How Lucid Dream Science Ate Itself

Updated: Mar 6

By James S. Bray

In order to address the state of lucid dream science, it is imperative that we first understand the history of its community. The lucid dreaming community has long been a small but diverse collection of many different individuals at different times.



Dream Explorers - A Melting Pot or Revolving Door? As opposed to calling the lucid dream community a Melting Pot, I’ve often referred to it as a Revolving Door, because there are nearly as many people going out as are coming in. The proverbial pot is not yet at melting point, as we are unstable, decentralized, and we lack a general consensus of opinion. In fact, an anecdote might paint a clear picture of our general attitude. A frequent response I get, whenever I mention the lucid dreaming community in conversation with my fellow oneironauts, goes something like this: “There’s a lucid dreaming community?” Ordinarily, I treat the question as rhetorical, so as to spare myself the emotions involved with explaining a community to one if its members (we are on the same forum,

yes?), but I think this article warrants an honest attempt. Yes, I think there is a lucid dreaming community, but it’s incredibly difficult to get a handle on what it is or where it exists. Lucid dreaming is a very niche subject and only a small portion of those within it actually continue to lucid dream into the long term. There are even less who remain active in the online community after they know how to lucid dream well enough. This means that the majority of active members, in the popular lucid dreaming spots, are the least informed on the subject, which leads to a multitude of other issues within the greater community.


Those who continue to lucid dream and still fade out of the community, in a lot of cases, seem to be trading in the approval of a wider community for a more close-knit group of friends with which to talk about it. To my mind, this is the real lucid dreaming community, but it’s also a harder to reach and more amorphous network compared to the wider lucid dreaming community, as seen in popular sites and forums. All in all, I think we’re doing as expected for a community of our particular character. That isn’t necessarily a kind thing to say, when considering the greater community, but we only recently gained the ability to become a community, in the first place.


International Association for the Study of Dreams or Metaphysics? Before the internet really took off, there was very little to build a community around. What is considered to be the leading website on the topic, World-of-Lucid-Dreaming (WOLD), has only been a platform since 2008. Recently, it came under new management and, since then, the site has become more focused on releasing and selling new products than on the topic of lucid dreaming. In terms of longstanding institutions, the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD) is closely intertwined with the lucid dreaming community. It was founded in 1983, but despite its members’ expensive pieces of paper, they haven’t managed to avoid going toward a similar direction as WOLD, sadly.


The IASD is full of professionals who tend to write hyperbolic books on lucid dreaming and thereby undermine the validity of their own field. The personal opinions of its members have clearly infiltrated and dominated the organization, which is evident by the themes of their live and online events, which promote ideas like dream sharing, physical healing through lucid dreams, and other embarrassing and unfounded claims. As I’ve been writing this section, I’ve also had their website open on another tab frantically searching for some recent research, to no avail. I have found that the IASD is in collaboration with the Dream Science Foundation, which gives grants for dream studies. However, they still have yet to announce the winner of the 2016 grant on behalf of the IASD (still calling for proposals this year, though! *wink*).

Those are the dominant spaces in the lucid dreaming world, at the moment. There are plenty of sites about lucid dreaming, like the one you now read this on, and other places to chat with fellow oneironauts. The largest forum would be the lucid dreaming subreddit. Unfortunately, since the most active members in the community are the least experienced, the subreddit tends to get flooded with repeat beginner questions and poor sources of information, while the more substantive posts end up hidden or with much less engagement than they deserve. Like I said, we’ve only just gained the ability to become a community, but it can certainly be disheartening as someone with a passion for lucid dreaming, these days.

Lucid Dream Science

Those who have done the most for the lucid dreaming community are those individuals like Dr. Keith Hearne and Dr. Stephen LaBerge, who scientifically verified lucid dreaming and developed the lucid dreaming techniques still used today, respectively. It was the work of science professionals that showed us that lucid dreaming is possible and gave us the tools with which to experience it ourselves; without such there wouldn’t even be a modern context for this type of conversation in the West.


Before their work in the late 1970s and 1980s, the lucid dreaming literature was even more sparse, to say the least. There are a few mentions of lucid dreaming beginning with Aristotle, there was its implementation in Tibetan Buddhism’s Dream Yoga, but there were very, very few books written about it up until the last few decades. This whole lucid dreaming thing was and is still a very fringe topic, despite the growing amount of information online and in books today. Most startlingly, it seems that the lucid dreaming community is one that has become so fractured in its struggle to define itself that it’s now building towards a tipping point, where it will either overcome its profound issues, or crumble and die as a scientific field.


