“Falling Water” and the Vasty Deep

"Falling Water" and the Vasty Deep by Kelly BulkeleyThe second episode of the excellent new TV series “Falling Water” (USA Network) starts with a creepy voiceover from a character who later reveals the frightening extent of his powers in the dream realm. He quotes from Shakespeare’s play “Henry IV Part I,” when two English lords plot a rebellion against the king:

Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?


The episode takes its title from this quote, which poetically highlights the dangers inherent in exploring the “vasty deep” of lucid dreaming. Be careful what you wish for with dreaming, because it might become a more powerful and autonomous reality than you were expecting.

The 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche expressed a similar insight in his 1886 work Beyond Good and Evil, aphorism 146:

“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”

It has to be a great TV show if I’m quoting Shakespeare and Nietzsche and I haven’t even gotten to the oneirogenic blues LP, the two big guys in black suits with no faces, the ethical complexities of gathering pure scientific data, and the deepening mystery surrounding Topeka, “a good place to dig for roots.” I’m hooked, most definitely hooked!

"Falling Water" and the Vasty Deep by Kelly Bulkeley

Below is what I wrote in the Huffington Post after watching the first episode.

Finally, someone gets it right: a television show about dreams that feels genuinely dreamy. “Falling Water,” a new series on the USA Network premiering October 12, centers on three characters (Tess, Burton, and Taka) who learn how to enter a dangerous, shadowy world of shared dreaming. I just watched the first episode (available online), and I’m very, very impressed! After years of complaining about lame, painfully unimaginative portrayals of dreaming in television and movies, I can now say there is a TV show that accurately, and entertainingly, conveys many of the sensory qualities and content themes that typify actual dreaming.

Foremost among those themes is, as the title suggests, falling water. I won’t reveal any plot twists, nor will I describe in too much detail the many beautiful images of water in the first episode, but suffice it to say that the element of water is essentially another character in the show. It flows in many different directions, over various surfaces and bodies, and ultimately down into mysterious depths. As a quick search for “water” words in the SDDb reveals, this element is indeed a very prominent feature of people’s dreams, and it has a long history of multi-dimensional symbolism. It will be fun watching future episodes to see how this theme develops over time.

Another prominent theme has to do with visual experience. Eyes, windows, mirrors, glasses, and other reflective surfaces abound in the first episode, creating a kaleidoscopic perceptual atmosphere for the characters and viewers alike. Visual sensations are also very prominent in actual dreaming, and in my recent Big Dreams book I talk about the roots of visual dreaming in terms of hard-wired neural activities in the sleeping brain. I refer to an “autonomous visionary capacity” that is innate in all humans and capable of generating powerful, creative, and highly realistic visual experiences in dreaming. The premise of “Falling Water” seems to be that people can potentially cultivate that inner capacity for powerful visionary dreaming and channel it in specific directions. It’s an exciting and reality-based premise that opens up lots of narrative possibilities for future episodes.

The theme of trying to control one’s dreams raises unsettling ethical issues that religious and spiritual traditions around the world have debated since ancient times. Are methods and tools of dream control a way of enhancing and amplifying the dreaming process, or do they ruin dreams by imposing the shallow desires of the waking ego on the wisdom of the unconscious psyche? Could more control of our dreaming promote greater self-knowledge, emotional health, and problem-solving abilities, or is it a harmful violation of our inner world and a potentially destructive way of exploiting people’s deepest fears and vulnerabilities? Perhaps most worrisome of all, if we forcefully try to control our dreams, are we ready for the possibility our dreams will fight back? These questions are becoming even more urgent today, thanks to the emergence of a new generation of dream-stimulating technologies (exaggerated, but not by much, in the show).

The final scene of the first episode raised the specter of a “war” for control of our dreams, and I’m curious to see how that alarming notion plays out. This might sound like science fiction, and it is exactly that, science fiction at its best: a dramatized version of cutting-edge scientific findings, technological innovations, and cultural trends whose real-world consequences are just dawning on us. We are living in a world where various forces, some benign and others much less so, are competing for influence over our minds, in waking and in sleeping. “Falling Water” is poised to reflect that emerging reality back to us in a fictional medium that, paradoxically, will probably have a tangible impact on the real dreams of its viewers.

