Inside the mind of a lucid dreamer
The Times, 26 June 2012


Beyond a heavy black door an elaborate mirror towers into view, and in its reflection lies a dark and narrow staircase. As I ascend, the stairs become bathed in sunlight, and from above I hear a voice call out: “There is only one rule here”.

As is now my habit I press a thumb to my wrist and, with disappointment, feel a steady pulse. It tells me that I am wide awake, and in Lewisham.

“Your shoes”, the voice continues, “you need to take off your shoes”. It belongs to Rory Mac Sweeney, a dentist and lucid dreamer, whose flat nestles in the rafters of a converted monastery in South London. He has assembled a meeting of like-minded enthusiasts, just one of a growing number across the country.

He introduces me to Natasha Karpichina, Tomas Svitorka, Safeena Chaudhry and Michael Cave. Like him, they are mostly young professionals, keen to explore the power of their dreams.

A lucid dream occurs when someone is aware that they are dreaming, and is able to take control of the events taking place. Many of us have experienced moments of lucidity at the end of a vivid dream, when the sudden realisation that we are dreaming causes us to wake up. Through practice though, dedicated lucid dreamers are able to induce that state and hold it at will.

Its appeal is easy to understand. Masters of the art claim to have infinite command over their own private universe as they lie asleep each night.

Natasha Karpichina, who works as a business analyst in Canary Wharf, tells of one such dream: “As soon as I became lucid I decided to visit a friend who was working in Paris. I swam the channel in fast forward and soon I was right there”.

Rory has more experience which seems to carry with it a greater degree of control. “I flew through a forest lit by brightly coloured fireflies and could feel the texture of the leaves against my skin”, he says, “before spinning up into the sky and shouting out at the top of my voice”.

Growing from just a handful of meetings a few years ago, there are now around 50 regular groups in London alone, and Google searches on the topic have spiked in recent months.

Health care worker Tomas Svitorka demonstrates some of the new technology that has played a role in the latest wave of interest. His smartphone is filled with new apps, all of which promise to help trigger lucid dreams.

Then there’s his face mask, the REM Dreamer, which flashes a series of red LED lights over his eyes as he sleeps.

The traditional method involves creating a regular habit or reality test, like checking for a pulse. If performed often enough, the action should start to be repeated in a dream where an anomaly will appear, prompting them to become aware of their state. The face mask is intended as a shortcut, offering just enough disturbance to trigger awareness, but not enough to wake the dreamer.

Futuristic as it sounds, the gadgetry isn’t entirely new. The Science Museum in London houses a small metal box entitled The Dream Machine, the invention of Dr Keith Hearne, whose research in the late 70s proved the existence of lucid dreaming for the first time.

“Colleagues were very sceptical”, says Hearne, “but I knew it was possible”. In the spring of 1975, he sat awake in a laboratory watching a sleeping colleague who was wired up to a polygraph machine. He was waiting for a pattern to materialise: a specific sequence of pre-arranged eye movements. Eventually it appeared, and was etched onto a thin sheet of graph paper, now also sits permanent display at the museum.

“It proved for the first time that you could be conscious within a dream,” he tells me, “we had a direct channel of communication from the dream to the outside world”.

“There’s no doubt”, agrees Alan Hobson, a Neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, “lucid dreaming is real, it does exist”. He too has witnessed growing interest in the field. “The advent of brain scanning has been a major factor. You can’t study the brain without studying consciousness, and this is just one aspect of it”.

He laughs off the suggestion that the practice could be harmful. “Oh no, the brain is much smarter than that. We couldn’t interfere with the standard processes that it goes through when we sleep”.

Some of the dreamers I spoke to, however, were taking more drastic measures to attain lucidity. Both Tomas and Rory are regular users of Galantamine, a substance generally used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease to help enhance memory. “Let’s say it puts the brain in a more favourable state”, says Tomas, “it boosts your performance”. Not everyone’s experiences were positive though. Safeena Chaudhry, a writer, says “I used a lot of it last year, and it had negative effects. I became snappy and aggressive”.

Throughout history our relationship with dreaming has varied widely. The Greeks saw dreams as divine messages, and Roman emperors thought they were premonitions of their coming fate, consulting augers to help interpret them. Much later, Freud argued that the examination of dreams would reveal subconscious desires, but his pupil Jung felt they acted more as friends or advisers, compensating for imbalances in our conscious personalities.

Most of the lucid dreamers I met saw a beneficial link between their dream worlds and their waking lives. Natasha says she intentionally meets people that she is arguing with: “I talk my issues through with them in my dreams, and it changes how I feel about them in reality”. Tomas has a similar outlook. “You don’t take your waking life as the only dimension. You know that this is not all there is.”

As I leave the group the sun is setting, and I feel my initial sense of slack-jawed wonder fade, if only slightly. Checking for a pulse, I find its steady beat not disappointing this time, just inescapable. It is difficult not to dwell on something that Safeena, the most wistful of the group, said. “Sometimes I think the things I’m looking for in my dreams are the things I should be looking for with my eyes open”.

A five step guide to lucid dreaming

1. Pay more attention
Keep a diary in which you write down as many of your dreams as you can. It’s common to forget them just moments after waking up, so it’s important to record them as soon as possible. Over time, your ability to remember them should improve.

2. Perform reality tests
You need to be able to distinguish between your dreams and your waking life. This is more difficult than it sounds since, when dreaming, we tend to believe that our experiences are really happening. Start performing a reality test every hour or so  by checking for your pulse. Once a habit has been formed, you should start to repeat the process in your dreams as well. If you feel a pulse, you’ll know you’re awake awake, but any if there’s a discrepancy, or you can’t feel it at all, it is a cue that you are dreaming.

3. Learn to stay lucid
The moment you’re aware of your dream, you are technically ‘lucid’. The challenge now is to hold that state without waking up. Try to focus on yourself as opposed to your environment, which is likely to overwhelm you at first. Rubbing your hands, stamping your feet, and singing out loud can all help prevent the dream collapsing.

4. Explore your environment
When comfortable with your state of lucidity you can start inspecting and manipulating your dream. Try to walk, run and fly. Within time you should be able to reconstruct your environment, transporting yourself to new cities, or designing worlds of your own choosing. You can create characters to interact with too, as does film director Michel Gondry: “I generally end up sleeping with the first girl I can find”.

5. Break the rules
Once you have truly mastered the art of lucid dreaming, step four will start to seem increasingly pedestrian. Movement, flight, even sex, are all physical, time- bound activities that we have carried over from our waking lives. Experienced practitioners say that once they have gained total control they start to cede power back to their dreams to see what they can learn. You can ask questions of your own subconscious and expect a coherent response. One dreamer tells me “my favourite trick is to jump into a mirror and see what happens. The results are always unexpected”.