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The Dream Catcher

Why does the researcher who pioneered the study of lucid dreaming face a future in academic exile?

  • Dorian Rolston in Matter
  • 23 min read

The Dream Catcher

Why does the researcher who pioneered the study of lucid dreaming face a future in academic exile?


STEPHEN LABERGE APPEARS SUDDENLY, slipping out from behind a partition at the back of the room, like the Wizard of Oz emerging from behind the curtain. “So the first big question we face,” he announces without preamble, “is what is this reality?”

It’s opening night of a workshop called Dreaming and Awakening, which LaBerge leads at the Kalani Oceanside Retreat on the Big Island of Hawaii. LaBerge, who is 66 years old, is the main attraction—the reason we’re all here. He’s the founding father of the science of lucid dreaming.

Kalani sunrise

If you’ve ever been aware that you are dreaming, but remained asleep, you’ve experienced a lucid dream. Some people claim to have had one at least once, if only briefly—usually just before waking up. With enough practice, say proponents like LaBerge, lucid dreamers can rescript their nightly narratives as they please. According to one recent study, the newly initiated most often use lucid dreams to satisfy sexual appetite or aeronautic fancy. The more experienced, though, claim to be able to create art or acquire skills in their dreams. It is not uncommon to hear testimonials stating that lucid dreaming “changed my life.”

LaBerge says one can choose to become lucid within a dream. Indeed, LaBerge claims to be an uncommonly prodigious lucid dreamer himself, having catalogued thousands of his own lucid dreams. He says it’s a skill that can be cultivated. That’s what two dozen or so paying customers, myself included, have come to Hawaii to learn.

“Are the fans too loud?” LaBerge asks. “We can lower them if you can’t hear.” A warm breeze billows LaBerge’s aloha shirt, printed with ferns in psychedelic swirls. He’s barefoot, and a shock of white hair accents his weary blue eyes. LaBerge believes that lucid dreaming isn’t just some quirk of consciousness—it’s a gateway to a broader theory of the conscious mind. So he’s really waiting for an answer. What is reality? Anyone?

§

THE VERY EXISTENCE OF LUCID DREAMS has been widely debated. According to prevailing theory, areas of the brain that generate self-reflection and govern rational thought throttle down as dreams start up. As our slumber deepens, we lose our short-term memory and self-awareness and, as a consequence, can’t spot the non sequiturs that fill our dreams, or even locate the actual position of our bodies. Only in the cold light of day, when executive functions come back online, do we realize how outlandish our dream plots are.

Lucid dreamers, by contrast, claim to be able to regain a host of daytime cognitive faculties while still dreaming. With enough practice, say proponents, people can redirect their dreams, and by so doing, at least according to LaBerge, transform their real-life narratives as well.

When sleep scientists turned to the study of dreams in the 1950s, few considered the notion of lucid dreaming to be more than a curiosity. It was the province of occultists and parapsychologists. Not until LaBerge produced the first evidence for lucid dreams, during graduate work at Stanford University in the 1970s, did the topic gain a modicum of scientific respectability.

His pioneering work was barely acknowledged in the decades that followed, but a new generation of dream researchers is now revisiting those early experiments with renewed respect and greater interest. A handful, some of whom trained under LaBerge and have adopted his methods, are discovering how lucid dreams function, what they can be used for, and why they may be scientifically significant. The study of lucid dreaming has broken out of the scientific fringe and is being taken seriously. And yet LaBerge is running retreats in Hawaii. Lucid dreaming is undergoing a resurgence, and it’s happening without the man who started it all.

The workshops, organized through LaBerge’s Lucidity Institute of Palo Alto, began in 1995 on the Stanford campus and later moved to Hawaii. For around $2,500, you get eight days of lectures in the sun. The secluded Kalani retreat appears to be a haven for unconventional tourism. Nudists splash in the clothing-optional pool. On Sundays, dreadlocked bohemians frolic at “hippie church” dances.

The lucid dreamers—LaBerge calls them “oneironauts,” a neologism of his that means “explorers of the dream world”—fit right in, peppering their conversations with invocations of energy fields and alternative realities, as well as unabashed references to spirits, ghosts, and flying saucers. “Years of interest in dreams, religious mysticism, reality, and related subjects all came together to provide a truly life-changing experience for me,” wrote one attendee, in a testimonial for the Lucidity Institute’s brochure.