Having watched a lot of dream-related movies and television shows over the years, I can’t help but notice several visual and thematic references in “Falling Water,” all of which bode well for it future direction. Most viewers will immediately associate the show’s premise with the 2011 film Inception and its portrayal of skilled agents entering into other people’s dreams and trying to manipulate them. But “Falling Water” seems to be aiming for something bigger, more along the lines of the 1999 film The Matrix, with its mind-bending metaphysical combat and prophetic call for a new, more advanced kind of consciousness. More than either Inception or The Matrix, however, “Falling Water” goes deeper into the creepy depths of the collective unconscious, with an occult mystery theme that reminds me of the first excellent season of the 2014 TV show “True Detective.”   Some of the visuals and epistemological paradoxes in “Falling Water” are strikingly reminiscent of the 1988 film “Jacob’s Ladder,” which used the Tibetan Book of the Dead as a template for describing a soldier’s journey through a nightmare world located somewhere between life and death. And there are several parallels to the Nightmare on Elm Street series of films, starting in 1984, which used schlocky special effects to dig deeply into the dark, festering corners of the American psyche. A striped shirt appears on a key character in “Falling Water,” which does make one wonder.

The touchstone for any show like this is always “Twin Peaks,” the David Lynch television series from the early 1990’s, which is set to reboot with new episodes soon (!!). “Twin Peaks” featured a dream-inspired FBI agent who tracked down an evil entity haunting people’s minds and forcing them to violate the laws and morals of the waking world. In its incredible beauty, emotional rawness, and surrealistic whimsy, “Twin Peaks” portrayed aspects of genuine dreaming in a more compelling way than perhaps America was ready to handle at the time. The first episode of “Falling Water” does not have any of the levity and comical weirdness of “Twin Peaks,” which may be a good thing at the start (no dwarves in red suits) but will hopefully appear in some form in later episodes. There’s bound to be lots of falling in this show; will there also be flying?


Lucid Dreaming and “Pan’s Labyrinth”

Lucid Dreaming and "Pan's Labyrinth" by Kelly BulkeleyThis essay is based on a presentation I gave at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry on April 13, 2016, as part of OMSI’s “Reel Science” series in which a lecture precedes the showing of a popular movie. My lecture involved the science of lucid dreaming, and the film was Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006).

A simple definition of lucid dreaming is this: the experience of consciousness or self-awareness within the dream state. Sometimes it includes a greater sense of intentionality or control—the dreamer has some ability to change or alter what’s happening in the dream.

Here are some statistics about the frequency of lucid dreaming among the general population, drawn from the two-volume anthology Ryan Hurd and I edited in 2014, Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep.

  • More than 50% of the population has had at least one dream of lucid awareness
  • Gender: slightly higher frequencies for females
  • Age: much higher frequencies (70%-80%) in early adulthood, then a drop-off over time
  • Higher frequencies for religious “nones,” political liberals, and people living in Western US
  • No major differences on other demographic variables

We also have some research on the content of lucid dreams, and what makes them distinctive from ordinary dreams. In general, lucid dreams are not radically different from ordinary dreams; they both share the same basic substrate of dreaming experience. In this sense lucid dreaming is an extension of what’s already going on in ordinary dreaming. We do not need to invoke a separate psychological system to explain what happens in lucid dreaming.

That being said, the few differences are illuminating. Lucid dreams have more references to:

  • Awareness
  • Effort
  • Flying
  • Fantastic beings
  • Physical aggression

Lucid dreams have fewer references to:

  • Colors
  • Speech
  • Family characters
  • Friendly social interactions

These are tendencies, not absolutes, so they don’t apply to every individual experience. But they make sense in that lucidity often emerges during nightmares (physical aggression) or when the individual encounters something bizarre or anomalous (flying, fantastic beings), and the dreams often do lead away from the normal social world into strange, unfamiliar places.

The frequency of lucid dreaming is not set in stone. As several researchers have found, gaining conscious awareness in dreaming is an ability that may first appear spontaneously, but can also be trained like a cognitive skill, and guided with some degree of precision.

In the past few years a number of electronic devices have been invented and marketed as tools for lucid dream induction, with several more such devices in development.

These devices represent high-intensity and rather aggressive approaches to lucid dreaming. They can get results, at least for some people. But I wouldn’t recommend them for use before considering some of the other methods we’ll discuss towards the end.