The reasons for this are many and their roots go quite deep. Lucid dreaming has never really been a topic that people take seriously at first, especially not in the scientific community. Up until very recently, the only sort of person who knew or talked about lucid dreaming was generally a little “out there” anyway, and it’s still quite similar today. Telling a friend or family member about lucid dreaming can get responses from disbelief, to warnings of the occult and demonic possession, to misunderstanding or outright dismissal without consideration, and so on.


I encourage you to give that a try and afterward imagine trying to sell a lucid dreaming experiment as your master’s thesis to an established person of science. It was a hard sell back then and I’m sure it’s nearly as hard these days. However, it does seem that lucid dreaming has some level of accessibility for graduate students, but we don’t really see anyone making a career out of lucid dream science, specifically. It could be for lack of desire, but I find that difficult to believe for how much exposure lucid dreaming has continued to get since the release of the 2010 film Inception. Now that lucid dreaming has broken through into science and had a small taste of the zeitgeist, one would think this would help to inspire further study into the area, which it did, just not in academia.

Selling Dreams

It was capitalism that took the most interest in lucid dreaming science. There has been a huge amount of effort put into the development of supplements to induce lucid dreams, which can absolutely be useful, but it’s generally difficult to separate out what is actually working and what is placebo. Plus, some of their ingredients can be harmful if overused and many of them are not well documented, let alone FDA approved. In recent years there have also been several surprisingly successful crowdfunding campaigns created by startups in order to fund their various “lucid dream induction devices”.


Over the past couple of years alone, the focus of the lucid dreaming crowdfunding scene has been the idea of finding a way to lucid dream on demand, by any means necessary (except hard work). The methods used to attempt this range from lights and sounds, to vibrations and alarms, to electrodes that monitor brain waves and one which shocks the brain (PFC) during REM sleep. There was even a device which was meant to work via a magnetic penis ring attached to an MP3 player (I’m serious). The idea was that male arousal during REM would sever the connection of the magnetic belt, which would then activate the MP3 player and play affirmations to the effect of “You are dreaming.” They were all sort of worth a try in their own right, I suppose, but none of them really did their job effectively (or survived long enough to tell).


What’s worse is that the companies come out of the woodwork every year, raise several hundred-thousand US dollars (over $2M raised in 2016 by iBand+, between Indiegogo and Kickstarter), and either never release a device, or release one much later than promised that’s been through so many alterations that it barely passes for the original concept. These days, I see a new lucid dreaming device campaign and hang my head in shame. All of that hard earned money put to waste on pipe dreams instead of put toward mending a community that could really use it right about now.

Taking a Step Back

At this point, let’s take a moment to step back and process the elements at play, before we get to the real nitty-gritty of what the hell is pulling this community apart and, hopefully, how we can solve it. We have an incredibly misunderstood topic that has somehow survived in obscurity for nearly all of the Common Era.


Modern science starts catching on to the phenomenon and, in 1990, Stephen LaBerge coauthors Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming with Howard Rheingold, which is now widely considered to be The Bible of Lucid Dreaming. Boom! Lucid dreaming is released into the public and it becomes more popular with the general crowd one might expect; young curious minds and those who frequent the Religion & Spirituality section of the book store (the former perhaps becoming the latter). This trend continues as the internet picks up steam and, as it does, more lucid dreaming books start to surface. The stream is slow at first, LaBerge and then Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Yoga’s of Dream and Sleep in 1998. Before it really picks up in the 2010s, it stays at a steady stream during the 2000s. Advanced Lucid Dreaming: The Power of Supplements by Thomas Yuschak comes out in 2006 and, two years later probably the second most iconic lucid dreaming book is released. Robert Waggoner’s Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self comes out in 2008, but something’s fundamentally different about this one. ‘Gateway’ basically stirs the pot and solidifies the trajectory of the lucid dreaming conversation that we’re still having today.


  1. Waggoner is a double threat because he has two very important traits as a lucid dreaming author: he has a psychology degree (Bachelor’s, I believe).

  2. his book reads like the journey of a curious and dedicated oneironaut who has clearly gone deeper than most, but one who still somehow comes to very different conclusions than one would expect a trained professional to reach.



Ultimately, I see Gateway as the story of a man who started to put too much stock in the objectivity of his dream experiences. I have long been a proponent of the controversial ideas that one can find meaning and profundity in lucid dreams and that we can use lucid dreams as a means to overcome personal issues, but to be like Waggoner, with no sense of how one might separate the wheat from the chaff, is to go down the rabbit hole blindly; you will absolutely delude yourself if you put little to no effort into questioning and/or testing the validity of what you learn (or “learn”) in your lucid dreams.