LaBerge says the workshops are a necessity because the institute serves as his primary source of research funding. Academic research grants dried up years ago. The workshops are the principle means by which LaBerge collects data for his studies: Attendees are experimental subjects as well as students. And LaBerge has attracted a significant following. His 1991 work, Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming, is in print and still selling. Movies like The Matrix and Inception have reportedly helped spread the word about lucid dreaming. There’s also now a Reddit subgroup devoted to lucid dreams that has almost 100,000 members.

Unfortunately, the arrangement alienates academic colleagues. LaBerge operates on “the fringe of the scientific community,” says Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist at Harvard University and the past president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. “I wouldn’t say it’s incompatible,” she says, noting that he remains one of the foremost authorities on lucid dreaming. “His research is taken seriously in main sleep research circles, mostly, but with the sort of edgy-fringy controversial quality.”

I talked to some of the retreat attendees, and most weren’t there as volunteers for a research project. They were looking for much more. Rachel, a lawyer, was enticed by “the possibility of changing my biology—brain hacking. Maybe I can make myself a genius.” Others talked about using lucid dreaming to find their “higher self.”

A 35-year-old software developer from Colorado Springs named Matt Winzenried says he came to Hawaii to find the meaning of life. About four years ago, he told me, he fell into a deep funk. He felt stifled by an overbearing boss and lackluster job. One night, while lying in bed, he heard a scuffling noise. As it drew closer, he reached under his bed for a gun but found nothing. Then something clambered up the nightstand, and Winzenried saw a furry blue creature gnashing its teeth. “That’s when I realized I was dreaming,” he says.

Unexpectedly, the insight put him at ease. He felt a wave of “total acceptance and tranquility.” Winzenried was able to take control of his dream, grab the monster, and in one deep, long breath, inhale all but the creature’s skin deep into his own lungs. “There was nothing left except cloth,” he says. He awoke feeling “ready to tackle the world.”

Winzenried says that first lucid dream turned his life around. He enrolled in a personal development workshop. He got promoted. He began taking lessons in hockey and art. He started a small business. He joined Toastmasters to confront his debilitating shyness and soon became club president. “I was loving the way things were going,” Winzenried says. “But I wondered, is it leading somewhere? What’s my purpose?” LaBerge’s retreat, with its goal of directing waking and dreaming consciousness “toward fulfillment of personal goals,” promised an answer.

§

LABERGE DOESN’T WANT TO BE a New Age icon. “I always wanted to be a scientist,” he insists. When he founded the institute, he says, “it wasn’t for doing deep psychotherapy.”

He was born—or, rather, arrived “from beyond the stars,” as he likes to put it—in 1947. As a child growing up in Florida, he was captivated by movie serials. One morning, he awoke from a dream in which he had imagined himself as a pirate. The dream was “particularly fun,” he recalled, but he was still disappointed. Unlike one of his adventure matinees, he couldn’t return the next night to the same dream to catch the next plot twist. Or could he? The next night, and the night after that, young Stephen somehow returned to the dream and was able to advance the plot. It would be decades before he understood what this meant.

In 1976 LaBerge was 29 years old, living in Palo Alto, and working at a pharmaceutical company, having abandoned graduate studies in chemical physics at Stanford. He later told an interviewer that he spent that period looking for “the holy grail of hippiedom.” In other words, he was exploring the basis of consciousness with the help of psychedelic drugs. That fall he spotted a book at the Palo Alto Public Library with an intriguing title: Lucid Dreams. The author, Celia Green, was the founding director of the Institute of Psychophysical Research, which concerned itself mainly with extrasensory perception and other parapsychological phenomena.

Green described the long history of self-experimentation into lucid dreaming, which began in the early-19th century, when French orientalist Marquis Hervey de Saint-Denys began looking into his own dreams. As a teenager, he noticed himself “developing a faculty,” as he put it, of becoming aware that he was dreaming while still in the dream. He published an anonymous account, Dreams and the Means to Direct Them, in 1867.

