The Four Epochs of Lucidity: From Prophecy to Technology
For most of human history, lucid dreaming has been tightly coupled with mysticism. It’s only within the past few decades that lucid dreaming has emerged as a bonafide field of scientific inquiry, but progress was slow due to challenges with reliably inducing lucid dreams. In the past few years, however, our scientific understanding of lucid dreaming induction has advanced to the point that it is now possible to build technologies to not just induce but sustain lucid dream states.
Still there is a persistent notion that induced lucid dreaming is necessarily an unscientific endeavor. This is both factually inaccurate and ahistorical. The evolution of a mystical practice into an applied science is not unique lucid dreaming. We can see similar historical patterns in all the major branches of science. Alchemy preceded chemistry, astrology preceded astronomy, creationism preceded evolutionary biology, geomythology preceded geology, and so on.
But compared to chemistry, physics, or biology, the science of lucid dreaming is much younger. As a result, efforts to induce and stabilize lucid dreaming are frequently mischaracterized as pseudoscience. This misunderstanding has stymied progress on the development of lucid dreaming technologies that have the potential to revolutionize our understanding of consciousness. It’s time to set the record straight.
Here we have provided a brief overview of the scientific and technological history of lucid dreaming. This timeline is divided into four primary epochs spanning approximately 2,500 years of human history. Each epoch is characterized by the predominant mode of understanding lucid dreaming at the time: mysticism, observation, experimentation, and application. This history is not meant to be exhaustive. Instead, it serves as a map that the reader can use to better understand the past, present, and future of lucid dreaming science and technology.
EPOCH 1: MYSTICISM (~500 BCE - 1867)
Lucid dreaming has featured prominently in the texts of most major world religions. In many cases, religious leaders encouraged their followers to cultivate their lucid dreaming abilities as a path toward enlightenment or divine revelation, prefiguring modern efforts to induce lucid dreams with digital technologies.
The earliest known writing describing lucid dreaming is in the Upanishads, which are part of a collection of ancient Sanskrit texts known as the Vedas—the oldest known scriptures of Hinduism. The Upanishads are the first Hindu text to mention Yoga Nidra, also known as Yogic Sleep, which is a state comparable to lucid dreaming. Starting in the 8th century, this practice was famously refined by Tibetan Buddhists who developed sophisticated techniques for inducing yogic sleep. They described these dream control techniques for novice yogis in manuals so they could “realize the subjective nature of the dream state and, by extension, waking life as well.”
Although dreams figure prominently in The Bible, it makes no mention of lucid dreams in particular. The first Christian text to mention lucid dreaming was a dream report penned by Augustine of Hippo in 415 AD, who recounted two dreams experienced by a physician named Gennadius who doubted the existence of an afterlife. In the dreams, Gennadius encounters an angel and becomes aware that he is dreaming. The angel compares Gennadius’s experience of lucid dreaming to the experience of the afterlife and warns him against “harboring doubts as to whether the life of man shall continue after death."
In Islamic culture, lucid dreaming rose to prominence in the 12th century when the renowned Sufi mystic Ibn El-Arabi claimed to have seen the angel Gabriel and experienced several other holy visions. El-Arabi was so struck by these experiences that he is reported to have told his acolytes that “a person must control his thoughts in a dream. The training of this alertness…will produce great benefits for the individual. Everyone should apply himself to the attainment of this ability of such great value.”
EPOCH 2: OBSERVATION (1867-1968)
For nearly 2,000 years, lucid dreaming was a practice reserved for mystics and spiritual leaders. The industrial revolution demonstrated humanity’s apparently limitless capacity to shape the natural world through the application of scientific knowledge, and it was only natural that this mindset would extend to the dreamworld as well. Given the general lack of scientific knowledge about neurobiology at the time, this period was largely characterized by collecting observational data about lucid dreams and theorizing about techniques to reliably induce them.
In 1867, a French professor of Chinese literature named Marie-Jean-Léon, Marquis d'Hervey de Saint-Denys published a book called Dreams and How to Guide Them. D'Hervey had been meticulously recording his dreams since he was a teenager and this book provided both a history of his dreams and an overview of how he developed techniques to control them. Notably, the Marquis advocated for a staged approach to cultivating lucid dreams beginning with improving dream recall and progressing to intentional in-dream experiments such as altering small parts of dream environments that mirrored environments from the dreamers’ waking life.
Although several 19th century philosophers and psychologists, including Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche, provided brief comments on lucid dreaming in their writings, the next major milestone in this period was the publication of “A Study of Dreams” by the Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden in 1913. In this short essay, Van Eeden coined the term “lucid dream,” which referred to one of seven categories in a taxonomy of dreams he developed after studying his own dreams for more than 15 years. Although Van Eeden worried that his interest in lucid dreaming would be dismissed by the intellectual community, he argued that lucidity was “worthy of the most careful observation and study” and expressed hope that his essay would “form the basis..of a scientific structure of some value.”
Although D'Hervey and Van Eeden lacked the tools for a more rigorous scientific study of lucid dreams, their exhaustive catalogs of their own lucid dreams—and thorough descriptions of techniques for inducing them—laid the groundwork for the emergence of a true science of lucid dream induction in the late 20th century.