As a result, Waggoner has appeared online in many one-on-one interviews and in a few lectures, where he professes his beliefs which are now prominent in the IASD; dream sharing and physical healing through lucid dreams, the thought that Astral Projections/OBEs are distinctly separate from lucid dreams, and he even introduced his idea of “The Awareness Behind The Dream”, which sounds a bit wacky, but actually has more footing in science than any of these other claims, especially given what is known about split brain patients. So, Waggoner’s book goes out to an audience that’s already hungry for exactly the type of nonsense he’s peddling and his success carries him to the presidential seat at the head of the IASD from 2009-2010. This is significant, but it bears repeating that the lucid dreaming community was already heavily into woo-woo well before then. It’s a common theme in the IASD for any one of them who has a successful enough lucid dreaming book (regardless of how accurate it is) to be voted in as president.


This year, it’s Clare Johnson, PhD, for her 2017 work, Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Lucid Dreaming (complete or completely mad, I wonder). And, although it’s much more common and out in the open now, we would do well to note the eccentricities that appear in today’s lucid dream advocates were also creeping into the science, even by those who first contributed to the field. In a 1991 ‘Lucidity Letter’ (letters about lucid dreaming by professionals, made for enthusiasts) entitled ‘Healing through Lucid Dreaming’, Stephen LaBerge wrote “The question for future research to answer is ‘If we heal the dream body, to what extent will we also heal the physical body?’“ LaBerge seems to have continued onward with a similar path to the IASD. His organization, The Lucidity Institute, founded in 1987, might have had more noble pursuits in the past, but these days all it seems to do is serve as the hub from which LaBerge sells tickets to his annual lucid dreaming retreats in Hawaii. So, Mahalo, I guess.

The point is that we have an entire organization, whose primary function is meant to fund science, doing nothing but organizing events to raise grant money (that they show no evidence of having doled out during the past two years) and fostering an environment that rewards professionals who shill out pseudoscience in their books, by promoting them to the presidency of the IASD. It seems to be a cycle. Honestly, this aspect of it all seems like it’s functioning as well as the IASD and its members could hope. Whether they actually believe in their pseudoscientific claims or not, I am reminded of a quote by Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” Zooming Out Regardless of the personal beliefs of those who profess such nonsense, if we zoom our focus out a bit and look at the entirety of the lucid dreaming community today, you can really see how the unfounded claims of those in the IASD, and the other authors now emerging with similar thoughts, are still wreaking havoc in the community. Because the ridiculous ideas that appear in many of these books are coming directly from those who are considered to be professionals, the general public, by dent of the author’s degree, becomes much more apt to take their word on faith. People assume that when a PhD writes a book that the book will be a reliable source of information.


Even if you think that anyone would be stupid to believe in something like shared dreaming, you can surely still appreciate the fact that the majority of lucid dreamers are not adults, nor are they well versed in this topic; they are mostly teenagers and young adults who are much more curious and impressionable than adults who are set in their ways. As well, we might also like to notice the unique point in history in which we find ourselves. We are living in a post truth world, after all, and the youth of today has taken “question everything” far past the extreme, into territory that is no longer useful.


The Mind-Body Problem Essentially, all of the turmoil that is seen in the lucid dreaming community today is, by my estimate, a direct result of the lucid dreaming community’s inability to reach a consensus on the answer to the Mind-Body problem; because we can’t agree if the mind is only between our ears or if it exists somewhere else. The popular opinion of lucid dreamers today is the same opinion of those in the IASD, despite the fact that the assertions for a non-local mind (ex. dream sharing and dream telepathy) go against practically everything science has discovered about the mind/brain. But, to say that every person who holds these esoteric beliefs does so with blind faith alone would be obtuse. There must be some portion of the lucid dreaming community that believes in dream sharing and physical healing through lucid dreams, not because certain “professionals” say so, but rather because they have based their beliefs on personal experience. For me, this thought has solidified my own belief that the great divide in the lucid dreaming community is not solely on the shoulders of the IASD and a certain few authors, but there is also burden to place on the community itself.


