• Michael McMahon

Lucid Dreaming

Updated: 9 hours ago


This is a workshop about how lucid dreaming could help the philosophy of consciousness. Dreaming can further our understanding of free will compatibilism. Word on the street is that the brain is like a supercomputer. But such a device can work 24/7 while we’re asleep for a third of the day. Somehow there’s a conscious being who appears to be trapped inside the brain. If consciousness itself were epiphenomenal it’d never actually need to rest because it wouldn’t serve a function or use up energy. Sleep can be relaxing because it decouples us from our daily lives. The data of dreams allows the mind to be reflective or rueful. It could be the case that sleep can improve not only our memory but even our decision-making skills and intuition. Can our unconscious mind be larger than the conscious mind; as if what we’re seeing when we’re awake is holistically carved out of the unconscious to reflect reality? Dreams allow us to escape “collectivised” physical reality.

I view dreaming as being introspective. Dreams are solipsistic. So any flimsy dream characters we meet are ultimately projections of your own unconscious. To state the obvious no one else is conscious in a dream. We can easily identify consciousness by sheer contrast when we wake up. Otherwise they’d find it quite boring living inside one of your dreams! The subconscious must interpret and empathise with the behaviour of those actual people they’re based on. Our theory of mind improves with age. A dream could try to analyse our understanding of others and not just ourselves. In order to simulate them the unconscious would be forced to wonder how I think this particular person would respond if I were to do this or that. I might have woken up feeling a bit stressed or frustrated at someone’s behaviour in a dream only to realise it had no relevance to the current situation.

Maybe a dream character has a “copy and pasted” replica of our volition and intentionality but they’ve to work with different memories and strange beliefs. There are different stages to sleep. So perhaps sometimes it’s vice-versa where our memories are “cut” to be the same but with a changed volition. If our motivation and intentionality was modified then our dream character would think differently. That could help give rise to the random appearance of dreams. A dream ponders how would we act if we were in a situation with this set of circumstances? A particular dream doesn’t appear to have much long-term memory of our previous dreams while we’re sleeping. Thus every dream is distinct.

Dreams can be so mystifying that we’re left to wonder how we could have made them up on the spot. We’re usually oblivious throughout sleep and even a lucid dream can only ever take up a small fraction of it. That oblivion can be interpreted as a simulation of forward motion through time. Absolute nothingness is pure time! Sleep feels like it takes a few minutes even though it looks like hours on a clock. If we’re struggling to derive free will from determinism than a shortcut is to start from the polar opposite of determinism; anarchy.

Dreams can convey the absurdness of our immediate goals in the whole scheme of things. They can affect us as much as want them to. If we don’t like the message of a dream we can ignore it. We’re not conscious in a dream because time is flowing too fast. The more vivid a dream, the slower time passes. When time compresses to normal speed we can have a lucid dream. So sleep is like a longitudinal wave of compressions and rarefactions of time.

I’ve become an expert on my own interpretations so unfortunately that won’t mean anything if you’re not agreeing with the initial arguments! That’s fine and we can go our separate ways. I’m not trying to be a sleep evangelist. If however you do think that sleep is an encryption and were wondering what physics you might need to violate; I’m the guy you need! Sleep is nature’s natural drug supply. The difference is that only you can observe the effects.

If free will can change the direction of our body movements then it must be a force. Acceleration can be either a change in velocity (initiating or ending an action) or direction (perhaps similar to free won’t). Moreover our mindset changes as we age so whatever is causing free will would have to be continuously updated rather than it being endowed once at birth.

Are dreams an altered memory which is being revisited in the past tense? Or can they also be an unfiltered purge that’s being actively created by your current thoughts in the present tense? There must be trace amounts of the conscious mind remaining within the unconscious. They’re not completely separate. Are dream characters remembering “this is what happened and then what I did next was...”. Or are they thinking to themselves “this is what’s happening to me and so how will I act now”?

I usually have an intense memory of the dream during the following day. But an unexpected feature of my lucid dreams is that the experience can eventually become incomprehensible. This means that I often only have a very hazy memory of it after just a week or two. It’s like the experience is too different from the rest of my daily mindset and sense perception such that it doesn’t fully register in my long-term memory. The plot of the lucid dream is often too complicated and it can get lost over time. So some of it is simply ignored and involuntarily forgotten.

