If only we could crawl inside our dreams and live there.
Meg Howrey, The Cranes Dance
The first lucid-dream machine was created in 1983 by English psychologist Keith Hearne, and there have been numerous attempts to create similar devices since then. Soon we’ll have transcranial brain stimulators that induce lucidity during sleep whenever we like, as well as devices that allow us to record our dreams and communicate between worlds. But these technologies are not here yet, so let’s start out with the simplest of devices.
The Benefits of Using a Sleeping Mask
There are many benefits to wearing a sleep mask that covers one’s eyes and blocks out light, whether sleeping or traveling on a shamanic journey. The mask minimizes any visual disturbances that might interfere with sleep, helps calm the mind, and allows one to better observe hypnogogic or psychedelic imagery. The two best eye masks that I have used with great success are called Mindfold and Glo to Sleep.
The Mindfold mask was designed by visionary artist Alex Grey. It allows one to comfortably experience complete and absolute darkness, even with open eyes. It is sold for relaxation and sensory-deprivation purposes, in addition to sleep support, and many people use it to better observe closed-eye visuals during shamanic journeys. The Glo to Sleep is a sleep therapy mask designed by Sound Oasis. Like the Mindfold, it also allows you to fully open your eyes in darkness (although the seal is not as precisely designed as the Mindfold). Inside each eye cup of the mask are four ascending vertical strips that you can charge by holding under an electric light for thirty seconds; the strips then glow in the dark. You fit the mask around your head before going to sleep. With open eyes, the four glowing strips are slightly above one’s center of vision, so you have to raise your eyes to look at them. When I do this in the dark, while lying on my back, I almost immediately feel sleepy, which in turn allows me to easily enter into hypnogogic visions. With either mask it is also beneficial, upon awakening in the morning, to lie for a while with the sleep mask on so as to recall your dreams, as light appears to dissolve the details of dream memories.
A sensory-deprivation tank, which basically operates on a similar principle as a sleep mask but in this case completely blocks out all external sensory input, can also be quite helpful for inducing lucid dreaming and out-of-body experiences. I’ll be discussing these isolation or floatation tanks in chapter 9. Meanwhile, let’s see how the electronic technologies have evolved.
Understanding that external stimuli can sometimes be incorporated into dreams, researchers Stephen LaBerge and Keith Hearne both developed electronic technologies to help induce lucid dreaming. In his book The Dream Machine, Hearne writes, “My idea was that if a standard signal could be incorporated into an ordinary dream, at such a level that waking would not occur, then it might be recognized by the dreamer as a ‘cue’ for lucidity.”1 Subsequently, Hearne developed a device that delivered mild electric shocks to the wrists of people sleeping in his laboratory, and this produced good results—half of his twelve subjects reported becoming lucid in their dreams from the point the shocks were perceived to waking, which was around a minute later.
Stephen LaBerge used infrared REM motion-detection technologies to develop the DreamLight, a sleep mask that could sense when someone was in the REM stage of sleep, and then signal to the person by flashing LEDs in the eye mask. The flashing lights are then incorporated into the dream, where they can signal the dreamer to become lucid. This has become the prototype for the two other commercial models of electronic lucid-dream machines: the NovaDreamer and the REM-Dreamer. Of course, for these devices to actually assist with lucid dreaming, people have to first train their minds to be able to recognize the flashing lights being incorporated into one’s dreams as a signal that one is dreaming, as the stimuli can appear in a multitude of forms, such as police-car lights, strobing patterns, or flickering reflections.
In 1995, LaBerge tested the DreamLight with fourteen subjects, using a control group and a nonworking dummy version of the device. LaBerge concluded that “cueing with sensory stimuli by the DreamLight appears to increase a subject’s probability of having lucid dreams, and that most of the resulting lucid dreams are due to the specific effect of light cues rather than general ‘placebo’ factors.”2
There is also a lucid-dream induction device called a Remee, which is an inexpensive LED-blinking sleep mask that simply works with a timer, rather than the detection of REM. Since the device can’t detect when one is dreaming, people have to hope that they set the timer to start the lights blinking when they’re dreaming. I haven’t heard any good reviews of this device, but I also haven’t tried it either. Ryan Hurd says that it “may just turn out to be an alarm clock strapped to your head.”3
There are also a number of lucid-dreaming apps available for your smartphone. Awoken and Lucidity are two apps developed for the Android operating system, and there are two others, Lucid Dreamer and DreamZ, for the iPhone. These apps offer features like binaural beats, reality checkers, alarms, and features to help you record and analyze your dreams. One of the more fascinating smartphone apps is called Shadow, which is part of a project to create the world’s biggest dream database for wide-scale analysis.* According to the founder and CEO of Shadow, Hunter Lee Soik, when combined with dream reports from other app users around the world, the team can then mine the data and make new discoveries about the nature of our dreams, because over time it appears that patterns start to emerge in the collective consciousness. I’ll be discussing the applications for studying clairvoyance with Shadow in chapter 8.
