In the Hollywood movie Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character (Dom Cobb) uses drugs and psychological profiling to induce certain dreams in people. Although dream control has often been part of science fiction and dreaming has been heavily researched by scientists, it turns out that dream control is possible – to an extent – outside the movies.
Scientific American ran a fascinating interview with Deirdre Barrett in summer 2010 in which she explains many aspects of dreaming, dream recall and dream control. (Read it here.)
Barrett is Assistant Clinical Professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists and Athletes Use Dreams for Creative Problem-Solving-and How You Can, Too.
She throws a lot of light on the process of dreaming even while explaining that much about our dreams remains poorly understood. She describes how to use techniques to control our dreams and what we dream about, how to better recall dreams and how to break into recurring nightmares to stop them. She also explains the use of dreams to solve problems, indicating how you can direct your dreaming brain to consider a problem you haven’t solved while awake and come up with a solution… I was going to say ‘you would never have dreamt of’ but let’s say ‘never have thought of’.
She also describes fascinating dream research and the use of emerging technologies to find out what sleepers are dreaming of. (Could be dangerous at home, that. “You dreaming of that damn blonde again Harry?”)
Many of us have perhaps wished we could break into a nightmare or use our dreams to solve problems or simply recall dreams that escape us in the morning. And sometimes we may want to dream about a certain event or person and find it impossible to do. There certainly seems to have been a lot of discussion this year about dreams, dream content and dream control.
That may explain why for the first time (that I can recall) I recently had what I think Deirdre Barrett would call a lucid dream. In other words, a dream in which I knew I was dreaming. Here’s what happened. I dreamt of my ex-husband. He ran off three years ago when he hit forty – bit of a cliché but it happens… – and I occasionally have a dream in which he figures. In this particular dream, he was standing by the door of what had been our bedroom, talking to me. We seemed to be getting along OK and then he suddenly said he was going out for a walk. I said something to him – I forget what – and then as I realised he was about to go I suddenly knew I was dreaming. It was most bizarre but, in the dream, I sprang out of bed towards him and said “I know you’re not really here. This is a dream.” I went to touch his chest, in a way to swat him out of the dream, or out of my sleep. He vanished like a bubble bursting and I woke up.
It was a really nice feeling. I had known I was dreaming!
Once I realised it was a dream, I was able to end it, ie. wake up. It certainly didn’t feel as if getting to that realisation was under my control though. It felt as though my daily understanding that he’s not around any more just broke through into the dream. My (semi-conscious?) brain knew he couldn’t really be seen in the bedroom by my dreaming brain, because he doesn’t live here any more.
I’ve occasionally dreamt of things I wanted to dream of but that didn’t feel like control either – just dreams that arbitrarily worked out whereas others didn’t. I’m sure I’ve had viable solutions to problems presented in my dreams too but I can’t recall specific problem-solving dreams.
One helpful technique I used successfully when young related more to sleeping than specifically to dreaming. I guess lots of people know this technique but, when revising for exams, my sister and I both used it to wake up really early to finish revising. The night before the exam you decide when you want to wake – say, 5am. (We neglected our revision….) You then bang your head on your pillow (not hard!) and say rhythmically “I must wake up at 5 o’clock, I must wake up at 5 o’clock, I must wake up at 5 o’clock, 5 o’clock in the morning.”
I have no idea why this works but it always did. We never woke up after the stated time, not even if it was 4.30 and we’d gone to sleep dog-tired at midnight. How the mind understands the instruction – let alone knows the time! – I have no idea.
Given the different levels of interplay between our conscious, waking state and the sleeping, dreaming brain I guess it makes sense that science will develop more ways of investigating and controlling – or letting us control – our sleep and our dreams. In the meantime, the Scientific American article gives a good insight into the current state of scientific knowledge and investigation of the ways in which we dream and the available techniques for controlling and recalling our dreams.