with different sleep stages. When the mask determines the appropriate sleep level has been reached, LED lights located in the mask and centered above each eye are activated in a pattern meant to trigger dream realization. This mask was invented and produced by Dr. Stephen LaBerge and the Lucidity Institute at Stanford University. The issue with this product is the source of the studies used to bolster the legitimacy and reliability of the mask. A conflict of interest and a concern only for the confirmation of lucid dreaming inception arise from the use of Dr. LaBerge’s own studies in association with the REM Dreamer.
Smart phones and tablets offer a more accessible and cheaper tool that claims to accomplish the same goal. Free applications for your personal device such as Dream:On promise to help you into dream awareness by way of gyroscopic measurements and audio-hypnotic suggestion. The idea is that you set your phone on the corner of your bed with the app running. As you move, the phone picks up these disturbances through its gyroscope and determines when REM sleep is most likely. When the conditions are right, a voice or song begins to play. These audio cues are supposed to act as the triggers. The app is free to download and contains several tracks for general use during sleep, but the lucid dreaming tools cost extra and can be attained by way of in-app purchases.
All of this pseudoscientific tomfoolery is made worse when so-called therapists prop up these claims for their own gains. There are a lot of people who employ the use of lucid dreaming techniques and all of the associated trappings as a way to heal psychological issues or to improve life quality. Patients pay large sums of money with the expectation of using LD as a universe to work out their depression, find the answers to their real world struggles, and regain a sense of control that they may have lost at some point.
There is no way to verify that the technological methodology works in the way it is claimed. How do you prove that someone was in a lucid dream? Personal account and recollections are not enough to prove the ability to control your dreams. It is within reason to speculate that lucid dreaming is simply dreaming that you are controlling a dream. Maybe your sense of control is a product of the dream itself.
What was once an interesting offshoot of the natural sleep process has been transformed into the foundation of a multi-million dollar industry. I personally really like the idea of using a “dream” state to explore the depths of the human imagination. If these “tools” really worked and had supportive scientific data I would be saving my money to make the big purchase. But alas, the science simply is not there to support the statements and guarantees that these companies make in regards to achieving a state of controllable, reliable lucid dreaming. Maybe someday things will change and we will all fade into sleep with the satisfaction of knowing that our dream will be lucid, wonderful, and limitless.