Updated: Mar 8, 2020
By James S. Bray
I was probably about five or six years old the first time I heard of a conscience. It was described to me by my sitter’s daughter, who was a few years older than me, as “A voice inside your head that tells you what to do.” This description, while it may be charming in its own way, took my young mind to some pretty strange places. I remember how uncomfortable the thought had made me, even frightened. I attempted to listen inward for a moment. Was there supposed to be someone else talking to me in my head? As far as I could tell, I was alone. When I raised this concern, my friend assured me that everyone has a conscience and it’s nothing to fear. This left me puzzled for quite some time to come, especially when I learned that sociopaths don’t have a conscience and I thought I didn’t either, but on the bright side this also likely played a role in my future interest in psychology (small victories).
Even now, as an adult, I can recall the hairs sticking up on the back of my neck, the start in my chest, and the feeling of being watched by something; not from the outside, but from within. Was there really something there? I wasn’t sure, but that moment of fear of the unknown has stuck with me over the years. It was the first time I had ever been afraid of something within myself, but it is a feeling I’ve had several times since. Over the years, I’ve grown a bit more fond with that particular discomfort. Through my use of psychedelics and implementation of the lucid dreaming practices, I’ve come face-to-face (sometimes literally) with some aspects of myself, which I can only describe as the Jungian Shadow.
My experience with the shadow began the first time I tried magic mushrooms which, as a side effect, happened to be the night I had my first lucid dream (read that story here). Psychedelics are what broke open the floodgates, but it was during my lucid dreams that I really began to get insights into the person I was and, even more wondrous and terrifying, the person I could become. The first five or so years of my lucid dreaming career was spent battling my worsening depression, having frequent dissociative episodes (although I didn’t know what they were then) from using psilocybin mushrooms too often, and wrestling with the more hideous side of human nature that expressed itself in my dreams, both lucid and non. I recognized some of that “darkness” was manifesting in my waking life. Themes of depravity, of guilt and regret and solitude, of violence, of murder and suicide, of robbery and rape and power, of the apocalypse and anarchy and it all pointed to a bright neon sign that said “This could be you.™” Over this period of time, I looked at human nature itself and, in a way, something seemed to look back at me again. Now, you might read some of those words and find them, or even me, repugnant; but it is nonetheless a feature of humanity that, even the most normal and well-adjusted people are capable of the most cruel and sadistic acts imaginable. One only needs to crack open a history book to be confronted with the atrocities of which we are all capable. Facing one’s shadow is like visiting an alternate dimension where you are the worst villain imaginable and then realizing that it’s a possible future. It’s an incredibly brutal process and, perhaps by necessity, I had no meta-cognition of it at the time, which I think makes it slightly more tragic. To me, this wasn’t a process that would reach any sort of closure or equilibrium. It was a roller-coaster of terror and disgust and hopelessness; it was my reality for as long as I would be alive, or so I thought. Honestly, it wasn’t until the past couple of years when Jordan Peterson appeared and I watched him teach that I could even put a label on that time in my life. Even still, it was very clear to me that there was something about lucid dreaming that seemed to bring out what one might call the “Inner Self”.
The idea of confronting the shadow in lucid dreams has been adopted by the community and made prevalent by authors like Charlie Morley, in recent years. However, it was Robert Waggoner who popularized it among oneironauts. In his book, Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self, Waggoner called it “The Awareness Behind the Dream”. I have expressed my own opinions of Waggoner’s ideas in a past article (read here), but I argue that my criticism is for good reason. Among the other odd ideas that Waggoner promotes, like shared dreaming and precognitive dreams, the awareness behind the dream might sound just as outlandish, but it probably has more of a footing in science than any of his other claims. I can faintly hear someone typing about physical healing in lucid dreams and the placebo effect, but I’ll remind you that, when it comes to medicine, we’re normally looking for something better than placebo. It can be used to our advantage, at times, but it is mainly a supplement to a treatment, rather than a treatment itself.
Are you... me?