Let’s step back for a moment and acknowledge the fact that lucid dreaming may be a new phenomenon to modern Western society, but it has a long and venerable history in many other cultures.

Going back to the 7th century BCE, the Upanishads of Hinduism referred to dreaming as a space of infinite illusions where the skilled meditator was able to recognize the self-created nature of dream reality. This insight in dreaming was considered a key step toward recognizing the self-created nature of all reality, in all states of being.

Zhuang Zi, the Daoist sage from the 4th century BCE, in addition to his famous parable of the dream of the butterfly, had this to say about dreaming in general: “After we’re awake, we know it was a dream—but only after a great awakening can we understand that all of this is a great dream.”

Buddhism is filled with teachings about lucid dreaming. The twelfth century CE Tibetan Buddhist master Naropa developed a systematic method of inducing lucid dreams. Significantly, the teachings about dreams began after the student had mastered the earlier teachings on Inner Heat and the Illusory Body. In this tradition the entry into lucid dreaming occurred within a well-developed context that helped the student safely process the potentially destabilizing effects of deliberately altering the functions of one’s mind.

In classical Western antiquity, Aristotle in the 4th century BCE mentioned dreams in which people had some knowledge of being in a dream state. And in the 4th century CE the Christian theologian Augustine used the example of lucid dreams as a way of arguing for the reality of the soul and its independent existence apart from the body, in sleep or in death and the afterlife.

In Islam, Muhammad’s “night journey” in sura 17 of the Qur’an has many aspects of a lucid dream. Sufi Muslims to this day engage in lucid dreaming practices as a means of learning esoteric spiritual doctrines.

This could go on, of course, but let me mention one more example. It comes from anthropologist Diana Riboli, whose studies of indigenous cultures in Nepal and Malaysia found that shamanic healers used lucid dreaming not only to heal people, but also to challenge, battle, and even kill enemy shamans. (Her work appears as chapter 4 in volume 2 of the Lucid Dreaming anthology.) As Riboli observed, the dueling shamans

“fight in the course of violent and dramatic dreams during which they feel themselves to be totally conscious and able to interact with the other individual. These lucid dreams can continue for days and even weeks, coming to an end only when one of the rivals dies, both in the dream and in everyday life.”(74)

So that’s a good reminder that amidst all the positive spiritual insights of lucid dreaming, there is also a destructive potential where the enhanced abilities of consciousness can become weaponized and used in violent efforts to defeat a rival.

All of these historical and cross-cultural references do more than just embroider the edges of scientific research. They reveal an important fact about human psychology: people in virtually all cultures and civilizations have recognized that lucid dreaming is a valuable potential of the sleeping mind. This is evidence that a capacity for self-awareness in dreaming is innate in the mental architecture of our species.

It has taken modern Westerners a while to get there, but now researchers are working diligently to gather solid empirical data to support this historical insight. Here are the few things we know with some confidence:

Variations in occurrence: Lucid dreaming can occur in REM sleep and threshold phases between waking and sleeping (e.g., hypnogogic and hypnopompic states).

Variations in metacognitive abilities: There are multiple dimensions of lucidity, involving the emergence in dreaming of high-level mental abilities we usually associate with waking consciousness, such as reflecting, evaluating, doubting, judging, and planning. These kinds of complex mental abilities are known as “metacognition,” or “thinking about thinking.” The dream world turns out to include a much wider variety of metacognitive activities than Western psychologists have long assumed.

Neurologically plausible: We don’t know for sure how exactly lucid dreaming maps onto the various cycles of brain activity during sleep.  However, we do know that many brain systems crucial to waking consciousness are also prominent in sleep, particularly in REM sleep. This includes activities in the prefrontal cortex, rising levels of neurotransmitters like acetylcholine, and electrical bursts in the alpha and beta/gamma frequencies. The presence in sleep of these neural factors, so crucial to consciousness in waking, makes it plausible that, given the right circumstances, a high degree of self-awareness could emerge within the sleep state.

Comparable to meditation: There is considerable overlap in the neurological and behavioral features of lucid dreaming and various kinds of meditation. Both involve high levels of attention, arousal, and internal focus, and in both the body remains motionless and detached from the external world.