*To learn more about Shadow, see http://discovershadow.com.
A British firm markets a lucid-dreaming sex toy—an alarm-clock panty vibrator called Little Rooster, which is sold as a “sex dream machine.” The device works by vibrating in the underwear of the user while he or she sleeps, the idea being that the physical sensations will be incorporated into dreams, thus making them more erotic. There are both male and female versions of this device available. I haven’t tried it.
However, I did experiment with a lucid-dream induction device called a REM-Dreamer as part of my research for this book, as it seemed like this was the best machine available at the time of my writing. Other devices, the DreamLight and the NovaDreamer, which were developed by LaBerge, have been discontinued, although promises of a new NovaDreamer2 model “coming soon” have been on the lucidity .com website for several years. According to a personal communication I received in 2015 from LaBerge’s assistant, “LaBerge tested a newer model he called NovaDreamer2 for about five years at his ‘Dreaming and Awakening’ workshops in Hawaii. Rather than make that particular model available to the public, he used data gathered from those events plus advanced technologies to create a newer device. We beta-tested this one at our most recent workshop with promising results and expect to have it available for purchase by end of this year.”
My Experiments with the REM-Dreamer
I was especially impressed with the REM-Dreamer.* This ingenious device detects REM using infrared sensors, signaling to alert you that you’re dreaming with blinking LEDs and/or beeps. You can then signal back with your eye movements from within the dream state to turn the blinking lights off once you’re lucid, or adjust the intensity of the flashing signals. This machine costs $210.
*It’s important to point out that the REM-Dreamer owes all of its ingenuity to Stephen LaBerge, as it’s basically a copy of the technology that he pioneered and takes advantage of his research and development.
The REM-Dreamer arrived in a small, lightweight box that almost felt empty—significantly lighter than I expected. The device is a foam-cushioned eyeshade mask with an insertable microcircuit board that contains two LEDs, three miniature buttons, a beeper, and a tiny LCD display screen. It runs on two watch-sized lithium batteries and is programmable in numerous ways.
You can adjust the sensitivity of the infrared motion detector, which monitors your eyelids for REM activity, as well as adjust the brightness of the lights, the frequency of the flashes, and the sound volume. The REM-Dreamer has a number of features that can promote lucid dreaming, making it a fairly sophisticated piece of engineering. Like the DreamLight and NovaDreamer, it will flash the lights behind your eyes while you’re in REM sleep (or make a beeping sound, if you prefer) to signal you to awaken in your dreams, and the machine records each time that it does this during the night. Most clever is the “reality testing” button positioned on the center of one’s forehead when worn, which works when one is awake—with a flashing light—but fails when tried while dreaming.* The REM-Dreamer is not a toy or something for people who aren’t comfortable with computer technology. It takes a good bit of exploration and experimentation to work with this device, but with time and patience it can most definitely be helpful.
*The reality-test button on this device was originally developed by Stephen LaBerge for a later model of the DreamLight. LaBerge’s assistant, Keelin, told me a story of how LaBerge reached the “aha” moment that inspired this innovation: “The ‘Reality Testing Button’ was initially conceived purely as a ‘Cue Delay Button,’ which would provide a means for holding off the flashing lights for the purpose of getting to, or returning to, sleep undisturbed. However, during early beta-testing of LaBerge’s DreamLight (the first lucid-dream induction device ever created), a surprising discovery was made. People frequently reported either dreaming of wearing the mask or of having false awakenings in which they were wearing the mask. In either case, a button push would not work as it should in waking reality because it would only be a dream button on a dream version of the device. Either nothing would happen or something odd would happen, and if one had the proper mindset to recognize this anomaly, lucidity could be achieved. It worked brilliantly as a quick reality test, hence the adopted name.”
