TESTING THE LIMITS OF DREAM CONTROL: THE LIGHT AND MIRROR EXPERIMENT

[From NIGHTLIGHT 5(2), Summer 1993, Copyright, The Lucidity Institute.]

TESTING THE LIMITS OF DREAM CONTROL: THE LIGHT AND MIRROR EXPERIMENT
by Lynne Levitan and Stephen LaBerge

Lucid dreaming offers the promise of enhanced control over dreams. Yet 
the question remains quite unanswered of how much dream control is 
possible. The ability to have lucid dreams also makes possible a way to 
study this issue. After having attained lucidity in a dream, dreamers 
can choose to carry out predetermined experiments testing their ability 
to achieve certain goals. In the "Free Fall" issue of NightLight (Vol. 
4, No. 4) we asked lucid dreamers to attempt certain tasks in lucid 
dreams and to report on the outcome. An introduction to the many 
viewpoints on dream control will put the findings from this study in 
context.

WAYS OF CONTROLLING

The definition of "control" used here is "the ability to determine or 
influence the course of events." This means that an individual's actions 
are causes with subsequent effects. One way to refine this definition is 
to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary control. Voluntary 
control means that you decide you want to produce a certain effect and 
take steps to cause it. For example, you want the house to be cleaner so 
you throw away stray papers. Involuntary control refers to unintended 
consequences of your actions. For example, one of those stray papers you 
threw away was the outline of the presentation you are to give tomorrow. 
The result is you have to write a new one. In a dream, an example of an 
involuntary effect would be causing a dream monster to pursue you by 
running away.

There are different ways to approach controlling dreams. A method that 
does not require lucidity is predetermination: selecting the setting or 
topic of the dream prior to sleep. This is akin to the idea of "dream 
incubation" in which a person works to induce a dream about an important 
topic in order to answer a question or resolve a conflict. In her book, 
Creative Dreaming, Patricia Garfield presents some evidence that 
motivated people can choose to dream about desired topics. Post-hypnotic 
suggestions have also been employed in attempts to elicit particular 
dream topics, again with some success, as described by Charles Tart in 
his essay in Conscious Mind, Sleeping Brain, edited by Gackenbach and 
LaBerge (1988). Success with creating a particular dream setting, 
however, does not imply the ability to control the sequence of events in 
the dream.
Lucid Dream 1

Lucid Dream 1 (Photo credit: Robert Bruce Murray III // Sort Of Natural)

Concurrent control is ability to determine or alter the course of a 
dream in "real time," as it happens. This type of control is not limited 
to lucid dreams, anymore than our effect on the waking world is limited 
to times when we are thinking about what we are doing. Anytime we make a 
choice or act in a dream, we are controlling it. We may be unconscious 
of the reason for our choice, but the decision nonetheless originates 
within the self. However, people possessing lucid consciousness in their 
dreams are able to make deliberate choices and actions with full 
knowledge that they are experiencing a dream, and observe their effects 
on the course of the dream.

The question addressed here is how well can we influence dreams in the 
directions we desire? Do actions produce the aimed-for effects? Do we 
have more or less control over our experiences in dreaming than in 
waking?

THE RANGE OF OPINIONS REGARDING DREAM CONTROL

In the modern world, a wide variety of theories and opinions about the 
possibility or impossibility of dream control coexist. At one extreme, 
stand (or, perhaps, stood, as this viewpoint may have faded in the face 
of irrefutable evidence) some sleep researchers whose reluctance to 
believe in the possibility of deliberate dream control came hand in hand 
with their disbelief in the verity of lucid dreaming. Their opinions 
rose out of a faulty philosophy defining sleep as "unconsciousness," 
meaning lack of cognition. A better operational definition of sleep 
would be, "lack of perceptual awareness of the sleeper's environment." 
Without consciousness, clearly one could not consciously will anything. 
So, until an awareness arose among those studying dreams that dreaming 
was a state of consciousness, not unconsciousness, progress was not 
possible in this area.

Another kind of disbelief has arisen from dreamworkers, who employ 
dreams to help people achieve better psychological balance. Much of 
dream-based therapy (although not all) has operated on the premise that 
dreams are things that happen to people, rather than events that people 
create. The creator of dreams has been named the "unconscious." Because 
of this and the prevailing notion in the scientific world that sleep is 
unconsciousness, it has become common for people to believe that dreams 
occur in the unconscious mind, independent of the conscious "ego."

This cannot be true, however, because if it were, we would not be able 
to recall the experiences we have in dreams. Events that do not reach 
consciousness are not accessible to memory. The "I" of the dreamer, the 
one who sees, hears, feels, and reflects on the events happening in a 
dream is the self-awareness, the "ego," and it is conscious, although it 
may not be aware that its present circumstance is an entirely mentally-
constructed world not guided by sensory information from physical 
reality.