Thirty years later, Dutch psychiatrist Frederik Willem van Eeden collected some 352 dreams involving “reintegration of the psychic functions,” such as access to waking memory and volition. He called them “lucid dreams,” derived from the psychiatric term “lucid interval,” meaning a moment of clarity amid madness. The response was harsh; Havelock Ellis, the British physician and psychologist, said of these dreams, “I do not believe that such a thing is really possible.”

After reading Green’s book, LaBerge had several dramatic lucid dreams, which convinced him to resume graduate studies at Stanford, this time in the nascent interdisciplinary field of psychophysiology. There, LaBerge won approval to conduct his dissertation research on lucid dreaming. Though, at the time, the scientific community was not so sure this was an area worthy of study.

§

FOR THE FIRST HALF OF THE 20TH CENTURY, scientists believed that the sleeping brain was completely at rest. But in 1953, Nathaniel Kleitman, a University of Chicago physiologist, detected eye movements in sleeping subjects, and showed that the movements correlated with subjective reports of dreaming. He had made the field’s most significant discovery to date: the identification of rapid eye movement sleep, or REM, as the time when most vivid dreams occur.

A few years later, William Dement, a doctoral student of Kleitman’s, observed that these eye movements were not always random. Subjects’ eyes moved up and down while they dreamed of shooting baskets, or shifted side to side while they dreamed of, in one case, watching people throw tomatoes at each other. Dement’s findings, criticized at the time, were later borne out. In 1970, at Stanford, he opened the first sleep lab anywhere. A few years later, LaBerge asked to Dement to be his doctoral adviser. Dement took an immediate liking to the young man. “What I can say without any ambiguity whatsoever,” recalls Dement, now one of the nation’s leading sleep scientists, “is that I was excited by his proposal. I supported it enthusiastically and financially, and I’ve been a fan of his ever since.”

It was Dement’s dream scanning hypothesis—looking around in a dream corresponds with actual physical eye movements—that gave LaBerge a pivotal idea: maybe people could use eye movements to communicate from within a dream. Before subjects went to sleep, he could instruct them to signal their lucidity by shifting their gaze in a prearranged pattern in the dream. If successful, the pattern would appear as a distinctive pattern in the electrical signals recorded from the subject’s eyes, muscles, and brain. To those in the lab, the message would be clear: the subject had awakened inside a dream.

Illustration by Sam Falconer

On January 13th, 1978, in the dim lab at the Stanford University Sleep Center, LaBerge became his own first experimental subject. He went to sleep tethered to an assemblage of electrical recording equipment and, toward the end of the night, found himself in a vast emptiness. He couldn’t see, feel, or hear anything, which prompted the realization that he was dreaming. Then, as he described in Lucid Dreaming, a mysterious instruction manual—“for a vacuum cleaner or some such appliance”—drifted into view. He strained to read it. He felt his eyes open. His hands began to tingle. The rest of his body materialized. He was lying on a bed, in a room much like the sleep lab. “Since I now had a dream body I decided to do the eye movements that we had agreed upon,” LaBerge later wrote. He traced a pattern with his finger to help direct his gaze through the prearranged signal: look up, look down, then up, then down again.

After waking, LaBerge checked the polysomnographic readings. Examining the moments just before his last REM period ended, he spotted “two large eye movements” that resembled the up-down-up-down signal. This, he thought, was possible proof of a lucid dream arising from REM sleep. It was a start.

Over the course of a total of 20 recording sessions, LaBerge documented 14 more lucid dreams, a number of them in his own home, where he had installed equipment to monitor his electrical activity at night, along with a tape recorder to record the data on magnetic tape. At home, there was no research supervision. “In some cases, I put the electrodes on myself,” he says.

At the end of the experiment, LaBerge’s self-reported results were compiled along with the polysomnographic readings, and an impartial judge was called in to make comparisons. In nearly every pairing, a distinct pattern of movements emerged during REM: left, left, left, followed by left, right, left, left. Translated into Morse code, the pattern read: dot, dot, dot, then dot, dash, dot, dot—or “SL,” for Stephen LaBerge.