The REM-Dreamer allows for two-way communication, to control the device from within the dream using one’s eye movements, which makes it a marvel of engineering. This circuit board fits snugly into the foam-cushioned sleep mask, with each of the two little LEDs on the lower right and left corners of the board, along with a tiny motion sensor poking out through slits in the fabric.
Here’s my report from the first night that I tried the REM-Dreamer:
I slept for around three hours normally, then at around two in the morning I spent around thirty minutes figuring out how to program the device. I got the settings right, strapped it to my head, and turned off the lights. Then—wow!—I had sleep paralysis, false awakenings, out-of-body experiences, and countless lucid dreams all night long! I think I must have stayed conscious though falling asleep and waking up, and falling back asleep, for around four hours. I mostly spent hours flying, talking to other dream characters, observing the incredible details in my environments, going inside mirrors as portals, talking to the dream environment itself (without any apparent responses this time), flying into outer space (always flying with at least one other person, sometimes numerous people), and having interesting sexual encounters with some of the people I met in my dreams. In my bedroom, during the states of hypnogogic sleep paralysis, it was often quite frightening—it always seemed that there were strangers walking around my home when I knew I was alone. I was mostly able to override this fear, with practice, and became convinced that all of the “people” in my home were spirits. Every time I tried to fly in the dreams I had some trouble getting airborne, and other dream characters would always either fly along with me or try to hold me down. There were just so many people in the dreams! I asked one person to stand in front of a mirror with me. Both of our reflections were clearly visible in the mirror, and I examined my own reflection carefully. I experimented with eating and smelling different foods in the dreams, and I realized that both senses were working, but in a reduced way. I tried breaking a glass, and it didn’t shatter when I smashed it to the floor, almost like it was made of rubber, but then a few seconds later it broke into two or three pieces. I tried breathing through my nose while holding my nostrils closed with my fingers, and was able to easily do so. I had sex with a woman, older than myself, and noticed that it only felt like partial sexual sensations while I was inside of her. I spent a lot of the time walking around, talking to other dream characters, and carefully observing the world around me. I never lost lucidity and was able to watch aspects of the dream unfold naturally, without my influence. It was extraordinarily fun! Each lucid dream would last for a few minutes it seemed, before fading, and then I’d wake up, but easily be able to go back into more lucid dreams. I woke up in the morning with the REM-Dreamer attached to my head, having slept on my back for much of the night. I had dozens of lucid dreams, but I had no memory of any flashing lights entering my dreams. Then when I checked the REM-Dreamer to see how many times it signaled during the night to awaken me, it read zero. For some reason, the REM-Dreamer never signaled me with flashing lights the whole night, but I had more lucid dreams than almost ever before. I’m not sure why the REM-Dreamer didn’t work, but the expectation of it working, and perhaps some shamanic experimentation over the weekend, combined with some sleep deprivation, probably helped. But it’s a bit of a mystery why the REM-Dreamer failed to work and why I had so many lucid dreams nonetheless.
I’m including this report here to demonstrate the powerful effects that expectation can have on lucid dreaming. I have since discovered what I did wrong on my first trial: I inserted the circuit board into the sleep mask backward. Further experimentation with the REM-Dreamer revealed that this device does indeed have great potential, although I still had to make many additional adjustments. Nonetheless, this device vastly increases the number of lucid dreams I have. Here’s my second report:
Wow, so many dreams and lucid dreams again this morning, my second night experimenting with the REM-Dreamer! I love this little device; it keeps entering into my dreams, cueing me that I am dreaming, and helping me to recall them and achieve lucidity. I just woke up from a nonlucid dream where I lost the REM-Dreamer in the dream and was looking everywhere for it, among all kinds of weird electronic equipment, in an apartment that was being cleared out. But I also had one lucid dream after another. The flashing lights either enter my dreams and trigger lucidity, or wake me up eventually. I had around four or five separate lucid dreams this morning; each time I became lucid within the dream rather than remaining conscious through the process of falling asleep. There were a few false awakenings, but no sleep paralysis. It’s most interesting how wearing the device enters into my dreams; I find myself wearing it in my dreams and pressing the reality-test button on it, which doesn’t work in the dreams. . . . In one lucid dream I was walking with a young man from previous lucid dreams, and each of us had these amazing hyperdimensional objects that we found in the street. They were around the size of our hands and were made of flat slices of metal that kept self-transforming into all of these radical, 3-D geometric structures that resembled tiny toy cities or circuit boards. My friend picked one up off of the street first and put it into my hand. At first it clamped onto my hand with these tiny metal jaws, and I got frightened. Then I became lucid from the flashing metal and realized that I was dreaming. I then began marveling at this self-transforming metal device in my hands, and said to my companion, “There is no way that this device was designed by a human being.” I wanted to bring it back with me to waking reality so much, but then I awoke in this world empty handed.
