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Lucid Dreams

by Dr Keith Hearne(more info)

listed in mind matters, originally published in issue 40 - May 1999

A 'lucid' dream is one in which you suddenly become perfectly aware – while still asleep and dreaming – that you are actually dreaming. It's more than just a vivid dream, it's like being awake, yet knowing that all the scenery is 'fake' and that the very 'real' characters (who converse sensibly with you), are also constructions of your own mind.

Ocular signals from a person in a Lucid Dream

It can be a startling experience, especially the first time, to find yourself in a world of inner creation which is so detailed, with its own consistent logic and physics – different from the world of waking existence.

The realisation of dreaming usually comes about as a result of noticing some glaring inconsistency in the dream scenery. Normally, in dreams, our 'common sense' is absent. We observe ludicrous scenes, say, of a talking cat, and yet we accept it virtually without question.

However, sometimes a scene is so clearly unlikely or impossible – such as seeing someone whom we know to be dead – that the thought occurs that the only explanation is that it is a dream.

This stopped picture, from an amusing hypnotic dream, was obtained using Hearne's hypno-oneirography technique. The subject, Chrissy, was seeing Dr Hearne as a tiger in a Rousseau-like Setting.

This stopped picture, from an amusing hypnotic dream, was obtained using Hearne's hypno-oneirography technique.
The subject, Chrissy, was seeing Dr Hearne as a tiger in a Rousseau-like Setting.

At that point a transformation occurs, as if all the memory circuits of wakefulness have switched on. The paradoxical situation then arises of being conscious yet within a dream.

Another main characteristic of lucid dreaming is that the dreamer can control the events and settings in the dream by mere thought. Essentially, what you think, you will then dream. Thus, you can fly, select a new location, or conjure up a specific person (perhaps by finding a door and 'willing' that person to come through the door). It is intriguing that we behave like ghosts in dreams – we can walk through walls. 'Gravity' in dreams is like that on the moon. We float gently down to earth from a height.

In the 1970s, the topic of lucid dreaming was somewhat esoteric. I came across Celia Green's book Lucid Dreams, and was instantly enthralled. It was not known then whether lucid dreams were real dreams occurring in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep or were some form of waking imagery.

I began to plan experiments. My thinking was that it should be possible to signal out information from within the lucid dream state. The big problem, though, was that in REM sleep the body is profoundly paralysed (some people continue to experience that paralysis for several seconds upon waking). The phenomenon is probably designed to prevent us acting out our dreams. However, a subject could not even press a micro-switch in REM sleep.

The idea struck me one day that volitional eye-movements should be possible because, after all, dreaming sleep is termed REM sleep. In the sleep laboratory at the University of Hull, I wired up a subject who had fairly frequent lucid dreams, with the instructions to make a series of eight left-right ocular movements on becoming aware of dreaming.

On the morning of 12th April 1975, I was incredulous when the eye-movement tracings in the chart-recording of the subject (in indubitable Stage REM sleep) made a series of such left-right excursions. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment of discovery and seemed like receiving signals from another solar system. A channel of communication had been established from within the lucid dream to the outside world.

Philosophically it was mind-blowing. Here was a person who was asleep and 'unconscious', yet in his own vivid reality, signalling to some other 'dream world', which was my waking reality. My signalling discovery was conveyed to sleep researchers at Stanford and Chicago universities in 1975.

I completed my current research at Hull, then moved to Liverpool University to conduct detailed sleep-laboratory research into lucid dreams. After three years many discoveries had been made. Lucid dreams were clearly genuine dreams associated with REM sleep and lucidity was found, invariably, to appear after a REM burst. Subjects could 'mark' events in the lucid dream by coded eye signals, and the sequence of signalled events corresponded in estimated duration with the waking report. This technique showed that dreams operate in real time (they are not over 'in a flash' – a common misconception). Many other such new findings presented themselves.

At that time I invented and patented the first 'dream machine' – a device which detected the increased breathing rate of REM sleep and could then perform several functions, including: increasing dream recall by waking the user in REM, interrupting nightmares, and experimentally inducing lucidity by providing pulses to the wrist (the pulses provide a 'cue' to the dreamer without causing waking).

Another discovery was the light-switch phenomenon in lucid (and ordinary) dreams. If you try to switch on a light in the dream scenery, it doesn't work. The effect was confirmed by giving the task to lucid dreamers, all over the country, to perform. There is some kind of physiologically-set ceiling limit on imagery 'brightness' at any one time and attempts – using dream control – to exceed that current level lead to the dream-producing-process giving a 'reason' why it can't happen. Thus, the bulb may appear to have 'fused', or the switch might be 'faulty'. Consistent anomalies like this are revealing important truths about the nature of dreams.

Such effects cannot be 'interpreted'. A Jungian might assert the metaphor of 'not being able to see the light' and a Freudian might link the inability with impotence, but they would both be wrong – the light-switch effect represents a basic limitation in dream construction.

There is a fascinating state that is related to lucid dreaming – the 'false-awakening'. It may sometimes immediately follow a lucid dream, or can happen independently. What happens is that you dream that you are awake. There is the full critical awareness of wakefulness and lucidity, and the dream scenery (usually your bedroom) can be totally accurate in every way. Eventually something happens that makes you realise it is a dream.