No doubt, these ideas have been holding back lucid dream research for decades and it’s something that I consider to be a huge injustice, if not outright tragedy. An entire field has been swept under the rug, despite what good it could do, all the while there’s an organization that claims to be funding its research, but instead does nothing but soak up resources and subvert its own field of inquiry. This, in turn, has confused the average lucid dreamer to the point where it created a rift in the community, which makes it even more difficult to get anyone to take this highly exploited and hugely beneficial topic more seriously. So, this is what I feel that I know about the situation. I don’t at all like how these events have unfolded, not in science and especially not in topic I am most passionate about. But, these are the things that I know. What gives me much, much more trouble is what I don’t know. Corruption, faulty reasoning, a lack of education on the scientific method, a general misunderstanding of science, etc.; all these things are quite easy to understand. What I can’t get my head around is how people who are, by all accounts, rational people that function in the world, who can even be professionals in their field, are able to, seemingly only by the experience of lucid dreams, forgo all logic and reason, in favor of adopting views which have absolutely no scientific basis, what so ever.

Waking Up and Moving On

Personally, lucid dreaming played a huge part my own transition from a spiritually-minded, woo-woo buffoon into a card carrying “show me the evidence” atheist. Through questioning, exploring, experimenting, and documenting my lucid dream journey, I was able to come to the conclusion that the popular metaphysical claims of lucid dreaming are utter bullshit, not through faith or speculation, but via taking the time to develop experiments and test them out in my lucid dreams. Do people really not understand that they can test if something like physical healing through lucid dreams is possible, or is there something else I’m missing here?

A rare image of the author, SpaceTimeBadass (and companions) before his rejection of woo.

This is a question I’ve been asking myself for quite some time, but so far it has only ended up making me even more curious. It does seem that there is an ideological split that takes place between long term lucid dreamers. The majority of oneironauts get, in my opinion, the wrong answer to the Mind-Body Problem, but could this actually be itself caused by their exposure to lucid dreams? Why it is that some lucid dreamers tend to adopt more materialistic or naturalistic world-views, while others become more metaphysical or supernatural in their thinking, over time? Why is it that a Robert Waggoner or a Charlie Morley can lucid dream for years and land on the beliefs that make the IASD congratulate itself, while those like myself end up near the opposite end of the spectrum? Can't we come to some kind of consensus on these claims and thereby stop allowing charlatans and manufacturers of poor electronics to ravage our community, turning it into the husk that it is today? Well, there are many answers that I could give and there are many that I have heard in conversation. On the whole, I'd say that there simply isn't yet an answer that is satisfying, but don’t worry, I won’t leave you empty handed.

The Answer?

This answer has occurred to me over the past year or so, as I've invested a lot of energy into trying to get lucid dreamers to think about how the scientific method can help satisfy their curiosity into some of the more "out there" ideas. Namely, I've put fourth my best case for why I think dreams, astral projections, and the like occur in the mind alone. As well, I've been doing my best to share some experiments you can try to start learning how to think about these problems yourself (with a gentle reminder that placebo is a powerful thing and that we must be as aware of bias and experimental flaws as possible). I've had a lot of discussions in the comments of the videos I've made on the topic.


It has actually been pretty tiring for me to stay active in them, but I’ve forced myself to respond every time someone has said their bit—and what did I learn? Haha, well, the people who agreed with me agreed, those who disagreed with me still disagreed, and I think I only convinced one person to actually try it for themselves (worth it). In short, I learned that all of the discussion was probably wasted time on the part of everyone involved. A sad thought, as a creator, but it did set me on a course to land upon my favorite answer for the moment (and I think you'll like it): Lucid dreaming causes the dreamer to become more of whatever they will be, eventually. The only problem with this answer is that it's completely tongue-in-cheek.



There probably is some sort of loosely plausible case to be made in favor of my cheeky conclusion, something about the age of the average lucid dreamer possibly being below 25, the age at which the human brain reaches maturity. So, I guess it wouldn't be too wacky to say that maybe lucid dreaming just helps people more seamlessly transform into the ways in which they will be set. I'm not fully convinced, but it is fun to muse about. Unfortunately, the only semblance of a real answer I can give is that this is an incredibly complex issue with a huge amount of factors and not really enough data to know anything for sure. I can't profess to have all of the answers, but I think I’ve at least done a pretty good job at outlining the biggest problem in the lucid dreaming community today. Science Literacy The more I’ve talked with my fellow oneironauts and read into the types of literature and “studies” they find compelling, the more obvious the problem of science literacy in the lucid dreaming community became.

A large portion of lucid dreamers are young people who are just learning about the world around them, many of them don't fully understand the scientific method, nor are they aware that they can apply the skills to their own lives. I was astounded by the number of people who believe that astral projections actually objectively occur in another dimension, instead of between one’s ears, who have no idea that they can approach the situation with some degree of empiricism (and, in a lot of cases, no desire to do so once they find out).