By definition dreams are personal and anecdotal. I can’t fully describe the content of my own lucid dreams to you. This would be in the same way that I can’t accurately explain my qualia of yellow. But obviously you yourself can repeat the experiment in your sleep. Do our emotions change passively during sleep as if we’re just watching an emotive movie? Or might it be that our own emotions are been involuntarily stimulated in a dream to forcefully make us feel a certain way? Studying dreams is a convenient profession as your work begins when you go to sleep! Sleeping is one of my unique talents!

From my experience of lucid conscious dreaming I’m truly convinced that dreams aren’t solely poetic or metaphoricaI. I don’t think sleep is just for rest. Could there be a process occurring during sleep which is being hidden from view? I guess that were knocked unconscious because there’s actually too much happening during sleep. So it’s not just out of lackadaisical boredom. When I first started having these strange dreams I went online to a “consult a physicist” website but they didn’t even reply to my suggestions!

The whims of dreams are mental experiments which are being evaluated by the unconscious mind. I contend that dreaming is an inbuilt, systematic process that’s central to how we come to have free will. The you that goes to sleep and the you that wakes up in the morning are discontinuous in time. As soon as I became self-aware in my first few lucid dreams I then started becoming lucid without even intending to. I think that my subconscious learned the general patterns in a way that I become lucid in a sporadic manner.

When I become conscious in a dream it’s viscerally, palpably apparent to me that I’m physically in an unreal reality that’s in a different location to where I first went to sleep. By that I mean outside of my usual location which is looking forwards in my head. It’s almost as if a dream is being viewed looking backwards behind your eye. The visual content is exceptionally intricate, though in a bizarre way. In fact it’s as bizarre as the narrative. Perhaps it’s sometimes the weird scenes that are actually guiding the narrative. The thought patterns of the unconscious disembodied dream are often intensely strange upon becoming lucid. I then eventually wake up back in my bed. I understand the anarchy only takes place during sleep. Waking reality is normal.

I don’t have lucid dreams on most nights. I just have carefree normal dreams or sometimes perhaps I merely have a good recall of the dream. And even when I become lucid it’s usually only lasts for under a minute. I just see pleasantly strange psychedelic shapes. Subsequently I experience a sensation of going at an immense speed before I open my eyes to see my room again. Now when I think more about that sensation it’s not like I’m “flying” per se but that I’m somehow in the same spatial position but flying through time in order to close the dream.

Other times the content is plain random and trivial like seeing scattered furniture in a room. There was an instance where it felt like I was in my kitchen about to grab a cereal when I sensed these rats running behind me and I woke up instantly. Or one time I saw cats mindlessly playing with wool. It seems as if I can kind of rotate or be pulled around until I can feel my hands and eyelids again. Even ordinary dreams are intrinsically psychotic. So it follows that the more lucid you become the more bizarre an experience you’ll have. In spite of the nonsensical thoughts it could still be perceived as valid by the dreaming mind. It’s taken at face value. An instance of this would be where I was looking at shadowy boulder and for some reason imagining to myself about a huge landmass being dragged out to sea. Next thing I’d a sensation of accelerating under its depths. The blackness of the background resembled a bottomless ocean. Fortunately it was fleeting and I woke up soon after. But the outlandish memory and apparent enormity of the perceived physical environment was quite nerve-wracking. This is all the more so when we expect to be relaxed and rested during sleep. A lucid dream can be scary in the way it catches you off guard.

But I’m age 25 now and started lucid dreaming 5 or 6 years ago. Things were just heading in that direction! So in that time there’ve been rare instances where I’d very long-lasting nightmarish lucid dreams. I’d get into bed and go asleep. A short while later I’d be awoken inside the dream. Awkward silence! The scenes would often be very morbid. I’m not sure what a suitable verb would be! But I could be floating bodilessly and seeing creepy objects scattered as far as the eye can see. In one lucid dream my unconscious mind somehow hallucinated what appeared to be a series of vivid explosions. It was painless but the timed detonations served to jolt me out of the dream like an alarm clock. What was uncanny about it was that I had a premonition of what was about to happen seeing as it was my very own unconscious that created the scene. My point of view was alternating between a rigged platform that I could see outside of myself and then my dream character on an incoming carriage. Everyone around me looked unresponsive and motionless while my dream character was becoming increasingly self-aware. Before long my fellow passengers were in smithereens. All I could hear myself thinking was a jumbled and inane version of the ideas I had over a day or two previously. The scene collapsed and I then woke up as usual. Thankfully I never have too many nightmares. I’m obviously very self-aware that it’s only a dream and not the real world!