Further experiments with the REM-Dreamer revealed that it was a good investment. It can really help if you’re serious about lucid dreaming more frequently. Unfortunately, I found it too uncomfortable to sleep with that often and took it off a lot during the night when I was wearing it while trying to sleep.
Light and Sound Brain-Wave Entrainment Machines
The rhythmic sounds of rattles and drums have long been used in shamanic healing ceremonies to induce altered states of consciousness throughout the world. Repetitive percussion, flickering lights, and chanting mantras are all known to synchronize various functions of the brain and nervous system.4 Light and sound brain-wave entrainment machines mimic this process electronically.
I’ve enjoyed using light and sound brain-wave entrainment devices since I’ve been in college, for relaxation, sleep induction, and exploring altered states of consciousness. I own several models and have had great success with them. My favorite is Mind Gear PR-2X, but they all seem fairly similar to me. These devices use LED-flashing goggles and headphones to deliver precisely timed pulses of light and sound to the senses, and the brain in turn starts to mimic the pulsing frequency patterns. In this way, the brain can be entrained in the four basic types of brain-wave patterns: beta, alpha, theta, and delta. I’ve used these devices primarily for meditation and relaxation purposes, although I’ve also had some interesting experiences combining them with psychedelic or shamanic journeys.* Although I’ve found these devices helpful for sleeping, I haven’t had any luck with them for inducing lucid dreams. My Mind Gear PR-2X supposedly has a built-in program for lucid dreaming, but it just puts me into a relaxed state.
*The late psychonaut Zoe7—the pen name of mind explorer Joseph Marty/Marty Joseph—wrote two fascinating books about combining psychedelic drugs and brain-wave entrainment technologies: Into the Void (2001) and Back From the Void (2005).
However, I was struck by the following idea, which might help with lucid dreaming. As discussed earlier, lucid dreaming occurs when the brain is generating gamma waves (20 to 50 Hz) during REM sleep, which are actually faster than beta waves (12.5 to 30 Hz), the type of brain waves that your alert brain is generating right now as you read these words. I wondered if a program that combines alpha (8 to 13 Hz) and theta (4 to 7 Hz) brain-wave frequencies (for inducing sleep), with just the right amount of gamma brain-wave frequencies, might do the trick of inducing lucidity during dreaming. So I wrote to Robert Austin, a developer at MindPlace, a company that designs light and sound brain-wave entrainment devices, to see what he thought of this idea, and if he had any devices that delivered gamma frequencies, as the devices that I own don’t go up that high. He told me, “I’ve had a longstanding interest in gamma as well, and so the Proteus maximum frequency is 50 Hz, and the Procyon 75 Hz. Likewise the Kasina can replicate over 50 Hz, but the modulation depth starts to fall off at higher frequencies (that is, instead of switching on/off, the lights might vary between 10 percent and 90 percent brightness, due to the encoding technique used). I haven’t tried using them for lucid-dream induction, but this does seem like a promising approach.”
So if there’s an engineering wizard out there who would like to give this a shot, please let me know. There are currently many videos available on YouTube that produce binaural beats in the gamma-wave frequency, as preparation for lucid dreaming. In any case, during the course of writing this book I experimented with a lot of electronic devices reputed to enhance my brain’s abilities, and did my best to turn my loft into a miniature sleep laboratory.
