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OBEs and the Astral Hypothesis: Part II - Lucid Dreaming
Robert Novella
The New England Journal of Skepticism, Volume 6 Issue 1

   In the previous article I discussed Out-of-Body experiences and the widespread interpretation of this phenomenon invoking astral planes, silver cords, and astral bodies. In this article I will lay the groundwork for a possible alternative interpretation involving lucid dreams.
The primary problem with the astral interpretation of Out-of-Body Experiences (OBEs) is twofold. Too many accounts are not easily seen through an astral lens, i.e. there was no perceptible astral body or silver cord. More damning is the interaction problem in which a non-material world is said to communicate or otherwise interact with our material world. There is, however, another immaterial and fantastic world that we all interact with on a nightly basis, the world of dreams. It might seem absurd to propose that people are mistaking a dream for a realistic appearing OBE phenomenon but there is a very unusual and relatively unknown type of dream that was once considered as supernatural as OBEs themselves; this is a lucid dream.
Lucid dreams are not dreams that are logical, consistent, and make sense like our waking lives (to the extent that they do). They are not like normal dreams in which the experient is lost in a fugue and uncharacteristically unfazed by the bizarre happenings occurring around him or her. During lucid dreams, the dreamer, by definition, realizes that the environment and experiences around him are constructs created entirely by his mind. He realizes that he is currently in bed asleep and all the people around him are not separate individuals but creations of his sleeping brain. The lucid dreamer has, in effect, woken up while still asleep.
This might sound like a bizarre and suspect phenomenon but it is recognized as real by the mainstream psychological and dream research communities. I have, in fact, experienced many lucid dreams myself and I can attest to their intriguing characteristics. My comments and conclusions are not, however, derived from my experiences but from controlled experiments that have been conducted for years in many labs around of the world.

Historical Lucidity

The term “Lucid Dreaming” was coined in 1913 by Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden. The concept itself, I suspect, goes back millennia; probably as long as we’ve had a word for “dream”. The first recorded account however, is from the 4th century B.C.. In his “On Dreams” Aristotle wrote: "When one is asleep, there is something in consciousness which declares that what then presents itself is but a dream."1
In 415 AD St. Augustine provided the Western world with its first written account of a lucid dream. This was in the form of a letter describing the dream of Gennadius, a physician from Carthage. These sparse and unenlightening writings over the centuries are in stark contrast to the accounts written by Tibetan Monks between seven and eight hundred AD. They perfected a form of yoga that allowed them to maintain full consciousness as they entered a dream state. This allowed them to experience lucid dreams of the highest order, controlling their dreams with exquisite finesse. More importantly, this ability engendered an understanding of the true nature of the dream world that was centuries beyond other cultures. They were the first to realize that dreams were purely a product of the mind.
Centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas made a passing reference to Aristotle’s acknowledgement of a special type of dream in which the senses were relatively undiminished. Ideas such as this, however, in medieval Europe were frowned upon. This was due to the persistent and pernicious belief that dreams were caused by external agencies such as demons or other supernatural entities. This was about to change however. During the nineteenth century it finally dawned on the western world that dreams were products of the mind and not the bowels of the underworld. This was the first crucial step required if dreams were to be approached in a scientific manner by psychologists and physiologists.
One of the early pioneers of esoteric dream research was professor of Chinese literature and language Marquis d'Hervey de Saint-Denys. A meticulous and dedicated researcher, he documented twenty years of his dreams in his 1867 book “Dreams and How to Guide Them”. In this book he describes how he sequentially learned to improve his dream recall, then how to “awaken” in his dreams, and finally how to exert limited control over them. This was a key demonstration that would influence researchers in the future that it was possible to learn how to have a lucid dream.
More notable believers during this period include Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud. Unfortunately both only made passing references to lucid dreaming for although dream research was finally on a more scientific footing, there was still much skepticism towards the concept of lucid dreams. In “The Understanding of Dreams” Nietzsche is quoted as saying, “…And perhaps many a one will, like myself, recollect having sometimes called out cheeringly and not without success amid the dangers and terrors of dream life: 'It is a dream! I will dream on” 2. Freud was slightly more direct in the second edition of “The Interpretation of Dreams” when he stated:

“... there are some people who are quite clearly aware during the night that they are asleep and dreaming and who thus seem to possess the faculty of consciously directing their dreams. If, for instance, a dreamer of this kind is dissatisfied with the turn taken by a dream, he can break it off without waking up and start it again in another direction—just as a popular dramatist may under pressure give his play a happier ending.”3
The first serious research into lucid dreaming had to wait until 1913 when Frederik van Eeden coined the term and presented a paper to the Society for Psychical Research. In it he described 352 of his lucid dreams which he collected from 1898 to 1912. “In these lucid dreams,” he states, “the re-integration of the psychic functions is so complete that the sleeper reaches a state of perfect awareness and is able to direct his attention, and to attempt different acts of free volition. Yet the sleep, as I am able confidently to state, is undisturbed, deep, and refreshing.”4