Despite the occasionally gross content I kept pursuing lucid dreaming out of curiosity and novelty. The unbelievably messed-up beliefs that a dream character often holds has served to alert me to a strange divide between the conscious and unconscious mind. I found out that the unconscious was far more mysterious in nature than I’d ever suspected before I first had lucid dreams. I read about lucid dreaming in a magazine article when I was around age 18. I was intrigued but initially I assumed it was just something like having a vague perception of the dream contents. Yet for me lucid dreams turned out to be opposite of what I expected where it wasn’t muffled colours but actually exceedingly bright hues and inordinately complex imagery.

What shocked me is that the scenes were beyond the capacity of what my own mind could have made up. This is all the more true when the resting mind is usually viewed as merely lethargic. From my point of view it was far too illogical for it to be made only out of the apathy of my mind. Dreams are like our own version of a Boltzmann brain that you created out of the chaos of your unconscious. If you were a self-aware Boltzmann brain, you couldn’t falsify it because the hallucinations within your consciousness are circular.

Some dreams seemed methodical in how it was set up even though the resultant thoughts became indecipherable and chaotic. In fact one or two lucid dreams appeared so flagrantly violent in their themes that I was sometimes left baffled as to the origin of dreams. Then again I suspect a process that could possibly give rise to free will by “adjusting” certain laws of physics probably could turn violent on occasion!

Weird nightmare: “If their dead bodies are in the wardrobe then who the hell were those imposters that I was just speaking to in the kitchen?”! The dream character answered that question by saying the figures in a painting had got out and taken their place. It obviously wasn’t what I was thinking but that was my memory of the dream when I woke up straight afterwards. That’s how psychotic a lucid dream could become. It’s hard to think the simple passivity of my unconscious would be able to concoct such an unimaginable sequence of events. Dreams are effortless to create but they somehow become extremely complicated very fast. I think the convoluted essence of dreams helps to knock us unconscious. It’s like a movie where we can’t keep up with what’s happening. We lose track and then we zone out. My descriptions can’t really do justice to how horrifyingly bizarre the dream character’s experience descended into during two or three dreams. Thankfully a consolation is that it was so delusional it was manifestly fake.

I might as well mention another nightmare now that I’m at it. It’s important to state that I hardly ever have nightmares and many dreams I have are unintelligible and forgettable. Some are very pleasant and even meditative or spiritual in their calmness. I’m not trying begin a list of macho dreams but when you’ve been paying attention to your sleep for many years then you’re bound to find a few oddballs. Also note that we’re never responsible for the actions of a dream character. We’ve no control over it. Anyway it will be of no consequence as no one literally gets hurt inside your own dream! Another point is that there’s a wide spectrum of lucidity where it might feel like you’re able to memorise some of what’s happening but not fully self-aware; more than a vivid dream but not fully conscious. It’d be like you’re 60% conscious. In this particular dream I was at a cinema complex. There were many screens. My dream character went to one showing a violent movie. He stayed for a while before gleefully visiting a few other screens afterwards in search of more horror. He’d stay in each one very briefly until he became distressed and then moved on to another cinema to watch more gore. I can’t remember what the exact content was. But what was strange about it was that it seemed like his reward system was altered. I’d never seek out these scary movies but the dream character was emotionally different to me. That’s what caught my attention about that dream which I had several years ago. If a dream is very unique we can have a memory of it long afterwards.

I’ve noticed that an ordinary dream that isn’t lucid can still potentially be unsettling. It can be disorienting if you’ve an intense memory of it after you wake up. Luckily this is very rare for me. But an example of such a dream would be where I got lost in a forest. I never became lucid. It felt like my dream character was a young child. I suppose a dream doesn’t have to be your current age. But when I woke up the recollection of the unnatural contrast between the colour of the vivid green leaves and the dark trunks of the trees left me feeling a bit disconcerted. Even though the dream was completely innocuous, the eerie peculiarity of the sensations could nonetheless throw you off balance. The memory of the dream character feeling worried can be intense despite the fact it wasn’t you and you’d no control over it. The way your representative dream character doesn’t always seem to be where your center of vision is located could be unnerving. The odd time in the past I might have gotten a headache after waking up if the dream was very vivid.