As an illustration of the point of view that dreams are both from and in 
the unconscious, here is an excerpt from Working with Dreams by Ullman 
and Zimmerman:

  Q. Can we program or control our dreams?
  A. No, not consciously. If we look upon a dream as a kind of natural 
  resource flowing within us, if we liken it to a river, a river shaped 
  by our life experience, then its flow will not be changed simply by 
  having someone on the shore urge a new direction on it. But if the 
  person on the shore does the work necessary to make a change in 
  direction possible, the flow will alter as desired. The point of the 
  analogy is that there has to be more than conscious intent to 
  influence the flow. There has to be a genuine emotional investment.

In the view expressed, dreams are predetermined "plays" somehow 
programmed out of the individual's current psychological processes. They 
are nothing like waking life. These same authors make an interesting 
comment about lucid dreaming. They state: "Although the dreamer can 
influence the subsequent course of dream once it becomes a lucid dream, 
the element of control occurs only within certain limits. An analogy 
might be Living Theater where, after the actors have created a certain 
framework, the audience is invited to influence the subsequent course of 
the play."

This statement implies that dream control is limited to actions 
appropriate to the original setting of the dream, which has its own 
defined boundaries and rules. This seems to imply that whatever part of 
the mind determines the original dream setting has primacy over other 
parts of the mind. Certainly, one of the great mysteries of dreams is 
what determines the original setting and situation one finds oneself in 
a dream. Despite reports that some people are able to decide what they 
will dream about on occasion, for the most part, dream topics seem to 
arise out of some source that is definitely not in consciousness. 
However, there is no evidence in support of Ullman and Zimmerman's 
contention that dream control is limited by the framework of the 
original dream setting, and many would refute it based on their own 
experience.

The Tibetan Buddhists, creators of the Dream Yoga, teach that it is 
possible to control every aspect of dream imagery. They use dream 
control as a method of comprehending the illusory nature of all 
experience, with the ultimate goal of transcending the relative and 
embracing the Absolute. In  the "Doctrine of the Dream State" from 
Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines translated by Evans-Wentz, we find the 
following instructions:

  At the outset, in the process of realizing [the dream] to be maya, 
    abandon all feeling of fear;
  And, if the dream be of fire, transform the fire into water, 
    the antidote of fire.
  And if the dream be of minute objects, transform them 
    into large objects;
  Or if the dream be of large objects, transform them 
    into small objects:
  Thereby one comprehendeth the nature of dimensions.
  And if the dream be of a single thing, transform it 
    into many things;
  Or if the dream be of many things, transform them 
    into a single thing...

Then, the editors comment:

By such practices, the yogin is taught to realize that matter, or 
form in its dimensional aspects, large or small, and in its numerical 
aspects, of plurality and unity, is entirely subject to one's will 
when the mental powers have been sufficiently developed by the yoga. 
In other words, the yogin learns by actual experience, resulting from 
psychic experimentation, that the character of any dream can be 
changed by transforming or willing that it shall be. A step further 
and he learns that form, in the dream-state, and all the 
multitudinous content of dreams, are mere playthings of the mind, and 
therefore, as unstable as mirage. A further step leads him to the 
knowledge that the essential nature of form and of all things 
perceived by the senses in the waking state are equally as unreal as 
their reflexes in the dream state..."

The Tibetan Buddhists, however, were and are not given to sharing their 
personal dream experiences, so we cannot examine the nature of their 
dreams and their efforts to control them. Some notable Western expert 
lucid dreams have given us a look into what they have been able to 
accomplish. The Marquis d'Hervey de Saint-Denys was an extraordinarily 
accomplished lucid dream and wrote instructively about his experiences. 
He exhorted his readers to strive to control their dreams in his 1867 
book Dreams and How to Guide Them:

Those who would see in the incidents of our dreams merely a succession 
of mechanically produced impressions over which one has no more control 
that a simple spectator has over some pictures will naturally declare 
any effort and any exercise of attention or will to be incompatible with 
the very nature of dreaming. Since the most valuable observations I have 
been able to make seem to me to be due to my ability to maintain the 
faculties of attention and will during sleep, I shall naturally place 
great emphasis on convincing the reader that he can and should exercise 
the same control over himself. Here I come to what is perhaps the most 
interesting of my new propositions, and one that is open to 
experimentation on any reader's part. For it is through the combined 
action of attention and will during dreams that one can take the first 
steps in directing and modifying the course of dreams as one wishes.

Perhaps no one has experimented personally with dream control as much as 
Alan Worsley, the inveterate lucid dreamer who can claim to be the first 
to signal lucidity with eye movements in a sleep laboratory. First, a 
comment from Worsley regarding voluntary and involuntary control in 
dreams: "Non-lucid dreams use many principles that can be used in lucid 
drams. For instance, it is likely, in a non-lucid dram, that if one 
believes one looks into a book about a certain subject, one will find 
relevant pictures in it. In lucid dreaming, one can use this principle 
by deliberately selecting a book about a subject one wishes to study." 