So the discussion comes full circle, as modern brain scanning technologies are validating experiences that ancient practitioners have long recognized and actively cultivated.

And this means that both science and religion agree on a basic idea: what’s possible in dreaming depends on the dreamer’s frame of mind. Here’s a quote from a lucid dreaming study performed several years ago by psychologist Sheila Purcell and her colleagues at Carleton University:

“The present results indicate that the inhibitory constraints on this process are implicit in the organization of the dreamer rather than the dreaming. The lifting of these constraints, their reorganization, can be effected through the mechanisms of attention and intention on what is to be reorganized. The constraints on this response are therefore not implicit in dreaming itself, although this view of dreaming has been widely held.” (Purcell et al. 247)

This is a dramatic claim, even though it’s couched in academic language. The upper limits of metacognitive dreaming are set by the individual’s mental framework, not by the capacities of dreaming itself. These limits can be changed if the mental framework is changed. People can have more lucidity in their dreams if they strive to do so, through greater attention (learning how to monitor consciousness) and intention (learning how to concentrate one’s mental energies).

Hi-tech gizmos can help, but ancient and modern research agrees that the key to increasing lucidity in dreaming is the combined force of attention and intention.

In this context, it’s worth mentioning Ryan Hurd’s lucid dreaming talismans, which are low-tech but quite effective aids to enhancing lucid dreaming. The talismans are aesthetically attractive mnemonic devices designed to apply the same basic principles of attention and intention advocated by Purcell and her colleagues.

Now let’s turn to lucid dreaming and film. The general history of dreams and movies and their dynamic interplay is fascinating in itself, but for now I’ll focus on the subgenre of movies specifically about or related to lucid dreaming. In a chapter Bernard Welt and I wrote for the Lucid Dreaming anthology, our top seven list included these films (framed by a lengthy discussion of the theoretical and methodological issues involved in analyzing films with psychological categories):

  • Peter Ibbetson (1935)
  • Dead of Night (1945)
  • Dreamscape (1984)
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
  • The Matrix (1999)
  • Waking Life (2001)
  • Inception (2010)

In a shift from many other Hollywood films (for example, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 “Spellbound”) which treat dreams as symbolic puzzles requiring psychoanalytic interpretation, these seven movies present dreaming as kind of a portal to higher consciousness. They are fantasy and science fiction stories, each of which presents lucid dreaming as a means of seeing through not only personal illusions, but collective illusions as well.   As Bernard and I say in our book chapter, “the movies exploit the idea that lucidity may be the only means of escape from, or transcendence beyond, an imaginary but collective mindset that completely controls the subjective experience of the dreamer in the waking world.”

Lucid Dreaming and "Pan's Labyrinth" by Kelly Bulkeley Which brings us to “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film is not purely fantasy or science fiction, but rather a surrealist fairy tale folded into a wartime drama. Maybe it should be called “historical horror.”

The opening lines of the film frame it as a kind of lucid dream gone awry:

“[Pan:] A long time ago, in the underground realm, where there are no lies or pain, there lived a princess who dreamed of the human world. She dreamed of blue skies, soft breeze, and sunshine. One day, eluding her keepers, the Princess escaped. Once outside, the brightness blinded her and erased every trace of the past from her memory. She forgot who she was and where she came from.”

Thus begins the story of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a 12-year old girl whose mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) has remarried after the death of Ofelia’s father. Her new husband is Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), the cruel commander of an army unit tasked with hunting down the last few resistance fighters hiding in the mountains after the Spanish Civil War. Carmen is pregnant with Captain Vidal’s child, and Ofelia quickly realizes that her step-father cares nothing for her or her mother, only the baby. Ofelia’s entry into the labyrinthine world of Pan (Doug Jones) is driven by a desperate need to find some way of fighting against the overwhelming horror of her waking world.

Lucid Dreaming and "Pan's Labyrinth" by Kelly BulkeleyThe fantasy sequences with Ofelia have some striking similarities with the typical content patterns of lucid dreams, as mentioned earlier. Here’s how I summarized the research findings a few minutes ago:

Lucid dreams have more references to awareness, effort, flying, fantastic beings, and physical aggression, and fewer references to colors, speech, family characters, and friendly social interactions.