A lucid dream can make you feel stressed by a feeling of an implied threat without there actually being a threat. Thankfully that stress can help to get you out of the dream. I can recount a dream where I was in my kitchen and saw a dog only to realise it wasn’t my dog. It looked angry. I went running out the front door. The fear of it froze me. I was shocked into waking up for real. Sometimes a lucid dream would only produce a mishmash of stationary images rather than a flowing dream. Within the jitter of deep sleep I once concocted what seemed to be the outline of a mystical-looking animal mid-leap. We can fabricate an image by freezing the phosphenes against our eyelids.

Nightmares can be scary. But they can be counterintuitively enlightening. The sinister content of a nightmare is outside of our control and utterly random. The creepy sequence of events might have absolutely nothing to do with our thoughts and emotions during the past few days. The details of the nightmare won’t pan out in future real life. Nonetheless the sheer contrast between dreams and reality underscores just how genuinely real the waking world is! So lucid dreams can paradoxically strengthen your resilience to feelings of anxiety. A lucid dream can highlight the fakeness of dreams. If you’re a skeptic who doubts the reality of the world, all you have to do is juxtapose your experience with the surrealness of dreams. It emphasises how much more complex information is in the real world compared to what your unconscious dream can muster.

In this thread I try to reconcile my experience with scientific speculations. I’m not sure how accurate or inaccurate my explanations might turn out to be. But there’s definitely far more to sleep than meets the eye. I think we’re so used to daily routines and getting organised that some people essentially become cognitively closed to the mysterious and psychotic realm of sleep.

Consciousness takes a different form in a lucid dream. I can’t control any of the content of what I’m seeing and even the thoughts that occur to me inside the dream are sometimes outside of my control. It’s like we don’t have free will in a dream. Twice I’ve had to ignore gibberish thoughts entering into my consciousness until I’m able to wake up. A dream character is like a soliloquy.

The nightmarish, hallucinatory ghosts of the uncanny valley stare at you as if to say: “Go back to sleep; you’ve woken up at the wrong time!” Are your dream characters deterministic? Can the unconscious mind leave identifiers and indicators of unreality as a warning sign that you’re in a dream? The unconscious mind seems to know what will happen in a dream even though our conscious mind is left in the dark. I can recall a dream where I climbed through a hidden passage in a wall and passed by people going down a stairs in what seemed like a shopping centre. A thought popped into my head that these people weren’t conscious but I didn’t think about it and kept walking on in a blasé manner. I gradually started to feel fear but I soon felt a stinging pain in my back and I woke up. Of all my weird lucid dreams that one was probably the strangest. Many months later I’d a dream with a similar theme. The colours of this dream were different; everything seemed to be black and white. Around me were these pale figures. I desperately started trying to rotate my vision in order to leave the dream. I just remember being baffled and saying hello in my mind’s eye. I got no reply! It felt like my mind was being flung upwards and I navigated my way past some false awakenings in order to climb back into reality. In that specific false awakening the room looked old-fashioned; as if it were one of those canopy beds in a black room. If dreams are biological and our nervous system is genetically built, then maybe the symbols used in a dream have overlap with previous generations. Our minds aren’t inside our feet but we can feel them by nerve connections. Our visual perception of our very own body is inside the brain. Therefore can the mind use our subjective sense of vision to move our body? You wouldn’t see my vision moving my body because we’ve separate internal visions.

Dreaming is the physical reification of sarcasm itself. They can serve as a parody of ourselves. The oneiric self-effacing jokes are always on us. The silliness of some dreams can merely be the unconscious telling us what not to do. The fatigue of sleep acts just like an anaesthetic to dull our awareness during the operation of dreams.

The hard data is that there’s approximately 8 hours between sleep onset and morning that’s utterly unaccounted for. We desert the laws of physics and go AWOL while we’re asleep. Our imagination is liberating. The experience is then erased from memory each morning. Afterwards we’re left to ponder where free will comes from.

In the hyperlinked thread I draw parallels between dreaming and encrypting. The visual content of the dream such as dream characters, objects and surroundings all behave like decoys. They can be distracting. The strangeness of it confuses, overwhelms and overrides our customary logical reasoning. Dreams actively faze us into remaining unconscious. The unrealistic dream storyline functions as a deceptive diversion to prevent meta-awareness in the dream.