Eventually, LaBerge recruited four other subjects for his pilot study: two men and two women, who each spent three or four nights at the Stanford sleep lab and recorded ten lucid dreams between them. Then he wrote up his findings in a scientific paper, “Lucid Dreaming Verified by Volitional Communication During REM Sleep,” claiming “a new approach to dream research.” Lucid dreamers, he wrote, “could carry out diverse dream experiments,” using eye signals to alert lab technicians not only to lucidity but also to actual dream content. There would be one signal, say, for savoring a dream steak, another for solving a dream equation, and another for seducing a dream mate. These could be correlated with activity in the brain and the body. LaBerge believed this would be a way to bridge the worlds of waking and dreaming, to perform what he calls “trans-reality” communication.

For months, LaBerge struggled to get the paper published. One reviewer for Science found it “difficult to imagine subjects simultaneously both dreaming their dreams and signaling them to others.” Nature sent it back without comment. It didn’t help that the majority of the lucid dreams had been provided by LaBerge himself. Finally, the paper was published in 1981 in an obscure journal, Perceptual and Motor Skills, where it landed with a dull thud. Few sleep scientists can recall its publication.

In the years that followed, LaBerge did occasionally get the approbation he sought. Around the time his paper was published, for instance, LaBerge presented further data at a sleep conference—data that Robert Van de Castle, director of the sleep lab at the University of Virginia Medical School, described as making a firm case “for the existence of lucid dreaming under controlled laboratory conditions.” But LaBerge more often faced skepticism. If lucid dreamers could access waking faculties—memory, volition, even motor skills—then in what sense were they really asleep, asked one sleep scientist. Perhaps lucid dreams were really brief “micro” awakenings, something quite apart from REM sleep. Ernest Hartmann, a doctor at the Sleep Disorders Center at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Massachusetts, insisted that the dreamers must have woken up the moment they became lucid. Perhaps the eye movements had been accidental, some critics suggested. Or the subjects had fabricated their reports.

Despite professional doubts, lucid dreaming was catching on with the general public. In 1987 LaBerge founded a private research organization of his own—the Lucidity Institute. The business plan was built on a benevolent spiral of good will. The institute would conduct workshops on lucid dreaming, the fees from which would support research that would be conducted on workshop attendees. The research findings would, in turn, raise the institute’s profile, which would allow it to conduct more workshops and support more research. The institute also sold LaBerge’s lucid-dream induction devices, such as the DreamLight, the DreamLink, and the NovaDreamer, which retailed for up to $1,200.

LaBerge’s popular profile grew—the Los Angeles Times dubbed him America’s “Dr. Dreams”—but over the next fifteen years, his reputation in the scientific community unraveled. He bounced around labs as a research associate—first in Dement’s psychiatry lab from 1984 to 1991, then in Philip Zimbardo’s psychology lab (of the infamous Stanford prison study) through 2003. He never got a permanent position, and as grant money was diverted away from basic research and toward clinical research on sleep disorders, his own research team consisted mostly of student volunteers, and his lab access was restricted to times when more lucrative projects were not underway.

LaBerge’s interests drifted further afield. He undertook wholly fringe explorations into out-of-body experiences, Tibetan dream yoga, and telekinesis. “It was definitely not like the other sleep research being done,” he recalls. “I’m sure I was a problem.” LaBerge had a “hard time getting money,” Dement recalls, even to cover minimal compensation for subjects and basic salaries for technicians. As his academic career evaporated and the field of academic inquiry into lucid dreams tapered off, the Lucidity Institute assumed greater significance. “By the 1980s, we were the only ones doing this research, and without funding,” he says. “But this was my vision. I couldn’t abandon my baby.”

§

THE TRUMPETING OF A CONCH SHELL woke us up at 7:30 am. Breakfast was scrambled tofu and granola. The murmuring to each other about last night’s sleep—“Any lucid dreams?”—made clear that the dreaming, sadly, had been of the ordinary sort. We formed a semi-circle, some reclining in cottage wicker chairs, others slinking to the floor, literally at LaBerge’s bare feet. “Good morning,” he said with a broad smile. Sensing our mood, he quickly added, “Maybe.”

