Travel the world, write a novel, even seduce a star… How manipulating your dreams is not just fantasy
How would you like to be there when Daniel Craig emerges, as James Bond, from the sea in the Caribbean? Or win the National Lottery? Or appear on the couch with Oprah?
In your dreams, you might say. Well, yes, actually … The powerful interplay between our dreams and our thoughts and emotions is an idea picked up by the summer blockbuster film Inception.
In it, Leonardo DiCaprio stars as a thief who first enters people’s dreams to steal ideas from their subconscious – and is then hired to plant an idea in a sleeping brain.
The idea that you can manipulate a dream might sound fantastical, but practitioners of so-called ‘lucid dreaming’ claim they can do just that, albeit only in their own heads.
They say they can do virtually anything they please – quit smoking, write a novel, get intimate with their favourite celebrity, and so on – while they’re sleeping. And people have been doing this long before Leonardo DiCaprio was ever on the case.
A thousand years ago, Tibetan monks, who regarded existence itself as merely another dream state, claimed to be able to climb out of their sleeping bodies and then fly their spirits up the Himalayas and beyond, or project themselves into the body of a yak.
In the 18th century, Samuel Taylor Coleridge maintained that his poem Kubla Khan had been dictated to him in his sleep (though the fact that he used to take enough opium to knock out a herd of elephants could have influenced it, too), while Robert Louis Stevenson said Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde came to him like a nocturnal soap opera whose separate instalments he could automatically ‘tune into’ every bedtime.
So what about the rest of us? We all dream for about two hours every night, mostly in the rapid eye movement stage of sleep.
Deprive someone of their dreams, and within just a couple of days they will start to hallucinate – which is simply dreaming while awake.
So why do we do it? Researchers believe dreams are a clever mental mechanism to allow us to work through unresolved problems during sleep.
‘During waking hours, your thoughts are censored,’ explains chartered psychologist Dr Mike Lowis. ‘You might have some creative ideas that your cognitive censor simply isn’t letting through.’
Another possible function of dreaming is as the brain’s way of rehearsing dangerous situations before they happen.
‘It’s a sound evolutionary strategy,’ says Dr Lowis, ‘If we can only practise dealing with danger when we’re actually faced with it, we might not survive too well as a species.’
This might explain why 70 per cent of dreams involve threats – such as the perennial running away from an attacker and finding your legs won’t move. And in such frantic nocturnal cold-sweat situations, the ability to take control with lucid dreaming comes in very handy.
So how does it work? Psychologist Debbie Winterbourne, founder of the London-based Academy of Dreams, claims that virtually anyone can lucid dream. She has been doing it since childhood and now teaches courses in the techniques.
‘The key is to become aware that you are dreaming while remaining asleep,’ she says.
‘One way to start is to keep a notebook by your bed. As soon as you wake up, write down everything you remember. Gradually, you should begin to recognise recurring dream themes. Over time, these themes become triggers that help generate lucid nocturnal episodes.’
In other words, if your remembered dreams contain elements you wouldn’t normally expect while awake, you commit them to memory to act as sleep ‘prompts’ which help you realise you are dreaming.
The trick then is not immediately to snap out of the dream and wake-up – which, of course, is easier said than done.
Financial journalist and dream expert Rebecca Turner, who runs the comprehensive World of Lucid Dreaming site, recommends various ploys.
‘Try imagining spinning around, or rubbing your hands together. Such physical stimulation gives the conscious brain a “hook” for staying 12the dream, causing new dream scenes to emerge.
‘Another method is to repeat phrases like “I am lucid dreaming” to maintain dream awareness. When you get it right, the dreamscape appears as a vivid alternate reality, where everything you see, hear, feel, taste, and even smell, is as authentic as waking life.’
Sometimes unnervingly so. Another problem for beginners is so-called ‘false awakening’, where they think they’ve woken up but are actually still dreaming.
Indeed, some people report not only dreaming that they’ve woken, but taking a dream shower, getting dressed, and making a dream commute into dream work. And when they reach 5pm in the dream, they then wake for real and have to do it all again – and with no remuneration for their ‘overtime’.
So how do you avoid this?
‘Check your watch,’ says Winterbourne. Mystifyingly, the hands of an analogue watch apparently never tick round in a lucid dream. So mastering lucid dreaming isn’t exactly straightforward.
Only 15 per cent of us do it naturally; for others, it can take several months of intensive training. But get there and you can tap into some of the glorious power of the subconscious, commanding it to solve a problem or simply enjoy itself, rather than getting trapped in another horrible nightmare.
‘The most important thing in dream control is to really believe that it will happen,’ says Turner. ‘Initially, you end up in a battle with your conscious brain!’
A good case in point is the man of your dreams. At first, the very last place you’ll find him is in your dreams, because, for beginners, the lucid dream is often equally as nonsensical as any other.
So, for instance, should you attempt dream canoodling, you could well find yourself in flagrante not with Johnny Depp, but the chap from office supplies with the comb-over.
Only after much ‘conscious’ effort can you make the unconscious reality obey your will.
Everyone dreams. If someone says they don’t, it simply means they can’t remember them
There are practical applications, too. Dr Dimple Devadas, who works as a paediatrican at Great Ormond Street Hospital, says lucid dreaming gave her a welcome break from the pressures of exam revision.
‘I first made use of it at medical school,’ she says.
‘Worn out by all the studying I had to do, I used my lucid dreams to relax by flying abroad (zero carbon footprint!), partying and doing all the things I wanted to do during the day but couldn’t due to lack of time.
‘I would wake up feeling refreshed, happy and ready to revise again.’
All well and good. But isn’t there a slight suspicion that lucid dreamers may be – to use a specialist psychological term – ‘making it up’?
Apparently not. In 2008, Bonn University persuaded 20 students to accept 50 euros per night to sleep seven hours a night for six months. Of these, six reported lucid episodes.
When the students were connected to EEG (electroencephalograph) machines, scientists reported ‘a hybrid state of consciousness with definable and measurable differences from waking and from REM sleep’.
Even New Scientist, which is hardly the most gullible of publications, tested lucid dreaming in an article published last June. They found it to be for real; evidence, perhaps, for a ‘secondary consciousness’ – a separate state of awareness quite distinct from both our waking one and our subconscious.
Away from academia, some sports psychologists are now endorsing dreams as a training tool to boost mental and physical confidence. But, if nothing else, it could be just tremendous fun to watch an apparently impossible world pan out before your sleeping eyes.
So do you really want to be the next Bond girl? Then dream on.