Furthermore, it also becomes clear in conversation that a lot of these people simply reject science as a whole, but that's an issue for another article. The crux of it all is that we have a lot of curious young minds who are actively trying to question their reality, but who have no appreciation of the toolkit that will help them to find valid answers. It's a recipe for disaster and, looking around the state of the lucid dreaming market, it's no wonder that it's riddled with misinformation, predatory crowdfunding campaigns, hyperbolic claims, false advertising, and the like. One is even tempted say that it's par for the course. It might sound harsh, but it seems evident to me that the current attitude of the average lucid dreamer creates a perfect environment for their own exploitation. Time and again they seem to act from emotion; favoring their own beliefs over evidence. Year after year they fund another novelty lucid dreaming device instead of becoming active in the community; engaging in discussions, reading books on the topic, supporting reputable creators, planning and organizing events, and so on. It's not my intent to point the finger at anyone, but the phenomenon of lucid dreamers shilling out for the research and development for startups, instead of investing in and enriching the lucid dreaming community, confuses me more and more with each passing year. At any rate, suffice it to say that the confusion around, or direct rejection of, science is a pretty big problem for more than one reason. So, what do we do about it? How do we solve this issue and mend the gigantic ideological divide in our community and, possibly, our favorite scientific field? I think I have some idea.

We always tend to assume that science—real science—will touch everything that we care about eventually and that, since things are moving so quickly now, this will probably be during our lifetime. Unfortunately, to wait for the world to get around to lucid dreaming is a luxury we don't have. Entire civilizations have fallen during human history, in some cases destroying knowledge that had to be rediscovered from scratch. And, lest we forget, there is a long list of issues in the world that deserve our more immediate attention. Lucid dreaming is something that a lot of us would like to know more about, scientifically speaking, but from the current outlook, it seems as though it will continue to be a subject that is heavily dependent upon contributions from its community members. Perhaps one day we'll be able to organize or fund a more grassroots movement to push for the study of lucid dreaming, but until such a fantastically improbable time comes, this will continue to be a discussion that oneironauts will have to engage in with one another.


Doing Your Bit

The best starting point would be for each of us to do our part to help improve science illiteracy in the lucid dreaming community. It’s of vital importance that those of us who understand the science do our part to reach out and teach our fellow oneironauts when they share questionable information or present unfounded claims as fact. Those of us who are scientifically literate and have more experience with lucid dreaming have an even greater duty to engage with the community and take part in the discussion, as we are the most capable of doing so.



As members of the lucid dreaming community, we can no longer remain silent as the IASD and its members stunt lucid dreaming science. We cannot in good conscience allow their unfounded claims to permeate our community as they have for decades. We simply have to do something. We have to take a stand and stop giving our money to useless organizations, stop giving money to the yearly lucid dreaming device crowdfunding campaigns, stop buying the products of lucid dreaming sites whose mailing lists only exist to market to you, stop letting people who say the most ridiculous things about lucid dreaming go unchecked.


Do your part to clean up this community if you care about it at all. If you stop giving your money to poor sources of information and quit trying to foolishly fund an easy way out, the parasites of this subject will die off. Remember that the IASD and its ilk are directly funded by us; if we pull funding, they will cease to exist and the space will be open for, hopefully, a more rational organization that actually cares about the science.

Final Thoughts

Despite the fact that the lucid dreaming community is in pretty bad shape at the moment, I think it's always a valid pursuit to be aware of the community that we care about; to stay informed of the popular opinion, to ask questions, share information, have the tough conversations, and to try to base the discussion of lucid dreaming on open discourse, rather than allowing the powers that be decide what the future of lucid dreaming will hold.


Above all else, I think we must be very careful about the sources of information we support. Put your money into buying reasonable books and supporting creators in the niche who have the topic’s best interests at heart. If we are ever to mend this rift, it will be because we, as a community, decided to lift up the content and creators that create accurate content, while disavowing those who muddy the waters (hint: they call themselves experts every chance they get).


Remember that even though the body of scientific knowledge on lucid dreaming is lacking does not mean that it is not there waiting to be discovered. All we have to do is be good community members in order to set the stage for such a possibility. If we can do that, then I think the next few decades of lucid dreaming will be much better than the last.

SOURCES:

World of Lucid Dreaming

The International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD)

iBand+ 2016 Profits: Indiegogo - Kickstarter

The Lucid Dreaming Subreddit

The Dream Science Foundation ( IASD’s grants)

Lucidity Letter

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