Worsley has tabulated his attempts to influence dreams. A complete table 
of his results appears in Conscious Mind, Sleeping Brain, edited by 
Gackenbach and LaBerge. He rates the difficulty of various tasks as 
Hard, Medium, and Difficult, based on the percentage of times he was 
able to succeed at them. For example, he finds all attempts to penetrate 
dream matter with his  dream body to be easy. Making sounds by striking 
things or speaking is easy. Reading single words or short phrases is 
easy, but reading long sentences is hard. He was never able to suddenly 
turn on a light in a dark room, although he was able to do so easily in 
a light room. Flying close to the ground was easy, and got progressively 
more difficult the higher he would try to go.

EXPERIMENTAL STUDY OF DREAM CONTROLThe wide range of opinions on the topic of dream control, and the 
reports we received of people's attempts to control dreams, piqued our 
curiosity about why it is sometimes it possible to achieve a desired 
outcome, and sometimes it is not. Because dreams are entirely illusory, 
it should be possible to experience anything imaginable. Thus, perhaps 
failures arise from not imagining strongly enough, or not believing a 
certain experience is possible. On the other hand, perhaps there are 
physiological limitations on the ability to control dream imagery.

Our theoretical approach to dreams is based on the idea that the 
perceptual experiences in dreams arise out of activity in the same brain 
areas that produce perceptual experience in waking. This is why people 
have difficulty distinguishing dreaming from waking experience, and have 
to employ special techniques to recognize when they are dreaming. 
Physiological constraints on dream perception might occur if a certain 
brain area is not in a state conducive to the desired experience. For 
example, it might be hard to make a dark dream light, because the visual 
cortex is not active enough. This is one of the topics of research we 
would very much like to see explored: the relationship between dream 
perception and brain activity.

The NightLight study was designed to assess how successful people would 
be at accomplishing certain well-defined tasks in lucid dreams.

1. LIGHT SWITCH TASKS ———————————————————————— A. Find a light switch (indoors). B. Turn it on, and see what happens, then turn it off, and see what happens. C. Turn the lights on and off by willing it to happen and observe the results. (These two tasks were counterbalanced so that some tried the “magic” first and some second.) 2. MIRROR TASKS ———————————————————————— A. Find a mirror. B. Observe your reflection in the mirror. C. Move your hand to your face, watching it in the mirror and observe how the reflection behaves. D. Pass through the mirror and see what is on the other side. (The instructions gave an example in which the dreamer passes through the mirror and ends up in a different scene.)

These tasks represented a variety of types of influence, ranging from 
things that are easy to accomplish in waking (turning on a light, 
looking in a mirror), to impossible in waking (passing through a 
mirror). In addition, some tasks we thought might be impeded by brain 
state were included (the changing of light level). The purpose of asking 
people to both will a light on and off and switch it was to see what 
effect belief might have on the outcome. It is easier to believe a light 
will turn on when a switch is flipped than that will alone will turn on 
a light.

The instructions asked the participants to try each task in waking prior 
to attempting the tasks in lucid dreams, so that they would have the 
procedure well-rehearsed. Then, they were to try each task at least once 
in a lucid dream. They did not need to complete all the tasks in one 
dream, but could use as many lucid dreams as they needed. So that they 
would not forget details, the participants were asked to awakening 
immediately after the experimental lucid dreams and make complete 
reports of their experiences.

RESULTS

Twenty-seven people submitted reports of their attempts to carry out the 
assigned tasks, fourteen women and thirteen men. Altogether they 
provided 65 lucid dream reports, an average of 1.4 per person. The 
maximum number of reports from one individual was four.

A judge reviewed the reports to determine which tasks were attempted in 
each dream, and scored the result. The scoring for the tasks of finding 
a light switch or a mirror was either as "success" or "failure." The 
results of the actions of turning a light switch on and off, willing a 
light on and off, looking at a reflection, touching hand to face, and 
passing through a mirror received scores of "expected" if the result 
achieved the goal, "no result" if the action produced no response, and 
"unexpected" if something unpredictable happened.

"Expected" for turning and willing a light on and off meant that the 
light went on and off as it would in waking. "No result" meant the light 
did not change. "Unexpected" meant something other than the chosen light 
turning on and off. Examples of unexpected light results were: "the bulb 
slowly filled with what appeared to be thick, black tar," and "When I 
threw the switch, the outside porch light came on instead of the room 
light...didn't really increase the overall illumination."

For the task of looking at a reflection, a score of "expected" was given 
when people reported that their reflections in the dream looked like 
their reflections in waking. "No result" indicated that the person saw 
no reflection. This happened once; the person instead saw gray, swirling 
mist.  If the reflection looked unlike the waking image, the result was 
rated "unexpected."