LaBerge is very intense. As he lectures, he fidgets. He crosses and re-crosses his legs, interlocks his fingers one way and then another, shifts his weight in the chair. His nervousness is tied to his introverted nature, which he had to overcome to run the workshops. He sweated as he talked to us, and his wife, Lynne Levitan, smoothed his hair into place and dabbed his face with paper towel.

He associates lucid dreaming, in fact, with his own anxiety. In the late 70s, he told us, he frequently became lucid in dreams that involved anxious situations. “It might be the police. I was a hippie in those days, an outlaw, and the police were always stopping me. So there was a background of paranoia.”

The classroom was cluttered with tchotchkes, which included a blue rubber robot holding a sign that read, “IS THIS A DREAM?” LaBerge invited us to check on our perceptions. He trained us to constantly assess our current reality, searching for signs that something is amiss, so we’d get in the habit of doing reality checks in our dreams.

All week, the line between waking and dreaming was blurred. “In the waking state, we are clearly influenced by the physical energies, whatever those may be,” he said. “But in the dream state, it’s a relatively pure culture, where nothing is left but my mind.” He presented the two realities as a choice between the blue pill (“you wake up and believe anything you want”) and the red pill (“you stay in wonderland”). His own choice was clear.

§

IN EARLY SEPTEMBER 2001, the German Society of Sleep Research and Sleep Medicine held its annual meeting in Hamburg. Allan Hobson, a Harvard psychiatrist and director of the Laboratory of Neurophysiology at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, was a speaker. Hobson championed the view that dreams themselves mean very little. Perhaps the act of dreaming serves some biological function, he said, but their content is just a meaningless by-product—an epiphenomenon, like steam from a pot of boiling water. All of which made it more than a little surprising to a young scientist named Ursula Voss when Hobson approached her with this proposal: study lucid dreams.

Dr. Ursula Voss discusses her findings. Courtesy of Voss.

Voss was an experimental psychologist at Bonn University who spent her early career studying states of consciousness, especially the moments between sleeping and waking. To her, lucid dreams belonged in the realm of “esoteric mysticism.” She was convinced, as LaBerge’s critics had been, that sleeping subjects who gained control over their eyes must, in fact, be awake.

Hobson was insistent, she said. He told Voss that the study of lucid dreaming might help illuminate the neural basis of consciousness. But he warned her to approach LaBerge’s work with caution, since he believed that the spiritual side of lucid dreaming was a distraction. “He’s a nice guy,” Hobson said of LaBerge, “but he missed the point entirely.” Still, Hobson believed the early work was valuable. Lucid dreaming, he told Voss, offered a window onto a sequestered mind brimming with thoughts and feelings and unconstrained by the outside world.

When she returned to Bonn, Voss summoned two colleagues and told them about the “crazy study” upon which they were about to embark. “I was actually afraid this would kill my career,” Voss told me. So she approached Hobson’s challenge at first as a skeptic. “I set out to prove him wrong.”

The early work was tedious, partly because lucid dreamers are hard to find. Surveys suggest that as many as half of us will experience a lucid dream once, but far fewer people have them regularly. And it seems likely that only a tiny fraction—just one percent of respondents, according to one study—can become lucid at will. After interviewing dozens of undergraduates, Voss’s team recruited 20 who claimed to have had lucid dreams at least twice a week. Before falling asleep each night, the students were instructed to set their intention to become lucid. This autosuggestion was not very effective, but by the end of the four-month training period, six subjects reported lucid dreams somewhat regularly. Those six, deemed “promising”, were brought to Frankfurt University Hospital, an hour and a half away, where they could be observed overnight.

Over the next several months, Voss and her colleagues spent weeks at a time in the Frankfurt sleep lab. First, they used MRI technology to scan the sleepers’ brains, but the noise produced by the devices kept waking the subjects. Then they resorted to measuring electrical activity alone. They employed LaBerge’s eye-signaling method, but had little luck; the signals appeared even when the sleeping subjects were not lucid.