So, what is this awareness behind the dream? Well, his name is Jerry and you can blame him for every lucid dream character who has ever turned down your sexual advances. Jokes aside, this actually isn’t all that far from the truth. Waggoner postulates a sort of unseen, but reachable, orchestrator of dreams; an awareness or entity beyond the unconscious mind and, perhaps, even beyond the self. In Gateway, Waggoner describes his lucid dream experiences over the course of the book that progressively get more and more surreal, as he begins to believe that he’s uncovering something entirely foreign. This idea was uncomfortable to me in a way similar to when I first heard about the conscience, all those years ago, so it has likewise stuck with me. I take Waggoner’s interpretation with a grain of salt, but I’m no less compelled that there’s something deeper going on. For all its faults, I think Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self touched on something powerful that many of us oneironauts experience, from time to time. That is, being aware that one is dreaming, with the eerie notion that one is not alone. It’s those moments that really stick out to a lucid dreamer. Generally, the dreamer will encounter a dream character that seems more fully realized than the others. The more convincing dream characters tend to be more independent, even resistant to attempts at dream control. They can act unexpectedly, or have novel and useful things to say, whether they be factually or metaphorically true, and they can sometimes behave with a level of self-awareness that makes them seem real. Without even addressing the reality of dreams and dream characters, it’s at least evident that some lucid dream characters can be just as convincing and compelling a person to the dreamer as the dreamer feels themself to be.
The Convincing Nature of Dreams
It doesn’t seem to be a far stretch to say that dreams are inherently convincing in nature; in non-lucid dreams, we are entirely convinced of our reality, in lucid dreams we can understand the situation, yet still be convinced of a great many other things that run the gamut from believing that we have discovered a new aspect of self or gained a new insight, to having full blown spiritual experiences that can affect our judgment on topics like the astral realm, precognitive dreams, shared dreaming, and dream telepathy, etc. If we, as oneironauts, are not careful which elements of our dreams we take seriously, we will run the risk of falling down the slippery slope into unfounded and potentially harmful beliefs. As such, we dreamers should be very careful and clear about what we mean when we talk about subjects like dream symbology, dreamwork, dream interpretation, and any other method toward the end of finding meaning in dreams.
Personally, I am of the opinion that we can, in lucid dreams, have experiences of true insight and self-discovery that are actually true to the facts of what it is to be who we are. But, to hold this position rationally is to also accept that, although it is possible, it is far more difficult to discover than general day residue (“I dream of X because I do X every day of my life”), or perhaps even meaningless combinations of information strung together, as if at random, by the unconscious (our imagination). It’s also worth bearing in mind that we may, in fact, be reading too far into the elements of our dreams, essentially finding symbolism, associations, and patterns where none actually exist. I fully accept this as part of the territory of finding meaning in lucid dreams and I don’t necessarily see it as a bad thing, this is simply information that better equips one to consider their lives in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t, even if there’s no substantive meaning to be found within the dream’s content.
If we find meaning in something that helps us make a change, which results in a better life, it can do little harm to indulge certain things as if they were true, as long as we explicitly realize that we could be creating meaning in the process of looking for it. As a rule of thumb, I try to follow each new concept to its causal end in a thought experiment. What effects might it have on myself and others around me if it were true? How would life be different? What would be the outcome if I believed this and behaved accordingly? Ordinarily, this metacognitive analysis shouldn’t really be necessary if you actually have something real.
Sometimes you already have the pieces of the puzzle available in your unconscious, but the connections are not made until the information all comes together in a dream, or shortly after awakening, because of a dream. The things in dreams that have helped me the most, and still made perfect sense to a healthy waking mind, weren’t things I had to try to decode post hoc. Rather, I tend to make a direct connection to what a dream’s meaning is, if there is one at all, when the information is explicit and factual, or when I experience a “eureka moment” during the dream, or immediately upon awakening, as this can still be fairly considered “the dream.” Other times, dreams have caused a swift change in how I frame certain things and, thus, how I behaved. However, it should still be noted that even the Eureka moments can be nothing but red herring; reading meaning from dreams is a tricky business and I’m sure I’ll write on it again.
The Reality of Dreams
Since dreams can be so convincing, it can be incredibly difficult to use them as a means to ascertain the validity of the idea that there might be someone else living with us inside our heads. It only adds to the confusion to think that, even though we can more easily spot visual or other perceptual inconsistencies in lucid dreams, consciousness can still be strongly implied from especially convincing imagery. If our perception is fooled well enough by the dream, we can really believe we are in front of a separate conscious being. As well, we ought not ignore the fact that, just as we can be fooled by the dream’s reality, the dream can also unexpectedly endow us with notions of grandeur or the sense that we’ve learned something extraordinary, just for us to wake up and realize how silly our great revelation really was. Just as we do not have full control over which emotions or mental states arise in our waking consciousness, so too can we be at the mercy of what happens to emerge in lucid dreams. Obviously, there is quite a lot of difference between what we get the sense of in dreams and what we really experienced. Did you really speak to God or did you simply dream about it? I’ve had dreams in which I’ve experienced severe mental deficiencies and, I can assure you, I was confused as I desperately tried to understand basic information or to complete a simple thought-related task, while also noticing that these tasks were incredibly easy for everyone around me. This induced the full range of emotions one could imagine if a person were to suddenly realize their vast inferiority to their peers, without being able to grasp why it is this felt bad. Am I mentally deficient? Although I might be a poor judge of this, I say “No, but my mind can surely simulate what that might be like.”