Ofelia’s journeys into the labyrinth are distinguished from the rest of the film by many of these same features. She is aware of things no one else can see. She makes tremendous efforts to succeed in the tasks set her by the Faun.   Her first encounter with the fantastic beings of the labyrinth is a winged fairy, a flying agent of Pan’s who accompanies and guides Ofelia wherever she goes. Her fantasies are filled with physical aggression (although sadly no more so than her waking world).

Intriguingly, the fantasy sequences have much less color than the waking world scenes; there’s little emphasis in the labyrinth on chromatic perception. There’s also less speech, no other family characters (until the end), and very few friendly interactions.

All in all, very much like the experience of a lucid dream. When Ofelia enters the labyrinth, she enters a world that’s closely akin to the realm of conscious dreaming.

Lucid Dreaming and "Pan's Labyrinth" by Kelly BulkeleyAs it turns out, there is a good biographical reason for this. In interviews he gave at the time of the film’s release, del Toro described his own childhood experiences of “lucid nightmares” in which he saw the figure of the Faun stepping out from behind a dresser at midnight.   He had recurrent dreams of many kinds of monsters, but the Faun made an especially horrifying impact on him. In the film del Toro aims to recreate this powerful fantasy figure who stalked his own personal nightmares.

Here is an excerpt from an interview he gave in 2006 to Ain’t It Cool News:

Q: Did you, in fact, have such nightmares or waking nightmares?

GDT: Many, many of them… When I was a kid, when I slept in the guest bedroom of my grandmother’s house, at midnight, a faun would come out from behind the dresser. And I know it was lucid dreaming, I know it must have been…

Q: Do you remember, did your faun look anything like the faun in the film?

GDT: Absolutely. I was trying to recreate him.

Lucid Dreaming and "Pan's Labyrinth" by Kelly BulkeleyWhen del Toro referred to these dreams as “lucid” he seemed to mean they had all the qualities of waking reality, and yet he knew they were dreams because of the appearance of Faun or other creatures. It’s not that he was dreaming, then realized he was awake within the dream; rather, he felt like he was awake, while also realizing he must be dreaming. Both are paths to lucidity, but the latter can be much more frightening and existentially unsettling.

Lucid Dreaming and "Pan's Labyrinth" by Kelly BulkeleyThis helps to explain at least some of the uncanny impact of “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Guillermo del Toro knows from deep personal experience the feelings of dread and terror associated with the darker path into lucidity. He knows that if you are already dreaming and then become self-aware, your conscious self feels powerful and expanded. But if you realize what you thought was waking reality is actually a dream, that’s a much more threatening mode of lucidity, a lucidity of weakness, vulnerability, and deception. A lucidity of horror.

In “Pan’s Labyrinth” del Toro inverts the typical path into conscious dreaming and thrusts Ofelia and the audience into shadowy, oozing realms of oneiric fantasy few other directors have had the daring or talent to explore.


Lucid Dreaming and the Future of Sports Training

Lucid Dreaming and the Future of Sports Training by Kelly BulkeleyA recently published study in the Journal of Sports Sciences adds new evidence to the idea that physical skills in waking life can be improved by practicing those skills in lucid dreaming. Although the study was small and needs to be replicated, the implications of its findings are potentially enormous for a new mind/body approach to sports training and peak athletic performance.

The study was conducted by German psychologists Tadas Stumbrys, Daniel Erlacher, and Michael Schredl. This team has an excellent background in sports science, sleep laboratory research, and lucid dreaming experiments. Their strong history of high-quality scholarship lends credibility to their claims.

The premise of their study is that a mental simulation of physical behavior is neurologically the same as a “real” enactment of that behavior, with the difference that the former does not extend to bodily movement, while the latter does. As Stumbrys and his colleagues put it, “covert actions are actual actions, except for the fact that they are not executed.” If this is true, as a great deal of neuroscientific evidence indicates it is, then practicing an action “covertly” should have measurable benefits when the action is later performed “openly.” This is the hypothesis that Stumbrys and his colleagues put to the test.

They recruited 68 participants (32 male, 36 female) who followed an online program that trained them in a sequential finger-tapping task on a computer keyboard. The participants were then separated into four groups with different instructions about how to practice the finger-tapping task: 1) actual physical practice, 2) mental practice while awake, 3) mental practice while lucid dreaming, and 4) no practice (the control group). Compared to the control group, all three other groups, including the lucid dreaming group, displayed significant improvements in a follow-up performance of the task after practicing.

