The term "Virtual Reality" has been thrown around in culture since at least 1935. The technology itself really began to take conceptual shape between 1970 and 1990, with actual virtual reality equipment being released to the general public in the 90's. It would seem that the technology has now been, if not perfected, at least fully realized in the form of PlayStation VR, Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard. In addition to this, movie series like "The Matrix" along with various modern theories on the nature of the universe have us convinced that reality itself, as we know it, could very well be some holographic computer simulation. However, it turns out that we, as humans, have access to one of the most sophisticated virtual reality universe simulators in existence: the brain. In addition to managing any and all of our involuntary bodily functions, the brain is also constantly absorbing a vast amount of data from the environment. There is no way for our conscious minds to be fully aware everything being observed and recorded by the brain, which is why it's safe to say that we live in a self-created reality simulation, even in a waking state. The fun part is when we close our eyes for the purpose of silencing the consciousness and allowing our brain and body to work in tandem to diagnose and repair each other. The importance of sleep is well documented and considered a fact of life, there is an aspect of what happens while we are sleeping which is often overlooked and seldom mentioned: Dreaming.
What is Dreaming?
There are multiple schools of thought on the subject of dreaming, theories range from attempts to explain why we dream, whether or not we always dream, and questions about possible biological functions which might be served by dreaming. In reality, there does not appear to be any universally accepted definition of dreaming. The lack of solid scientific information regarding dreaming makes this phenomena one of the rare things in life that puts the dreamer, the individual who's brain has generated the dream, in the most knowledgeable position regarding the nature of their dreams. The safest scientific definition regarding dreams is: “all perceptions, thoughts, or emotions experienced during sleep.” Again, this puts dreaming in an extremely unique category of the human experience, because whether or not we choose to discuss our dreams, at one point or another every human has experienced at least one. Whether it be simple or complex, singular or recurring, nightmare or wish fulfillment scenario, dreaming is a universal human experience. During this experience, our consciousness is projected into a universe of our own design. When we are unaware of the fact that we are dreaming, many believe that there is a symbolic meaning behind every detail within the dream, while others believe that dreams are just a conscious interpretation of the various processes taking place within the brain during sleep. However, beyond attempting to find meaning in a process which takes place without our conscious involvement, there are those individuals who attempt to harness the dreaming process with the conscious mind. This is called lucid dreaming, and whether or not this type of dream is experienced universally, it occurs often enough for us to know it is very possible.
The Facts on Lucid Dreaming
Lucid dreaming is characterized by the dreamer becoming aware of the fact that they are dreaming, and possibly being able to exert some degree of control over the narrative, characters and environment of the dream. The act of lucid dreaming has been mentioned as far back as ancient Greece, it has been practiced by ancient Hindus and the early Buddhists. Since it's practice in the ancient world, various scientists and philosophers have cited the practice over the centuries. The term "Lucid Dream" was coined by Dutch psychologist and writer, Frederick Van Eeden, in his 1913 article "A Study of Dreams."
In recent history there have been a multitude of studies related to Lucid Dreaming, many of which indicate there is a definite therapeutic benefit to the practice, though some argue that there are just as many potential negatives. Some find that while they become lucid within their dreams, they are unable to exert any conscious control over the dream world itself, and they find this experience terrifying. In addition to this, many find the process of training themselves to lucid dream can become cumbersome during their daily activities, and can interrupt sleep patterns. Regardless of the consequences, it is obvious that this is a very real phenomena and it’s therapeutic and entertainment potential should not be overlooked.
Lucid Dreaming and Health:
Physical and Mental Benefits
The most common practical benefit of Lucid Dreaming has been in the treatment of chronic nightmares. In many cases, the practice of learning the techniques necessary to master lucid dreaming appear to be just as effective in the treatment of nightmares as successfully initiating a lucid dream. Many individuals also claim to have worked out many major life issues through the practice. Some artists have claimed that through lucid dreaming, they have been able to fine tune their work, adding layers of depth and meaning. Lucid dreaming has also been reported to be effective in helping some individuals overcome the grief over a lost loved one. In addition to what has been reported, there are surely an innumerable amount of psychological benefits to be gleaned from mastering the art of lucid dreaming, the possibilities are as limitless as one's own imagination.
