By Guest Author RTW
When sifting through the various streams of popular media coverage with regards to lucid dreaming, it’s hard to miss certain topics which appear more frequently than not. One of these always seems to catch my interest. Bold headlines state that so-called ‘Gamers’ make better lucid dreamers – almost making me consider buying a video console just to boost the chances of more night-time lucid excursions! However, mixed between the streams of articles on the subject seemed to sit a remarkable amount of pseudoscience and opinionated suggestions – possibly derived from the gamers themselves so as not to feel too bad about spending hours at a time shooting zombies and driving in simulated races! So, I decided it was about time I delved in deeper to find the actual science behind such popular articles.
One of the first popular published works on the subject was written by Gackenbach (a psychologist at Grant MacEwan University in Canada) in 2006, called ‘Video game play and lucid dreams: Implications for the development of consciousness’. This paper claimed that people within the general population (not practicing lucid dreamers) that played video games more frequently, also experienced significantly more lucid dreams compared to non-gamers. Such a correlation couldn’t be ignored easily since it rose the possibility that video games must be associated with a person’s experience of their own awareness – at least to some extent. This was further proved when reading through reports of gamers dreams. Many experienced switches in point of review very reminiscent of video games, as well as better control over their dream selves.
Such claims appear fairly logical for a number of reasons, but none more so than the nature of many modern video games themselves. Players of popular hits are used to the concept of directing a video-game persona (an extension of themselves) round a fictional universe. Such a process is remarkably similar to a lucid dreamers directing themselves around what is effectively a fabricated version of reality.
The Gackenbach paper has since been proceeded by a small number of similar articles with other researching joining the team, including Kuruvilla and Dopko which helped to write a follow-up paper in 2009 called ‘Video game play and dream bizarreness’. Although dreams themselves are only a recent addition to the playing field of modern science, such research has received significant interest in lines with Gackenbach’s own initial curiosity. The author openly state that gamers represent “an opportune group to study media effects upon consciousness” hence offering a more conventional (and hence popular) angle of study. For a world where we are near-constantly being bombarded with information from every angle and every smart screen, I don’t think this is a bad shout.
Dreams, Gaming and the Flow
Many fascinating parallels exist between the world of dreams and video games. It appears that both lucid dreamers and avid gamers have better spatial skills, improved focus, as well as being less prone to motion sickness. Furthermore, it has been hypothesised that frequent gaming trains people in many of the same skills that make a good lucid dreamer. However, some of these transferable skills appear a little tentative, such as linking extended periods of focusing on a video-game to mediation (the latter known to be strongly associated with lucid dreaming since early studies in the eighties). However, in a later 2009 paper Gackenbach took things a step further with the introduction of the concept of ‘Flow’ into the equation.
‘Flow’ is a theory based in the branch of psychological absorption, developed and progressively improved by Csikszentmihalyi (along with other authors). The concept of flow is quite abstract, but is best summarized by how engrossed a person becomes in their own mental imagery or fantasy. Csikszentmihalyi explains ‘Flow’ as being coordinated into three major components – A sense of control, a sense of time, and the merging of action and awareness.
This is important to consider with regard to playing video games, especially with their increasing immersive style in recent years (just take VR technology as an example!).
Sounds a bit heavy right? However, this rather confusing concept of Flow is important! Video games themselves are known to enhance an experience of Flow, causing the player to become absorbed in the gameplay and lose track of time. A similar thing happens when you get into ‘peak performance’ when playing table tennis, or the ‘right frame of mind’ when sitting down to read a good book. It’s been suggested that Flow is actually a “higher state of conscious experience” which is elegantly described by Privette in their 1983 paper as;
“Spontaneous, effortless, letting-be of the process and the graceful, integrated, Taoistic nature of the person in the event.”
That sounds a little like how I experience lucid dreams too!
Although the concept of Flow is elegant and a fairly grounded way of describing the experience of those engaged in games – this isn’t something entirely new. For me, such a idea harks back to the initial heyday of gaming and the phenomenon known within popular science as the ‘Tetris Effect’. Such a syndrome is named due it’s relation to the original 1984 game “Tetris” developed by the Russian Alexey Pajitnov. Originally, the Tetris Effect linked extensive immersion in the game to habit-making in players – causing them to create patterns within the real-world imagining how things would fit together; right up to visual hallucinations in the peripheral vision of pieces being generated and falling into place. Spooky.
Later studies reviewing the Tetris Effect have shown a number of interesting things for hardcore players of the game. One of the best papers was completed by Okagaki and Frensch, who in 1994 stated that;
“Results indicated that playing Tetris improves mental rotation time and spatial visualization time”
The concept that games might provide transferable skills to other aspects of our lives is not a new idea. However, many of these initial studies were fairly limiting with in-game skills tested with simple cognition tests. Such tests closely matched the types of actions participants were completing in the game. Yet I feel that the step up in complexity from simple memory skills to full-blown lucid dreaming is not one which we can ignore. Besides this obvious complication, Gackenbach continues to be optimistic about the links between video games and lucidity, stating:
“…it may be that the video game/lucid dreaming connection is also due to hours of practice in technologically constructed alternative realities during the day which may simply translate into accurate recognition of another artificial reality during the night, dreams.”
This seems to be the general consensus amongst many researchers, although more detailed analysis into direct causes remain somewhat limited. However! Something has become clear in the slowly developing research. It seems that the correlation between gaming and lucid dreaming is not simply based on playing the games, but is more about how you play. Gamers who more frequently became so engrossed in video games that they experienced Flow were much more likely to experience dreams within similarity to the games there were playing. It was only hardcore gamers which became completely immersed in the gaming experience that were shown to make more frequent, and better skilled dreamers. So being in it to win it might not be enough, you’ll have to go the extra mile if you want to reap the rewards.
However, there’s still hope! Gackenbach continues by saying:
“It is important to keep in mind that video game play is only one of a variety of electronic media that today’s youth are regularly immersed in. It may be that video game play is but the tip of an iceberg of these consciousness development effects as it represents the most immersive virtual reality but not the only one.”
There’s still a lot more research to be done, but using the study of video games seems to be yet another way through which lucid dreaming can be brought into mainstream science. It also offers a ray of hope for all those hours spent completing the latest big title, and that you might still get a lucid dream or two out of it after all!
Gackenbach, J., 2006. Video game play and lucid dreams: Implications for the development of consciousness. Dreaming, 16(2), p.96.
Gackenbach, J., 2008. Video game play and consciousness development: A transpersonal perspective. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 40(1).
Gackenbach, J., Kuruvilla, B. and Dopko, R., 2009. Video game play and dream bizarreness. Dreaming, 19(4), p.218.
About the author:
Arty is friendly writer and blogger from the UK. A practiced lucid dreamer, he runs a popular blog under the pseudonym RTW. You can visit his site here: RTW on Tumbler