The study was not big enough to say if lucid dreaming practice is better or worse than other forms of practice. But the results clearly showed that practice in lucid dreaming does have real performance benefits that are at least comparable to the benefits gained from other practice modes. Given the power of dreams to simulate reality with amazing intensity and accuracy, the possibilities for further development of this approach seem wide open.

In light of these findings, several questions immediately present themselves. What kinds of physical skills are most benefited by lucid dreaming practice? How deep and long-lasting are the improvements? What are the best methods to teach people to have lucid dreams in the first place?

Future studies will be needed to answer these questions. It is not too early, however, to envision some of the practical applications of lucid dreaming in sports training:

1) Providing a safe arena in which high-performance athletes can practice dangerous moves and risky routines, developing skills at the farthest edges of their abilities;

2) Offering injured athletes an opportunity to continue training and skill-building during their rehabilitation;

3) Enabling underprivileged athletes to engage in effective practice of their sports even if they have limited access to physical facilities;

4) Giving athletes at all levels a powerful psychological means of focusing their minds for optimal game-day performance.


Tolkien’s Dreams, Past and Future

Tolkien's Dreams, Past and Future by Kelly BulkeleyDreams play a significant role in The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien’s multi-part fantasy story written in the first half of the 20th century.  The dream elements become muted in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation, but in the novels they serve as an important source of insight for the characters.  According to Curt Hoffman in “Wings over Numenor: Lucid Dreaming in the Writing of J.R.R. Tolkien,” the dreams in the stories were modeled in many cases after Tolkien’s own dream experiences.  For instance, the Middle Earth legend of Numenor, a western land that was destroyed by a vast ocean wave, apparently derives from Tolkein’s personal “Atlantis Complex” and his recurrent dreams of huge, all-consuming waves.

Hoffman’s chapter appears in Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep, which Ryan Hurd and I edited for ABC-Clio.  Hoffman explains that the most remarkable story Tolkien ever wrote about dreams was also the only story he ever wrote set in the future, not in the past.  Titled “The Notion Club Papers,” Tolkien started it in 1946 but never finished the manuscript.  Hoffman says,

“The work purports to be the minutes of the fortnightly meetings of an Oxford literary society, the Notion Club (obviously a gloss for the Inklings [Tolkien’s actual literary club], although there is little one-for-one correspondence to its members), between 1980 and 1990. The manuscript’s conceit is that the papers “were found after the Summer Examinations of 2012, on the top of one of a number of sacks of waste paper in the basement of the Examinations Schools at Oxford by the present editor,” and it is represented to have been published in 2014.” (133)

Tolkien creates a strangely forward-telescoping, prospectively recursive way of framing the story—he writes about events that happen 40 years in the future, which are then discovered 20+ years after that, and are then published two years after that (at a time that happens to be our present).

In the story the club members engage in lengthy discussions of dreaming as a means of space and time travel, along with various accounts of strange adventures in thought and consciousness.  Without warning the discussion turns rather apocalyptic, as several club members describe visions that portend the coming of cataclysmic storms.  The manuscript breaks off there, and Tolkien never went back to it.  After careful study of this work, Hoffman concludes,

“It is entirely unclear what purpose Tolkien had in producing the Notion Club Papers, but his publishers were pressuring him at the time to get back to the writing of The Lord of the Rings, for obvious economic reasons, and this may explain why he did not finish the work. He never returned to it, and its status remains mysterious to this day. However, it is the clearest indication we have in all his writing of his interest in a variety of dream states and their relationship to waking physical reality. In particular, even though there is no evidence that he was aware of the writings of van Eeden on lucidity, it seems that Tolkien had a strong interest in lucid dreaming, based upon his own personal experience, and that he was attempting to put this into some kind of formulation in words that would make his experience more understandable, at least to his fellow Inklings.” (138)

Lucid Dreaming: New Horizons for Research

Lucid Dreaming: New Horizons for Research by Kelly BulkeleyFor most of the 20th century, lucid dreaming received almost no attention from mainstream psychologists.  Most researchers seemed to think it was impossible to be dreaming and self-aware at the same time (the philosopher Norman Malcolm’s 1962 book Dreaming made exactly that argument).  Even if a few people reported having lucid dream experiences, it was easy to dismiss such claims as fantasies, exaggerations, or at best, a trivial gimmick of the mind.