Yet the subjects still generated a handful of confirmed lucid dreams—three between them. And when the German team examined the data, what they saw was startling. In the early morning hours, as the sleeping subjects became lucid, the dreamers’ frontal lobes became active—an indication that the subjects were regaining the ability to self-reflect, rationalize, and access short-term memory. This alone might have suggested the subjects were simply waking up, but other areas of the brain that are ramped down during dreaming, notably the parietal lobe, which during the day sorts sensory information streaming in from the external world, remained inactive. “Our data show that lucid dreaming constitutes a hybrid state of consciousness, with definable and measurable differences from waking and from REM sleep,” Voss concluded in a 2009 paper in Sleep.

“Arguably the most important empirical study on dreaming of the year,” declared Valdas Noreika of the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Turku, in Finland. Hobson, who co-authored the Sleep paper, could hardly contain himself, writing that the “earthshaking” study could move lucid dreaming “from its marginal and tenuous place at the fringe of psychophysiology to center stage in the emerging science of consciousness.” The decades-long controversy about whether lucid dreamers were awake or asleep was officially over, he declared. “LaBerge and his critics were wrong,” Hobson told me. “They said it’s either one thing or the other. And none of them said it is both.

Voss herself is more circumspect. Lucid dreaming is unusual and unstable, she insists, perhaps only “an exception, an accident.” She grants that regular dreaming may serve some critical biological function—nightly information processing, say, or bodily temperature control. But lucid dreaming “is not meant to be.”

In a more ruminative moment, Voss confessed that lucid dreams might offer a privileged view into the evolution of consciousness in the brain: progressing from the primitive activity of “a cold-blooded animal” during non-REM sleep, to the sparks of real cognition of “a rabbit or cat” during regular dreaming, to the peak of self-awareness, reasoning, and memory during lucid dreaming, in which the dreamer at last possesses “a human brain, a higher-order conscious brain.”

§

VOSS’S STUDY WENT SOME WAY to redeeming LaBerge’s reputation, but succeeded only in enraging the man himself. He wrote a merciless appraisal in the International Journal of Dream Research, and, when we discussed the study, he noted that the authors had never experienced the kind of dream they were studying. For many scientists that might not seem like a bad thing, but LaBerge was dismissive. “The study of consciousness is a little different from studies of other topics,” he insisted. “We have an inside view that can inform our research.”

Referring to lucid dreaming as a hybrid state, added LaBerge, is a logical fallacy. To him, lucid dreamers are achieving the full potential of the dream state, not leaving it for a hybrid one. “It’s like saying that because most mammals don’t fly, then the only explanation for bats is that they are ‘hybrid bird-rats.’”

LaBerge’s complaints might stem partly from bitterness at no longer being at the center of the field he created. But he’s not the only sleep scientist to find fault with Voss’s work. “I actually thought the Voss study might be overstating it a bit, even in terms of their own findings,” says Deirdre Barrett. “If you had to call it a state, it’s pretty powerfully more like REM.” She thinks of the work done by Voss and Hobson as essentially “a good update” of LaBerge’s original studies.

Still, researchers continue to explore lucid dreams. Pilot studies on athletic performance have produced intriguing results: a snowboarder and spring-board diver who practiced their disciplines in lucid dreams, while slowing time to allow for better attention to detail, reported improvements in real life. A 2011 study in the Journal of Traumatic Stress suggested that lucid dreamers may become more resilient to trauma (exposure to terrorism, in this case), and therapists have reported experimenting with lucid-dreaming therapies to treat chronic nightmares. These are preliminary results—but they hint at possible applications.

A subject in a fMRI machine in one of Martin Dresler’s sleep imaging studies. Courtesy of Dresler.

Exactly what happens in the brains of lucid dreamers is also coming into sharper focus. Last year, Martin Dresler of the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich conducted a proof-of-concept study using functional MRI (fMRI), a sensitive brain-scanning technology, to examine lucid dreams. Dresler began by recruiting four people with lucid dreaming experience, and teaching them the eye signal. Then he monitored them with electrical recording equipment and an fMRI machine, for 15 nights. One subject managed to sleep deeply enough to have two confirmed lucid dreams, and the recordings backed up Voss’s paper. As Dresler wrote in Sleep in 2012, “lucid dreaming was associated with a reactivation of several areas normally deactivated during REM sleep.” Significantly, this reactivation occurred in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the precuneus—the seats of higher cognition.