The same criteria as for the reflection applied to moving the hand to 
the face while watching in the mirror. An example of "unexpected" for 
this task was, "As I raise my hand to my face I see the reflected image 
of my hand go up but from then on I notice an increasingly 
'hallucinogenic' breakdown of the image--such things as my finger, 
detached from my hand, disappearing into my mouth and holes appearing in 
my face."

The result of trying to pass through a mirror was scored as "expected" 
if the dreamer was able to move through the mirror and found another 
setting on the other side. "No result" meant that the dreamer found the 
mirror hard and unyielding, as in waking. "Unexpected" applied to cases 
in which the dreamer got through the mirror, but was then somewhere 
unlike what was described in the task instructions, for instance, in the 
same room, or "in a world of cartoon-like images."

The table [below] shows the results of the participants' tries at the 
tasks. The left-hand columns list the number of people who attempted 
each action and the number who achieved each kind of result. The right 
hand columns display the total number of tries at each task, and the 
number leading to each result.

Looking at the number of "expected" results, that is, cases in which the 
action produced the desired result, it appears that "willing" a light to 
turn on or off and using a dream switch are about equally easy. There 
seemed to be more cases of "no result" with willing the light on, but 
the difference did not pass a statistical test. The data hint that it 
may be easier to get a dream light to turn off than on. However, this 
conclusion may be premature, given that in the majority of cases, before 
trying to turn off a light, the person had already succeeded in turning 
it on. There may be a condition in which if you can turn on a light in a 
dream, you can also turn it off.

Clearly, it was very easy to find things in dreams that are usually 
around in waking, like a light switch and a mirror. People also had no 
difficulty performing the normal action of looking in a mirror and 
seeing a reflection, although it was more likely than not somehow 
different than the usual waking reflection, and in 12 cases (28%) the 
image transformed as the dreamer watched. This happened for 41 percent 
of the participants.

It would be reasonable to predict that passing through a mirror to 
another scene would be the most difficult task, given that it is 
impossible in waking life. However, almost half of those who tried 
succeeded, and 86 percent of the people were able to get their dream 
bodies through the dream mirror at least once, even if they did not end 
up in a new scene. An example of an "expected" mirror result was, "I 
then went through the mirror and tried to imagine that the mirror was 
like water so I could easily slide through it. When I was fully through 
the mirror, I came up to the surface of the water I was in and noticed I 
was in a bright, sunlit backyard swimming pool with a roof shelter over 
it."

DREAMS CAN BE DIRECTED, BUT STILL DO THEIR OWN THING

The lack of large differences in the ease of accomplishment of the 
various tasks is in itself quite interesting. Lucid dreamers are able to 
exert a large amount of control over their dream experiences. But, it is 
far from perfect. Most notable is the reluctance of the mirror 
reflections to show normal images, and their fascinating instability. 
Self-image is of course a very psychologically loaded thing, probably 
with very complex internal representations. This may account for the 
strange images. The instability points up the most prominent difference 
between waking and dreaming perception. Dreams change. We exploit this 
in lucid dream induction training by instructing people to examine 
written phrases repeatedly, watching for them to change. An interesting 
question is whether the perceptual instability results from the lack of 
anchoring sensory input from the physical senses or from a state of the 
brain peculiar to REM sleep.

In their studies, the Marquis d'Hervey de Saint-Denys and Alan Worsley 
observed something they called the  "light switch" phenomenon. This was 
an inability to change the illumination of a room on demand. From this 
study, it seems that this phenomenon is sometimes present and sometimes 
not. Some people who were able to turn on lights reported no concurrent 
change in general illumination, but others reported that there was an 
increase in brightnessÑabout half and half. So, "the light switch 
phenomenon" is not dead, but merely seems to be sleeping some of the 
time. A prime target for research would be to discover what the brain is 
doing under both circumstances.

It was rather remarkably easy for people to pass through a mirror and 
find something else on the other side. One might think, along the lines 
of the quote earlier from Ullman and Zimmerman, that a complete scene 
change would be a difficult thing to accomplish. In fact, we have 
already seen in another study that it is more than possible. In the 
results from an experiment published in the April 1987 issue of Omni 
magazine, 51 people reported trying to arrive a particular pre-selected 
target by spinning in a dream. Eighteen of them (35%) succeeded in 
arriving at their target. Thus, not only is it possible to create a new 
scene, but also to create one that is specifically desired.

In the final analysis, the Tibetan Buddhist view that all dream images 
are transmutable may be exactly right. If so, we wonder if it may be 
possible also to learn to control the stability of these images, 
creating lasting dream scenes and objects, achieving a state of virtual 
reality far beyond the wildest dreams of the computer programmers.

TABLE 1. Results of attempts to control dream content