Several years into the 21st century, we now know that all those assumptions about lucid dreaming were wrong.  Various degrees of consciousness in sleep are indeed possible, including the awareness that one is in a dream while it is happening.  According to demographic research, more than 50% of the general population has had at least one lucid dream experience in their lives.  Young people are especially likely to have lucid dreams, but older people have them, too.  Lucid dreams have been reported in cultures all over the world, throughout history.

In short, this is not a fringe phenomenon.  It reflects a natural capacity of the sleeping mind that is likely innate in all people.   Furthermore, this capacity can be strengthened and enhanced by several different methods, with many possible applications in waking life.  Western researchers are finally taking note.

In the newly published book Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep (Praeger, 2014), Ryan Hurd and I edited a total of 30 chapters from leading experts on lucid dreaming from all over the world.  These chapters include reflections on cutting-edge neuroscience, clinical psychotherapy, education, anthropology, artistic creativity, and religious experience.  The book shows how far we have come in understanding this powerful dimension of our dream lives—and how much more there is still to learn.

Answering the Dream Questions of a High School Student

Answering the Dream Questions of a High School Student by Kelly BulkeleyLike many dream researchers I periodically receive emails from high school students asking for help with a class essay or project.  It’s fun to think of the best, clearest, most useful ways of responding to these requests.  I’d like to believe that the work I and all my colleagues in dream research are doing can at some level be explained in terms that make sense to a curious teenager.  That means offering short, direct, non-technical answers.  The questions students ask tend to be very broad, and a complete answer to some of them would require writing a whole book—not a practical way to respond either for me or the student.

Here is a recent exchange I had with a high school student, R.L., who agreed to let me post our emails to each other.  I liked the way R.L. covered so much ground with these brief questions, and I took it as a challenge to answer in the most concise language I could manage.

Plus, I was impressed by R.L.’s audacity in sending me this request on December 9, two days before the essay was due!


Dear Dr. Bulkeley,

My name is R.L. I am a freshman at The ___ School in ___, Alabama. I have an essay assignment and I have chosen REM sleep and dreams. I was hoping you could offer some insight on this subject. Will you please answer the following questions?

1.What\’s the percentage of people that have nightmares?

2. Do we stop having dreams at a certain age?

3. Does everyone dream?

4. Can dreams be in color?

5. How can I remember my dreams, or improve my memory?

6. Can you sometimes control your own dreams, by what you do in real life?

7. What does it mean if I see people that are close to me, in my dreams?

8. Can dreams sometimes predict the future?

9. When a person has deja vu, could this be caused by remembering an earlier dream?

10. Is having continuous nightmares normal?

11. When we dream is it usually to express feelings we may be having on the inside, is there any other reason we may have dreams?

12. What is the average number of dreams a person may have a night?

13. When we dream, can the dream take away that conscious feeling we may be having on the inside?

This assignment is due December 11,2013. Thank you for your time and help.




[My response:]

Dear R.L.,

1. It’s pretty small, but more children and adolescents have nightmares than adults.

2. People recall fewer dreams the older they get, but that just might be because they stop paying attention.

3. Yes, in the sense that everyone’s brain is very active every night you sleep.  You may not remember dreaming, but you were!

4. Yes, all the time.

5. Often it’s just a matter of deciding before you go to sleep that you’d like to remember a dream when you wake up.

6. Somewhat; it’s more like, whatever you really care about in waking life, you’ll probably dream about it at night.

7. It’s a sign of their emotional importance in your life, like a mirror of your relationships.

8. Dreams can anticipate possibilities that may turn out to actually happen.

9. Definitely!

10. No, I’d definitely talk to a doctor or mental health professional if I were having continuous nightmares.

11. My shortest definition of dreaming is “imaginative play in sleep,” so I think of dreams as a way our minds play during the night.  We dream for the same reason children play–because it’s fun and engrossing and endlessly creative.

12. It’s hard to count!  Some people have 4-5 a night, that’s a lot.

13. I don’t think take that feeling away, so much as expand our sense of who we are and what is possible in the world.


I hope that’s helpful!  Good luck,