Build Your Own Sleep Laboratory
In his essay “Educational Frontiers of Training Lucid Dreamers,” Tim Post, a doctoral student at the University of Twente, in the Netherlands, writes, “Ideally, students would own a mobile sleep laboratory at home, connected to the Internet, and upload polysomnographic recordings to sophisticated online software that is able to objectively detect and verify occurrences of lucid dreaming in support of their subjective (lucid) dream reporting.”5
While having a professional sleep laboratory built in your home is still quite expensive, personal electronic fitness and sleep trackers that monitor your full sleep cycles, including REM, are available for a few hundred dollars. This information could be useful if you’re really serious about studying your brain and your dreaming cycles. I considered purchasing one as part of my research for this book but decided that I didn’t need it, as my REM-Dreamer measures how many times a night I spend in REM sleep, and that was sufficient for my purposes. Nevertheless, if you are interested in doing a more sophisticated analysis of your sleep cycles, neurologist Christopher Winter tested various personal sleep monitors to see how accurately they measure sleep cycles.6 He says the Basis Peak Ultimate Fitness and Sleep Tracker (around $220) performs best and provides the most information about one’s sleep cycles.
Currently, there are two similar, promising lucid-dream induction devices in production that go beyond what has been achieved thus far: the NeuroOn and the Aurora. These devices look like mini sleep laboratories in a mask, measuring and recording numerous biosignals with great accuracy. The NeuroOn, by Intelclinic, not only measures EEGs, but also electrocardiograms (ECG) and electroculography (EOG)—which means that it measures brain waves, eye movements, and muscle tension. This device has primarily been developed as a way to optimize one’s sleep patterns by measuring and tracking one’s polyphasic sleep cycles, but it also has the ability to detect REM, as well as the ability to send flashing light signals to the user to alert the person and help induce lucid dreaming. The Aurora, by iWinks, also has built-in EEG and EOG monitors for measuring brain waves and eye movements, and an accelerometer for measuring body motion and displaying sleep-staging actigraphy, or recordings of gross motor activity. It measures sleep cycles and, like the REM-Dreamer and similar devices described above, allows you to program personalized light and sound cues for lucid-dream induction. Both of these devices should be available at the time of this book’s publication.
These electronic technologies for brain enhancement are certainly amazing, but I suspect that they’ll seem quaint in just a few years compared to some of the extraordinary technology that is just around the corner. In fact, with computer technology and artificial intelligence advances accelerating so rapidly these days, some people are starting to wonder if digital appliances are actually becoming conscious and mindful entities. If so, can they dream too?
What Do Computers Dream About?
Artificial neural networks—computer programs that simulate how networks of neurons in the brain process information—are able to simulate dreaming in computer models, which can result in some highly imaginative artwork and bizarre imagery reminiscent of psychedelic visions.7 One program of this type is called Deep Dream, which I’ve had great fun running personal photos through, as in the photo above.
At Google, an artificial-intelligence (AI) research team built a highly advanced computer vision system that is able to visually differentiate between objects. These AI networks can be trained to recognize objects and then seek them out of the surrounding environment. Unexpected results can occur when the computer is instructed to detect objects that aren’t really there, for example, instructing the computer to locate animals among clouds in the sky. The computer is able to find (or “hallucinate”) and display a surreal orgy of animals in the clouds, and these images look a lot like ayahuasca or mushroom visions to me. The gallery of AI-generated dream images compiled by Google researchers is a treasure trove of extraordinary surrealistic artwork.8
Aside from being able to peer into the digital dreams of machines, other developments in computer technology and neuroscience are allowing us to recreate images directly from patterns of electrical activity in the visual cortex of our brains, thereby opening up the possibility that we can record videos of our dreams to view later when we’re awake, and then share with others.
Recording and Sharing Our Dreams
A team of Japanese scientists in Kyoto have already created the rudimentary technology for recording dreams. Using an MRI machine, a computer model, and thousands of images from the Internet, they’ve been able to record the neurological patterns of their sleeping subjects and translate those patterns into visual imagery with 60 percent accuracy.9 This technology is premised on the fact that our brains create predictable patterns of electrical activity for different kinds of visual stimuli, and over time a computer algorithm can learn how to correlate each of those patterns with different classes of visualizations. Although still in its early stages, this promising technology could one day soon allow us to record our dreams so that we can play them back later, study them scientifically, or even share them with friends on social media.