The new researchers owe a huge debt to LaBerge: without his eye-signaling technique they could not verify lucid dreams objectively. “I don’t think there’s any argument about whether these [subjects] may be imagining it and [be] wide awake,” says Barrett. “I think that Stephen’s first experiments really established that that’s not the case.” There may be controversy over the particulars of lucid dreaming, she added, “but I don’t think anyone’s really saying it doesn’t exist.”

Still, LaBerge has never heard directly from Voss or Hobson. A statement by Hobson might explain why: “In order to be respected as serious scientists, we need to create a united front and concern ourselves about our credibility with workers in the mainstream of cognitive neuroscience,” he wrote in 2010. “We must eschew any and all mystical or hucksterish trappings in order not to be seen as a deviant cult, which must remain marginalized.”

§

WHILE DRESLER AND OTHERS ARE USING expensive imaging equipment to study lucid dreams, one of LaBerge’s latest projects is to validate the NovaDreamer, a device he patented in 1996 to stimulate lucid dreaming, and which he hopes to start selling again. The steampunk contraption of tangled wires and cryptic dials is designed as a sleep mask. Its built-in sensors detect REM sleep, at which point LEDs flash low-level light through the sleeper’s eyelids. The flashing should turn up in some scene—perhaps as police sirens, or bolts of lightning, or even, as one workshop attendee found, the sudden fogging up of an inexplicable pair of ski goggles while riding public transportation—and the dreamer should realize it’s the NovaDreamer and become lucid.

During the Kalani workshop, the NovaDreamer hardly cued lucidity; mostly it was simply infuriating. At LaBerge’s insistence we strapped it on whenever we climbed into bed. Each morning, when we assembled in the classroom to report our nocturnal happenings, we cursed the awkward headgear or the bright flashes for having rudely awoken us, or even for having prevented us from falling asleep. “It takes some getting used to,” LaBerge would assure us as he collected the NovaDreamer recordings.

At one point, he mentioned the NovaDreamer’s light flashes generated by the NovaDreamer, and at that moment, a halogen bulb directly above his head mysteriously started to flicker. Perhaps a cue, from the NovaDreamer itself, to become lucid? For a few seconds, a murmur rippled through the classroom, as people checked to make sure they weren’t dreaming and the device wasn’t signaling to them.

There was also, during the workshop, an experiment with galantamine, a prescription drug used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, to see if it would spark lucid dreaming. Kristen LaMarca, LaBerge’s assistant, was responsible for distributing the pills, which came in the form of an over-the-counter herbal supplement that contained low levels of the drug.

It’s not clear what, if anything, LaBerge will do with the data from this experiment and the NovaDreamer and the many dreams he has catalogued during the years he has run retreats. He hasn’t gotten around to analyzing all his results, let alone publishing it. His appearances in peer-reviewed journals are infrequent. LaMarca, who recently earned a doctorate in clinical psychology with a focus on lucid dreaming from the California School of Professional Psychology, has grown impatient. “Why hasn’t it been analyzed?” she asked LaBerge during the retreat. He didn’t have a good answer. There was not enough time, he said, and not enough money. A former research assistant of LaBerge’s, whom I spoke to after the retreat, told me that “this knowledge will be buried forever in his garage.”

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

On the last full day of his workshop, LaBerge took us on a field trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We gathered at the park’s panoramic viewing area. Kilauea, the island’s most active volcano, was smoldering. After a few group photos, we hiked along the lush paths, winding our way down to the lava tubes. “This way into the unconscious,” LaBerge intoned. As we descended into the catacombs, a low rumbling sound reverberated off the walls of cooled lava. Ommmmmm. It was LaBerge, chanting the first syllable of a mantra.

//.

The Dream Catcher is the latest article from MATTER, the new home for the best writing about the ideas shaping our future. To stay in touch, follow us on Medium by clicking on the green button below, sign up for our weekly email, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

Written by Dorian Rolston
Edited by Robin Marantz Henig
Illustrations by Sam Falconer
Fact-checking by Hilary Elkins
Copy-editing by Iris Sutcliffe

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