In some semi-lucid dreams it seems to me as if the dream character is being tricked into remaining unconscious. To give an instance of this my dream character became confused by the inconsistencies and started trying to record the changing scenes on an imagined phone or computer and failed to realise he was in a dream. Much has been made of Freud’s sexual analysis of dreams and on some recreational lucid dreaming sites they even mention “dream sex”. I can only speak for myself but if there was ever any sexual content in my dream it was only displayed in a very confused and extremely incoherent manner. If anything I got the impression that hedonistic impulses in a dream can be there to distract you by lulling you back unconscious.

Could the brain be a type of time machine? The irony is that if cold determinism is true, then there’s nothing scientifically contradictory about jumping into the future. Consequently our feeling of free will would be caused by temporal factors rather than material or spatial coordinate planes. The physical future and the actions of other people would be the same regardless of your location in time. Causal loops would only happen if one in turn travels back in time after already having traveled to the future. It wouldn’t affect the logical consistency of one-way time travel. Other minds exist in timelines that are causally unconnected to your own. If some of our thoughts are deterministic, then could those same thought patterns be computationally accelerated during sleep?

I think sleep is instantaneous in time from the perspective of your own consciousness. Vivid dreaming subjectively slows down this leap through time. So we’re sleeping into the future! These “open dreamlike curves” create some disorder which can help us be more uninhibited. Physical objects have an eternal past, present and future whereas consciousness only exists in the present moment. During sleep we lose our feeling of the present. Thus pure presentism implies an increased rate of time during sleep.

Although a limitation is it leaves no physical evidence of ever having happened. Another caveat is that a dream might not be able to precognitively simulate your future in the entire universe. But it can hopefully predict your how your own mood and emotional state of mind will respond when any similar events reoccur in the future. Apologies to anyone who thinks I’m scapegoating precognition just to promote my own theories! To fully understand dreams we’d need to know the solution to the mind body problem.

A risk of lucid dreaming is that it can make you feel tired in the morning and occasionally hard to get out of bed. People might of thought I was relaxing by sleeping in and not realising that I was in fact busy at work! The content is usually safe but it can infrequently be disturbing. For anyone unaccustomed to lucidity it can be unsettling at first to have a feeling of temporal continuity between a freakish dream and waking up. If you were sensitive it could make you feel like your perception is different from before you had went to bed or that your entire memory is fake and was just created when you awoke. There’s a slight chance of disorientation. You can already feel half awake in a dream before you wake in your room. It doesn’t even have to take the form of a false awakening in a dream for it to be confusing. It can be eerie if you feel yourself breathing when you enter a lucid dream soon after falling asleep or as you’re getting out of a dream to awaken. I sometimes try to wake up as quickly as I can instead of prolonging the dream if I feel fatigued. In all my lucid dreams so far I’ve awoken immediately after the lucid dream instead of falling back asleep unconscious during a lucid dream. There’s also a risk of an irregular sleeping pattern where you either don’t feel tired at night or you suddenly feel very sleepy. Once you have one lucid dream it might be difficult to stop. In conclusion, the personal value of any dream in particular can be open-ended and subjective. It won’t tell you what the intended meaning and significance of the content is. A dream is like modern art where the onus is on you to interpret it as best you can and learn what you can from it. Just like art some dreams will appeal to you and others won’t. So long as you’ve taken the time to analyse it then it doesn’t have to be true for others but only yourself and your own motivation. If a dream isn’t physically real then it follows that thinking about a dream after you wake up no matter how little you remember will still contribute to your free will. It’s not just the dream itself but also your response to it during the day that also counts. Dreams can be psychotic but equally your feeling of freely opening and closing your own hand could be deemed a psychotic illusion! I suspect the reason lucid dreaming isn’t more common is that sleep can still achieve its function without lucidity. Whenever future generations finally solve consciousness and dreams, it will have probably required drastic ideas.

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

-Mark Twain

Postmodern conspiratorial music to get you in the right mindset:

Maybe dreams are electric!

What do animals dream about? What even is animal consciousness for that matter? Maybe a fox doesn’t dream because the life of a fox is itself a dream of disreality and nonrationality from which they never wake. The evolutionary pain of us humans have shocked us into becoming lucid and self-aware.


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