In addition to the various mental health elements associated with lucid dreaming, studies have also shown that there are a number of physical benefits as well. When one practices a physical skill during a dream, such as exercises like squats, an marked increase in one's skill level during waking life has been observed. In addition to this, the act of performing cardiovascular exercise while dreaming will increase the subjects heart rate. Apparently, there is correlation between how the brain processes dreamed action and actual physical activity. So, much like in "The Matrix," it is possible for one to train themselves in martial arts techniques within a self-generated dream sequence, and reap actual benefits from their practices. The implications of this process on personal growth are far reaching indeed.
Unlimited Entertainment Potential
As mentioned above, many breakthroughs have been made recently in virtual reality as an entertainment medium. There's has been an increase in the availability of video shot with 360 degree camera's, which makes for an extremely immersive viewing experience. The mind blowing thing is that within each one of us lies the ability to create and explore our own alternative universes, complete with narratives and characters we can lay out in advance. Using lucid dreaming, there is no need to await the production of a live action adaptation of our favorite books, we have the ability to bring life to the characters and situations in our own simulated reality. With the power of lucid dreaming at a person's fingertips, it is possible to provide oneself with interactive entertainment scenarios with near infinite diversity. Granted, inspiration can always be obtained through experiencing the creative work of other individuals, whether it be video games, books, movies, music or television shows. The real immersive experience, however, lies in taking full advantage of one's own dreamscape.
Where do I Sign Up?: Learning How to Lucid Dream
There are numerous methods by which one could learn how to initiate a lucid dream. Keeping a dream journal is one of the most commonly cited first steps on the road to lucid dreaming. This will help gain a better understanding of the mechanics of your dreams, identifying recurring elements, themes, and landscapes. A dream journal is also important should the dreamer be one who often forgets their dreams upon waking, providing a device through which the memory of one's dreams is clarified.
Another common method of achieving lucidity during a dream involves the use of "reality checks." Reality checks can be as simple as thinking to yourself, "am I dreaming, now?" at various times throughout the day. When this becomes habit, it should follow an individual into their dream world, allowing one to assess the reality of the world they are in. Beyond this simple question, there are more advanced reality checks one could come up with, to help identify the nature of the reality one is currently inhabiting. Within dreams, clock faces are seldom visible, and if visible they seldom keep accurate time. A good habit to develop as a reality check is to regularly check the time, but always do so twice, a couple of minutes apart, ensuring the clock is both visible and the time is consistent.
In addition to the techniques listed above, there are a multitude of other methods to initiating a lucid dream. If lucid dreaming seems like a technique that would add depth and meaning to your life, there is a wealth of information available online. The number of individuals who have published information on the science and practice of lucid dreaming are as many and varied as dreams themselves. Even if the prospect of personal growth through conscious dreaming seems hokey and awkward, it cannot be denied that the entertainment value alone is worth time and effort required to develop this into an ability which can be initiated at will.
The Dream World: A Philosophical Perspective
In today's society, the deeper philosophical perspective behind dreams seem to go largely overlooked. Many individuals, including scientists, entrepreneurs, artists and others, question the very nature of the reality in which we live. Theories have been advanced regarding the existence of alternate universes/realities. There are some who even advance the idea that the universe as we know it is nothing more than a complex holographic simulation. When pondering the fact that, within each and every one us, exists the power to at once both create and inhabit our own simulated reality, it should spark many questions.
Exactly how detailed and complex is the dream world? Comparatively speaking, what are the limits of the creative capacity of the brain, how much of the actual universe is it possible to replicate? The clock phenomena within dreams has been examined, does this indicate an inability for the brain to fill in the blanks with regards to time pieces? Or is this, perhaps, simply an inherent method by which we are all given the ability to achieve lucidity in the dream state? Whether or not the dream world ever achieves the attention it deserves, because of the questions it can be used to answer, it appears as though it will remain an immutable presence in our lives.