Converting Nightmares to Lucid Dreams

I have devised a technique (Hearne, 1993), which is proving to be extremely effective, for helping frequent nightmare sufferers. The method converts nightmares into pleasant lucid dreams. Firstly, though, there are two types of nightmare experience – each associated with the two basic states of sleep, Slow Wave Sleep (SWS) and REM (associated with dreaming). These two states alternate in a roughly 90 minute cycle. Some 96% of nightmares are true nightmare dreams occurring in REM sleep, while about 4% happen in SWS and are termed 'night terrors' or pavor nocturnus.

Interestingly, my own research into REM nightmares (Hearne, 1991) has shown that they occur, overwhelmingly, in the first half of the night's sleep. That's odd, because they should, like lucid dreams, occur mostly in the second half of the night, when there is much more REM sleep. It seems then that, like the SWS type, REM nightmares are triggered by some sensitivity early in the sleep period. Indeed, a personality assessment that I conducted showed typical REM nightmare sufferers tended to be: emotional, apprehensive, tense, undisciplined and self-sufficient. Nightmare sufferers are generally jumpy people.

With night terrors, the person awakes suddenly, often in great fright and screaming, but typically there is no dream activity reported. Interestingly, the individual usually has no recall of the episode in the morning. It is of concern only to those around. There are no physiological indicators that the night terror is about to happen.

Sometimes, a sudden noise (like an electrical system clicking on or off) can precipitate a SWS nightmare, and I have suggested that for sensitive people, ear-plugs could be worn, or white noise or music could be played during sleep to mask any sudden sounds.

The vast majority of nightmares are frightening REM dreams. Quite a lot of people suffer from them. Surveys indicate that perhaps a million people in Britain experience nightmares at a frequency of two or more a week. Physiological measures start to increase perhaps several minutes before waking. Heart rate and breathing rate climb steadily until the sufferer wakes in a state of great anxiety. Not surprisingly, some nightmare sufferers develop a distinct fear of going to sleep because of the certainty of waking in such an unpleasant state.

It has not really been possible to deal with nightmares medically, but now a simple self-help method is available. I noticed that most frequent nightmare sufferers report that a familiar dream situation occurs that triggers the thought in the dream, "Oh my god, here's the nightmare". Now that is guaranteed to bring on the nightmare. As was mentioned earlier, any thought in a dream brings about supporting imagery. The mad axeman appears immediately of course – he was summoned by the dreamer.

What nightmare sufferers need to do is simply to change their mind-set from "Oh my god here's the nightmare" to "Great! Wonderful! Here's the nightmare. That means I'm dreaming, and I know I can control my dreams!" The new thoughts can be practised a few times during the day, and before sleep (hypnosis can potentiate the attitude-shift). What happens is remarkable. The dreamer's whole way of thinking concerning the situation is turned around.

Should the mad axeman appear, the realisation of dreaming makes it easy and almost comical to deal with him. One method is to point your fingers at him and imagine laser-beams emanating from them. He will be 'zapped' because you've directed that to happen, and then – with a sense of supreme mastery – you can 'will' yourself to a new situation of your choice. One method is 'cover' your (dream) eyes, and think strongly of a place where you'd like to be. You then 'open' your eyes and find yourself there – it might be a desert island or wherever you want.

Frequent nightmare sufferers are lucky in a sense because having a frequent and consistent reminder of being in a dream can be used as a stepping stone to lucidity and dream control. What might start as being chased by a 'thing' in the woods can transform to flying effortlessly through a beautiful landscape, say, or making love with one's current film-star idol. Many people now can't wait for their next 'nightmare'.

Lucid Potential

We can really make important use of lucid dreams in a number of ways. From a self-therapy point of view, the sheer exhilaration and beauty of lucid dreams can lift one's mood and banish stress. Their recreational value is immense. We can revel in our own in-built virtual reality system. An exciting dream can 'make your day' as we all know, and if you can find yourself – with full awareness – gliding with arms outstretched above the grand-canyon half an hour before sitting on the train with the grim-faced commuters, you will retain a certain residual feeling of happiness, that will probably show for hours.

Another area of great promise is to exploit the creativity of lucid dreams so as to enhance one's own creativity. This will be a boon to artists, designers, composers, architects – and scientists too. Many significant scientific discoveries and artistic creations have come directly from dreams. Elias Howe perfected the sewing machine after a dream showed him the answer to a problem that had been blocking its development. One man, Otto Loewi, obtained a Nobel prize for discovering the chemical conduction of nerves as the result of being shown an experiment in a dream. There are hundreds of other such cases.

The great composers often dreamed music and many writers have simply described situations that that they encountered in dreams. Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was generated in a dream. Artists have seen original works and re-created them in wakefulness, and poets like Masefield have read poems in dreams and written them on waking. There is no doubt that the unusual linking of ideas that occurs naturally in dreams can be utilised profitably. For the creative person who is a lucid dreamer, situations of originality can be specifically set up – say visiting an art gallery, concert hall, or futuristic planet – and new creations from those places can be harvested in wakefulness.