So, when I get these questions toward the end of asking how real dream characters are, or see similar topics being discussed in the lucid dreaming spots online, I can’t help but feel that we are often fooled by the smoke and mirrors of what the dream suggests or implies. I think Arcade Fire described this effect flawlessly in their song “Reflektor” when they sang:
“I thought I found a way to enter; it was just a reflector… I thought I found the connector; it was just a reflector…”
Personally, I have had no personal experience that has made me believe that there truly is another person somewhere within myself. Just like the song, every glimmer of light I thought I saw in my dream characters was simply my own light reflecting back at me; only implied personhood. They have never been more capable or knowledgeable than myself, but some had certainly behaved as if they were. One would think that, should these experiences occur in some shared ethereal realm, as some oneironauts believe, that we might, in a dream, exchange an accurate phone number, address, or email from time to time, but alas no dice. For me, these thoughts have put that notion to rest, but it’s much harder to test whether or not there could still be another silent consciousness within, leaving that question wide open to inquiry.
Gateway to the Other Self?
Although it might sound strange on its face, it’s really not so silly to believe that there could be a silent passenger, given common notions about split-brain patients. If this is your first time hearing about split-brain patients, buckle in; it might get weird. As a last resort treatment for refractory epilepsy, there was a time when doctors would sever two hemispheres of the patient’s brain by cutting their corpus callosum (the nerve tract connecting the halves). The documented result is best stated in the Wikipedia entry for Split-Brain:
“After the right and left brain are separated, each hemisphere will have its own separate perception, concepts, and impulses to act.”
In short, separating the two hemispheres of the human brain results in, what appears to be, two distinctly separate people inhabiting one head. As is a commonly known fact, the left brain controls the right side of the body and the right brain controls the left side. In several tests, it was shown that the right brain and left brain are often at odds, giving different answers.
The first test was done by placing a divider in the middle of a split-brain patient’s view, so the right eye cannot see what the left eye sees. This Visual Test consisted of lights flashing in one of the patient’s eyes. The patients reported that they could not see what appeared only in the left eye, controlled by the right brain. In the Tactile Test, an object was placed in one of the patient’s hands, but they were unable to see or hear what the object might be, and the subjects could not correctly guess the object when it was in their left hand. What’s more, in one case, a patient even had their left hand “fighting” against their right during daily activities, which sounds like an absolute nightmare. Imagine trying to pick something up while your left hand tries to put it down. This even began to make professionals in the field question if a split-brain meant a split-consciousness.
CGP Grey has an entertaining Youtube video on this topic called ‘You Are Two’, which has a more colorful version of the information above. In the video, CGP Grey expresses the sentiment that, perhaps, the right brain is still distinctly separate for those whose corpus callosum remains intact and we only notice it when the connection is split. Maybe the right brain learns early on to silently collaborate, as it cannot express itself otherwise. Could it really be that there are two separate selves within each of us? Is there a silent, but observing and participating self tucked away in the right brain, with whom we cannot ordinarily interact or are they simply two sides of the same coin that are only divided by the procedure?
A Fistful of 'What-ifs'
This angle, if true, would lend credibility to Robert Waggoner’s description of “The Awareness Behind The Dream” as a true meeting of the minds. Could the non-verbal right-brain find its voice and be capable of communicating to us in a lucid dream? What valuable information could we learn, in such a situation, if we were able to connect our right brain to the perspective of our left? Imagine getting life advice from a passenger who has experienced your entire life through your own eyes, but who was never able to have a voice. If this is really possible, it could potentially be the greatest source of advice we could ever seek. Better than a friend, you would connect with another self, be it inner or other.
It’s also interesting, in this case, to think of ordinary dreams in which we are along for the ride, unaware of our situation and unable to act with any degree of freedom or autonomy. Could non-lucid dreams be, in part, a way for the silent right-brain to explore and express itself in the only place and at the only time it is able? If so, would we oneironauts be morally responsible for somehow inhibiting the freedom of another self, inside of us?
