DISCOVERING HOW WE CREATE AND CONTROL OUR DREAMS
by Jay Vogelsong and Janice Brooks
Paper presented at the Association for the Study of Dreams conference in Washington, DC, July 7, 2000.   2000 Jay Vogelsong and Janice Brooks.
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Good afternoon.  My name is Jay Vogelsong.  My wife, Janice Brooks, is sitting down here in the front row.  Janice is lucky enough to have been experiencing lucid dreams since childhood.  I became interested in this curious phenomenon of knowing that you are dreaming while you are dreaming as an adult and taught myself how to do it with fair success.  Janice, our mutual friend Ruth Sacksteder, and I carried out an intense three-way correspondence in the early 1990s about our lucid dreaming experiences and our thoughts concerning them.  After having recorded over 2000 lucid dreams between us during just a few years' time, as well as achieving a high degree of control over our dreams in many specific instances, we would like add our voices to the ongoing dialog about lucid dreaming and the nature of dreaming itself.

Our analysis of our experiences leads us to concur with a theory of dreaming with which many people seem to be relatively unfamiliar: that dreams are created by employing our world-modeling abilities while we sleep to try to make sense of whatever cues happen to reach our awareness.  This idea has been discussed by such authorities as the psychologist Robert Ornstein and lucid dreaming researcher Stephen LaBerge.  It rests on a much older idea of our brains as active participants in the creation of our perceptions of reality, as described in detail in William James' 1890 work Principles of Psychology.  It also happens to mesh quite well with certain neurophysiological models of dreaming, such as the "activation-synthesis" hypothesis proposed by J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley, which maintains that dreaming represents the brain weaving together the random activity of neurons into as sensible a picture as it can manage.

I would like to briefly discuss a few implications of this "suggestion theory of dreaming," how it explains a wide range of observations about both lucid dreams and ordinary dreams, and why we believe that it holds the promise of unifying the strengths of diverse other approaches to dreaming.  I will then use whatever time remains to answer a few questions you might have.

In the correspondence between Janice, Ruth and myself that I mentioned, the three of us shared our lucid experiences and proposed experiments for each other to try in our dreams.  Ultimately, we managed to perform a wide range of such experiments, which we had either read about or thought up ourselves as we progressed in our explorations.  With practice we were all able to make specific objects, scenes, or characters appear and disappear, and to alter these images in accordance with our wishes and expectations.  Ruth enjoyed creating dream cats to pet, walking through mirrors, or swimming in pools of water for instance.  I was interested in showing that my dreams weren't real by doing such things as jumping through ceilings, manipulating supposedly solid objects such as when bending cars with my bare hands or throwing furniture around, and even popping the heads off dream characters.  Janice enjoyed summoning dream horses to ride, and long before we did our experiments together she created a lucid dream soap opera, complete with recurrent characters and scenes and a convoluted plot which continued from dream to dream over a number of years.

The fact that lucid dreamers can achieve such high levels of control suggests that the idea that dreams are created by some unconscious process for a specific and predetermined purpose is incorrect.  Since lucid dreams respond so readily to our thoughts, emotions and expectations, we probably have much the same ability to influence our ordinary dreams as we do our lucid dreams, and therefore create our own dreams from moment to moment as we dream them.

Typically, we are not reflective enough to realize that we are dreaming while we are dreaming.  We lack lucidity.  The altered physiology and neurochemistry of sleep cause us to lose touch not only with the external environment, since sensory input is mostly cut off, but also, in large measure, with our own recent waking memories.  We typically experience a deficit of the neurotransmitters that are believed to support critical thinking, attentional, and memory storage functions, since the neurons that produce these neurotransmitters drastically reduce their output during sleep.  So it is very difficult for us to realize where we are and what we are really doing.  We may even forget who we are.

Yet we usually continue to try to think and act as if what is happening to us is real, just as we do in waking.  Why?  Because that is what our brains are designed and trained to do.  In sleep the brain relies on remembered perceptions to build a virtual world that more or less satisfies our expectations.  We simply do not normally have the mental wherewithal while dreaming to recognize it for the charade it is, even though dreams can be unrealistic and bizarre.  So any number of impromptu rationalizations and false memories concerning who we are and what we are doing can pop into our heads.  We imagine that all sorts of improbable scenarios arising from our thoughts, memories and other suggestion factors are real, and interact with them accordingly, perpetuating our own illusions.

The reverse of the coin is that once we realize that we are, in fact, dreaming, we can do things in our dreams that we would not otherwise consider doing.  With lucidity, we can learn a new set of skills to respond to dreaming as a series of unique experiences, different than waking.  Instead of rationalizing and confabulating to account for our presence in random scenarios, we can improvise scenarios of our own choosing.   And we can learn to control our thoughts, emotions and expectations to produce desired objects, characters and scenes.  Such skills merely extend the control that we all have, to whatever extent, over the course of our dreams, since dream events respond to the way we interpret and react to them as they unfold.

If we all do in fact shape our own dreams in this fashion, we are almost certainly employing the same abilities we learn in waking to perceive, interpret, and act in the real world, our world-modeling abilities.  These perceptual abilities are honed by processing waking experiences, from which we create detailed mental maps of the world.  The result is that we can put together complex mental pictures from minimal sensory information, often from the merest of cues.

Dreaming would seem to be largely the result of our rather attenuated sleeping awareness attempting to structure unrelated cues into a semi-coherent picture.  Rather than the sensory cues that we rely on so heavily when awake, our perceptual abilities appear to latch onto almost anything while we are asleep.  Such suggestion factors may include sensory intrusions from time to time, as when the barking of a dog in the waking world is misperceived as the crying of a baby in a dream, for instance.  Fragments of recent memories, unarticulated wishes and motivations, inner conflicts, inspirations and so on may all suggest dream scenarios, as maintained by some better-known theories of dreaming.  But mostly it seems that we shape dream content with our thoughts, feelings, expectations, habits, associations, and choices of behavior while we are dreaming, about what we are dreaming.  This is of course what enables the intentional dream control I have mentioned, as well as the objectification of mental processes into dream metaphors.
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