For those who are disabled or incarcerated, lucid dreaming provides a wonderful escape to a world that is bright and vibrant – where all things are possible.

Inducing Lucidity

How is dream lucidity attained? Different techniques work for different people. For some, simply having read this article will be enough to enable the recognition of an incongruity in a dream, so causing awareness of dreaming. Reading fuller background material, especially books on the topic, will also aid that process. Keeping a dream diary is particularly helpful because it increases your dream recall and focuses attention on dreams.

Another technique is to ask yourself many times in the day whether or not you are dreaming. This practice effect will increase the likelihood of you asking the same question during a dream.

I devised a method with the acronym of F.A.S.T. (False-Awakening with State Testing), which is successful for some people. You need an assistant who will come into your bedroom and go out again every half-hour or so after 6 am (when you will be experiencing much REM sleep). The assistant simply enters, potters around for a minute, says a few things and leaves.

Expectation is a powerful psychological effect and your unconscious will be anticipating the visits. In some, that expectation will act as an instruction for a dream in which the person enters the bedroom. The dream will in fact be a false-awakening and may be extremely life-like.

If you religiously and automatically carry out a series of 'state-testing' behaviours whenever you think someone has come in – even if you are absolutely certain that you are awake – there will come an occasion when you discover to your astonishment that you are dreaming.

The sort of tests to conduct are: switching on a light, attempting to float, listening for sounds that should or should not be present, attempting to press your hand through a wall. Any anomaly must be taken as an indicator of dreaming. A final test might be to jump off a chair. If you float down, you are obviously dreaming.

Then, you can 'will' yourself elsewhere or simply amaze yourself by inspecting, with conscious insight – although asleep – the intricate details of the scenery. After, perhaps seconds or minutes, you will awake or drift into an ordinary dream.

Lucid dreaming is a remarkable untapped resource in humans. It is a unique condition in which the full power of our imaging ability – across all the senses – is employed to produce scenarios that we can consciously direct to happen. However, with the additional super-component of the infinitely knowledgeable and wise unconscious, the future possibilities of the state may be found to be nothing less than incredible.


Dr Hearne discovered a special technique for externalising the internal imagery of hypnotic dreams (‘hypno-oneirography’). The hypnotised subject is instructed to dream on a particular topic. On command, the dream is stopped at any point. The subject is told to ‘freeze-frame’ the scene, open their eyes, and ‘project’ the picture onto a drawing board. The subject then physically traces the image that they continue to see. (Colours are described and filled-in later.) The procedure can be repeated many times, so that eventually, a whole sequence of still pictures illustrates, vividly, the course of the hypnotic dream.

Using the technique, Hearne discovered that at scene-changes, the new scene uses and re-arranges the pictorial elements and concepts of the previous picture, by a ‘law of least effort’.

Bibliography & Scientific Papers

Green, C. Lucid dreams. Institute for Psychophysical Research, Oxford. 1968.
Hearne, K. Lucid dreams – an electrophysiological & psychological study. PhD thesis, Dept. of Psychology, Univ of Liverpool. 1978. (Web-site :
Hearne, K. A light-switch phenomenon in lucid dreams. Journal of Mental Imagery, 5 (2), 97 – 100. 1981.
Hearne, K. Lucid dreams and ESP. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 51 (787), 7 – 11. 1981.
Hearne, K. Effects of performing certain set tasks in the lucid dream state. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 54, 259 – 62. 1982.
Hearne, K. A new perspective in dream imagery. Journal of Mental Imagery, 11 (2), 75 – 82. 1987.
Hearne, K. Visions of the future. The Aquarian Press, Wellingborough. 1989.
Hearne, K. The dream machine. The Aquarian Press, Wellingborough.1990.
Hearne, K. Hypnosis in the conversion of nightmares to lucid dreams. European Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 1, 12 – 17. 1993.
Hearne, K. & Melbourne, D. Understanding dreams. New Holland publishers, London. 1999.
Melbourne, D. & Hearne, K. Dream interpretation – the secret. Blandford Press, London. 1997.
Melbourne, D. & Hearne, K. The dream oracle. New Holland publishers, London. 1998.
Saint-Denys, Hervey de Dreams and how to guide them. Trans. Nicholas Fry, ed. M. Schatzman, Duckworth, London. 1982 ; orig. 1867.
Van Eeden, F. A study of dreams. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, XXVI (part LXVII), 431 – 61. 1913.


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About Dr Keith Hearne

Dr Keith Hearne (BSc MSc PhD) is an internationally known psychologist who conducted the world's first research into 'lucid' dreams for his PhD and invented the 'dream machine'. He has published many scientific papers and articles and is the Principal of both the College of Past Life Regression Studies (Tel: 0181 372 3124) and the European College of Hypnotherapy (Tel: 0956 825503 or 07071 228497). He is the author of several books, including The Dream Machine and Visions of the Future. Recently he has co-authored, with David Melbourne, Dream Interpretation – the Secret and The Dream Oracle. homepages/dreamthemes

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