Consciousness is Complicated
Thankfully, we don’t have to grapple with such moral quandaries just yet. Although we have certainly come across some compelling thoughts when taking Robert Wagonner’s Gateway into consideration with earlier split-brain evidence, a more recent study, led by University of Amsterdam (UvA) psychologist Yair Pinto, has come up with some evidence to challenge our earlier notions. Pinto and his team conducted a series of tests improving upon the original studies, by dividing split-brain patients’ left and right visual fields and asking them to write down whether or not an object appeared on the screen in front of them (and later what that object was). The object would appear in different places with each trial and the patients were asked to write their answers with both hands, as well as to respond verbally. What was found contradicted our prior assumptions, in the case of split-brain patients. Pinto and his team discovered that patients gave a unified answer from all three sources (left hand, right hand, and verbally), even when the object on screen was not visible to the verbal left-brain, meaning they were getting external stimuli from the right eye only. The finding suggests that, despite the severed corpus callosum, the left and right brain are still able to communicate, albeit much slower. Pinto was quoted on the UvA website as saying:
“...[Split-brain patients’] cerebral hemispheres can hardly communicate with each other and do so at perhaps 1 bit per second, which is less than a normal conversation…”
The case for Waggoner’s awareness behind the dream was much stronger, before this recent study. The original split-brain studies were flawed, but, over time, we slowly began to put together a better picture of what split brain patients experienced. Association tests were also revealing of this issue. In the Association Test, the patient is shown a different picture in each eye. They are then asked to pick words to associate with the picture they see. Verbally, they cannot express the words that pertain to the image shown to the left eye/right brain, because speech is controlled by the left brain only. However, when asked to pick words from a list that best represents the pictures, their selections describe the pictures in both eyes.
So, things aren’t quite how we thought they were, but this is nothing to be alarmed about. As new technologies and methodologies develop, we uncover new ways to do better science, so it is only natural that we must come into conflict with our prior assumptions, so we may one day find what is really true. Perhaps, in the future, we may uncover further evidence to warrant a belief in split-consciousness in split-brain patients, but, for the time being, it seems that Pinto et al., have put this hypothesis to rest. In doing so, it also seems to have killed Waggoner’s awareness behind the dream, too.
Really, “the awareness behind the dream” is a personification of the unconscious mind, which we already don’t really know much about scientifically. It’s a functional, place-holder term that tends to mean “mental functions outside of our conscious control.” This need not mean that these various functions are themselves conscious, when they could, just as easily, be a part of what is necessary for a single consciousness to happen at all. We simply don’t have enough information. I believe Occam’s razor is applicable here, where it takes more unfounded claims to believe that there is a conscious orchestrator of dreams, within our minds, trying to communicate with us, than it takes to believe in a view that is more friendly with modern science, which understands that our brain is a network that tends to have differences in activity during dreaming than during waking.
It’s well-established that, during dreams, there is decreased functioning in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with logic and planning. While dream lucidity also causes the emergence of some of these faculties in dreams, we have no evidence to show that another awareness also comes online, nor was there even a solid basis to posit one to begin with. In fact, all the modern evidence, including Pinto’s findings at UvA, seems best interpreted as two hemispheres working together to create a single consciousness. As such, the burden of proof is on those who posit such claims as the awareness behind the dream. Even as a lucid dreamer, the mechanisms at play in dreams are unclear to me, but I’m still intrigued and can’t help but feel like those lucid dreamers like Waggoner have all been circling something that none of them have quite put their finger on yet.
Nevertheless, there is still something deep going on beneath the surface of lucid dreaming. What I think it means, personally, is that the dreaming mind is a powerful “seeming machine”; the ultimate virtual reality and the perfect playground for the mind to interact with itself. By adding conscious awareness via the lucid dreaming practices, we are able to set loose the wild potential of the human mind, opening up the full range of human experience from terrifying to transcendent, from utter fantasy to metaphorical, and sometimes factual, truth. With this knowledge, we have much more interesting information to uncover and many more places to look; both physically and introspectively. Until science has had the chance to sufficiently explore more of these options, we would do well to continue exploring the conceptual questions in our own lucid dreaming experiences. It might make us all feel a bit uncomfortable at times, but, in my experience, following such feelings is always rewarding in some way. Even if we do not find what we expect, we often learn something new about ourselves in the process and that’s what the pursuit of both science and lucidity is all about. Sources: Split-Brain Wiki Article https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Split-brain CGP Grey’s Video ‘You Are Two’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wfYbgdo8e-8
University of Anmsterdam ‘Split Brain Does Not Lead To Split Consciousness’ (Pinto et al.) http://www.uva.nl/en/content/news/press-releases/2017/01/split-brain-does-not-lead-to-split-consciousness.html