EPOCH 3: EXPERIMENTATION (1968-2014)
The golden era of dream research began in the mid-20th century when the American physiologist Eugene Aserinksy discovered the existence of REM sleep after spending countless hours watching the eyelids of sleeping subjects. Only a few years later, in 1957, REM sleep was found to be associated with dreaming, a discovery that transformed the burgeoning field of sleep research. Although the pioneers of dream research acknowledged that people experienced lucid dreaming, many of them dismissed the idea that lucid dreams were actually dreams. Instead, leading theories of the 1950s and 1960s suggested that lucid dreaming was a brief state of arousal where the dreamer was actually awake.
Throughout the 1960s, a growing body of research cast serious doubts on the theory that lucid dreaming was actually a state of wakefulness. But it wasn’t until 1975 that researchers experimentally proved that lucid dreamers are in fact asleep when the British psychologist Keith Hearne successfully communicated with an experienced lucid dreamer while they were in REM sleep. Hearne’s subject used a set of predefined eye movements to send a signal to Hearne while he was lucid, a phenomenon that has been validated in several subsequent studies and threw open the door for the objective study of lucid dreaming.
The foremost researcher in the new experimentally driven era of lucid dream research in the 1980s and 1990s was the American psychophysiologist Stephen LaBerge. Starting as graduate student at Stanford University, LaBerge published a dozens of studies that showed: lucid dreaming was a teachable skill; that there is a reliable relationship between a lucid dreamers’ gaze and their real-world eye movements; that time perception is the same in lucid dreams as in waking life; the physiological correlates of lucid dreaming; that lucid dreamers could control their respiration while dreaming; that sexual activity reported in lucid dreaming produced physiological correlates to sexual activity in waking life; and more.
The research done by LaBerge and his contemporaries in the last decades of the 20th century transformed lucid dreaming from a theoretical science into an experimental one. Their primary breakthrough was in finding ways to objectively measure the psychophysiological characteristics of lucid dreams, which meant that researchers were no longer limited to the subjective reports of lucid dreamers. Now, those subjective reports could be compared with neurological and physiological data such as EEG recordings and planned eye movements to validate the experience of the lucid dreamer. As neuroimaging technologies and data processing techniques became more sophisticated in the early 21st century, LaBerge and other lucid dream researchers continued to refine the psychophysiological correlates of lucid dreams and set the stage for turning this scientific knowledge into lucid dreaming induction technologies.
EPOCH 4: APPLICATION (2014 - Present)
In 1995, LaBerge and his collaborators developed DreamLight, the first computer-controlled device designed to induce lucid dreaming. As its name suggests, the DreamLight flashed light sequences onto the eyelids of sleeping subjects during REM sleep to induce lucidity. Buoyed by the initial results from their DreamLight tests, LaBerge repackaged it into a sleep mask called the NovaDreamer, which became the world’s first commercially available lucid dream induction device.
Over the next two decades, several other lucid dreaming induction devices were brought to market, but most of them relied on relatively crude induction techniques. Some followed LaBerge’s lead and used flashing lights to induce lucidity, while others used sound or tactile sensations. Although some of these devices used weak electrical currents to induce lucidity—a technique using either transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) or transcranial alternating electric current (tACS)—users had no way of knowing whether this could actually induce lucidity. Aside from LaBerge’s original DreamLight, not a single commercially available lucid dream induction device has been empirically validated to date.
It was only in 2014 that a team of researchers demonstrated for the first time that it was possible to directly induce lucid dreaming without lights, sounds, or tactile stimulation. In a landmark study led by Ursula Voss and published in Nature Neuroscience, Voss and her colleagues demonstrated that they were able to induce self-awareness in dreamers by delivering weak electrical currents to the brain’s frontal lobe with tDCS. In the decade since Voss’ study researchers have also had some success with inducing lucidity with tACS. Unfortunately, the results from these studies using electrical stimulation to induce lucid dreaming leave a lot to be desired. In a recent review of research on lucid dream induction, the researchers concluded that “a method for reliably inducing lucid dreams by electrical stimulation of the brain is still yet to be identified.”
Although tDCS and tACS systems are still widely used in lucid dream research, it is critical to explore other approaches that can reliably induce and stabilize lucid dreams. There is not a single device to date that has shown itself capable of sustaining lucid dreams, but this is the challenge we must solve for lucid dreaming to unravel the mystery of consciousness.
The most promising solution to this challenge is transcranial focused ultrasound, which uses high-frequency sound waves beyond the range of human hearing for neuromodulation. Unlike tDCS or tACS, which can only reach the surface of the brain and lack precision, focused ultrasound beams can target deep brain areas on a millimeter scale. Over the past decade, transcranial focused ultrasound has been proven to be both safe and effective in humans, and meta-analyses of recent studies have shown that it can “change short-term brain excitability and connectivity and induce long-term plasticity.” Prophetic’s Halo will leverage transcranial ultrasound’s unique neuromodulation capabilities to selectively target brain regions at the right time and frequency to finally deliver on the promise of reliably induced and sustained lucid dreams.
Many of humanity’s greatest technological achievements emerged from a long lineage of prophets and scientists. The inspired visions of prophets were so sweeping that they were often viewed as divine revelations until scientists methodically investigated their visions to yield empirical knowledge of the world. Technologists are the inspired few who have the audacity to climb the pyramid of knowledge built by generations of prophets and scientists in pursuit of tools that can endow humans with god-like powers. The reliable induction and stabilization of lucid dreams is an unprecedented technological feat that was 2,500 years in the making—and the wait is almost over.
Join a 2,500 year lineage of dreamers: Reserve your Halo today
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