The Skeptics

Over the ensuing decades, other researchers began seriously studying lucid dreams but the attitude of the scientific community was skeptical to say the least. They seemed to have a knee-jerk philosophical objection to the very concept of lucid dreaming. To most it was seen as nothing more than daydreaming. Part of this reticence was due to the fact that the parapsychological community was interested in this phenomenon. Studying lucid dreaming was seen as tainted due to its association with ghosts, esp, and flying saucers. Examples of this skepticism were related by psychologists Alfred Maury and Havelock Ellis in the 1900s. Maury was fond of saying that, “these dreams could not be dreams”. The more widely known Ellis stated that “ I do not believe that such a thing is really possible, though is has been borne witness to by many philosophers and others from Aristotle…onwards.”
Even in the late seventies skepticism was the order of the day for mainstream dream researchers. To explain what it was that lucid dreamers were experiencing, many researchers’ fall back position was a French paper published in 1973. It was noticed by the paper’s authors that many people with sleep disorders would experience brief awakenings during REM sleep. It was during these brief moments between sleep and full wakefulness that these experiences must have been happening. These “micro-awakenings”, as they were termed, were thus offered as a possible physiological explanation for lucid dreams.
On the surface, this skepticism might seem unwarranted but it’s important to consider that, at this time, all evidence for lucid dreaming was anecdotal. Science does not and should not advance solely on the basis of someone’s word. The potential for distortion and error are just too high. Even in 1975, when lucid researcher and author Patricia Garfield showed unrivaled success with increasing lucid dream frequency and selecting dream topics, the reaction was mixed. Her presentation to the influential APSS (The Association for the Psychophysiological Study of Sleep) generated excitement and interest but did little to assuage the skepticism of most of the members.

LaBerge and Lucidity

It was at this point that dream researcher Stephen LaBerge entered the picture. Since he was five years old he has had lucid dreams and an abiding interest in dreams in general. Stephen realized that communication directly from the dream world was the missing ingredient if he was to persuade the skeptical scientists. In this he was inspired by researcher Charles Tart who first suggested it. This is as hard as it sounds especially since to be dreaming, one is, by definition, paralyzed.
Evolution instilled an important safeguard in our sleeping brains. Every time we are in REM sleep and we are dreaming, a condition called REM Atonia takes hold, paralyzing all our muscles except our eyes and the muscles responsible for circulation and respiration. If this weren’t the case, we’d all act out our dreams, which could be a problem if we were dreaming about flying, running or even just walking. I seem to remember an article about a cat that had its REM Atonia turned off, so to speak. This cat, while asleep, would stalk around and pounce on unseen animals; apparently he was dreaming about catching his next meal.
Since eye muscles were the only voluntary muscles that were not paralyzed, LaBerge realized that they had to be the key of communication from the lucid dream state. It had been shown in previous studies that there was a direct correspondence between the movement of eyes and the direction of ones dream gaze. The canonical example is from a dream research volunteer whose sleeping eyes were consistently tracking back and fourth horizontally for an extended period of time. When awakened he mentioned that he was dreaming of watching a Ping-Pong match.
LaBerge realized that a specific pattern of eye movements could be initiated during a lucid dream and recorded by a polygraph. He tried the first part at home and during his next lucid dream he successfully produced a specific pattern of eye movements. This was the first time a communiqué was sent from the dream-world to the waking world. Unfortunately no one was there to intercept it.
He had to prove this in a way the skeptics could not ignore. In September of 1977 he applied to Stanford University for his Ph.D. study of lucid dreams. In the fall of that year he was in his dream lab and ready to dream. The following describes his second attempt in the dream lab on the lucky day of Friday the 13th, January 1978:

“…after seven and a half hours in bed had my first lucid dream in the lab. A moment before, I had been dreaming—but then I suddenly realized that I must be asleep because I couldn't see, feel, or hear anything. I recalled with delight that I was sleeping in the laboratory. The image of what seemed to be the instruction booklet for a vacuum cleaner or some such appliance floated by. It struck me as mere flotsam on the stream of consciousness, but as I focused on it and tried to read the writing, the image gradually stabilized and I had the sensation of opening my (dream) eyes. Then my hands appeared, with the rest of my dream body, and I was looking at the booklet in bed. My dream room was a reasonably good copy of the room in which I was actually asleep. Since I now had a dream body I decided to do the eye movements that we had agreed upon as a signal. I moved my finger in a vertical line in front of me, following it with my eyes. But I had become very excited over being able to do this at last, and the thought disrupted my dream so that it faded a few seconds later.”5

Finally someone had produced objective evidence that a lucid dream has taken place during REM sleep.

Evidence such as this was still not the panacea that LaBerge had hoped for. He tried to submit his research to the journals of Science and Nature but was rebuffed on multiple occasions. He was able to get printed in the less prestigious journal “Perceptual and Motor Skills”. By the time that June 1981 had arrived however, Dr. LaBerge had compiled more detailed and copious results from many lucid dreams and dreamers in his lab. During the annual APSS meeting that year he submitted four papers on lucid dreaming and the point had finally been reached when his conclusions were undeniable. Even the most diehard skeptics could no longer deny that lucid dreams were a bone fide phenomenon.

Stay tuned for part three of this article in which I discuss why lucid dreams are a better interpretation of Out of Body Experiences than the Astral hypothesis.


1- Aristotle, On Dreams, from Hutchings, R. M., ed., Great Books of the Western World, vol. 8 (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), pp. 702-06
2- deBecker, R., The Understanding of Dreams (London: Allen & Unwin, 1965), p. 139
3- Freud, S.: The Interpretation of Dreams (originally published 1900; James Strachey translation, 1965) (Avon)
4- van Eeden, F., "A study of dreams," Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 26 (1913): 431-61.
5- LaBerge, Stephen, Ph.D., Lucid Dreaming, Ballantine, 1986

Note: In 1980 Dr. LaBerge discovered that a Dr. Keith Hearne of Liverpool England, had done similar experiments before LaBerge performed his. Hearne, however, kept his research secret and had no effect on the mainstream acceptance lucid dreaming.
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