Additionally, cognitive neuroscientist Frank Tong and his colleagues at Vanderbilt University are learning how to decode and reconstruct the patterns of neural impulses that compose what we see in our visual fields, our dreams, and our imaginations, on low-resolution visual grids.10 This technology already allows us to reconstruct what a person sees from that person’s brain activity, and it is getting more sophisticated all the time. Currently, images reconstructed from brain activity clearly show what type of symbol a person is viewing. The day is not far off when we’ll be able to directly project our imaginations into a collectively shared space.
Lucid-dream researcher and computer consultant Daniel Oldis wrote a fascinating article about how we’ll soon be able to record and share our dreams like movies—because the technology to do this already exists. In addition to the research that I described above, which can record rudimentary visual imagery in our dreams, Oldis also describes using technologies that record dream speech and dream body movements. He describes a device that uses electronic sensors placed over the voice box (and other muscles involved in talking) that are sensitive to the subvocal muscle potential and capture what we say in our dreams. This is now possible using an electronic “smart tattoo” (patented by Motorola) that can be placed over the vocal cords and record at least part of our dream conversations.
Additionally, body-tracking technology can be used to record (and reconstruct) our dream body’s movements through an electromyography sensor—as the body movements in dreams send nerve signals to those muscles involved in the dream behavior (despite the fact that physical movement is generally suppressed during REM sleep). By combining visual images with corresponding speech and movement, Oldis envisions being able to create multisensory videos from our nightly dreams. Once these technologies improve, shrink, and become more affordable, we could all be recording and sharing our dreams every morning.11
Besides being enormously fun and fascinating, these technologies could allow us to study the reality of shared lucid dreams—which we’ll be discussing in chapter 8—by providing the records from two people to compare.
Communicating From Our Dreams
As noted in the introduction of this book, in 1975, when the first Morse Code–like, left-right-left-right eye signals from sleeping lucid dreamers were transmitted to researchers in the waking world, a whole new medium of communication was born. Those faint signals were the first transmissions from the dream realm to the material world, and as a species, we’re literally building a communication and transportation system between these worlds. The REM-Dreamer that I own allows me to communicate with the device from within the dream state by moving my eyes up and down. This is the first-ever commercially available electronic device that allows one to send information directly from one’s dreams to operate its functions. It isn’t difficult to see where this technology is leading us. With controlled eye movements or breathing patterns—or possibly more directly with just brain-wave activity—we’ll eventually be able to communicate complex information from lucid dreamland to the waking world.* It won’t be long before there’s a smartphone app that allows people to text their friends in waking reality from the dream realm, and someday it may even be possible for people in lucid dreams to speak with other lucid dreamers while they’re dreaming. Brain-wave sensing technology will allow people to remotely operate computers with their minds, and perhaps most incredible of all, it will soon be possible for people to lucid dream whenever they want to.
*Technologies that allow the brain to directly control a computer or robotic limb with neural impulses are currently being developed with greater and greater sophistication. (See Regaldo, “Thought Experiment.”)
Lucid Dreaming on Command
In 1988, I wrote a science-fiction novel called Brainchild, about a neuroscientist who creates an electronic technology that induces lucid dreaming at the touch of a button. It looks like science fiction is now fact. As mentioned earlier, German researchers have developed methods of inducing lucid dreaming with transcranial electrical brain stimulation. So the technology to induce a lucid dream on command is already here. While the cost of this technology is currently prohibitively expensive for the average person, it is obviously just a matter of time before it is miniaturized and mass-produced inexpensively. With the further development of nanotechnology and neuroscience, it seems that we’ll all soon have precise control over dialing and tuning in to our dream states.
Looking farther into the future, it seems that lucid dreaming and space travel may someday merge in different ways. In his book Are You Dreaming? author Daniel Love speculates that lucid dreaming could one day be used by astronauts for maintaining psychological health during long space-travel missions—something like the holodeck on Star Trek. Or maybe we’ll discover that lucid dreaming is itself a form of space traveling, and we’ll learn to migrate to these other worlds with greater efficacy as our species continues to evolve.
One thing is for sure: whatever and wherever our dream worlds are, they’re already populated. In the next chapter we’ll be looking at how to best interact and get along with the natives of slumberland.