“A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.” -Oscar Wilde
Peter T. Morgan found himself in the basement of a church in England, surrounded by stone walls and seemingly endless catacombs, when in walked Alan Alda. Dr. Morgan, a Yale psychiatrist, was shocked and excited to see Alda, the 75-year-old American actor best known for his starring role on the television show “M*ASH.” Morgan used to love watching the show, which stopped running in 1983.
“I did all the typical things you do when you see a celebrity you know and like,” Morgan says. He walked up to Alda and began gushing about how much he admired his work. “What was striking about him, though, was that he looked really thin, very sick and emaciated, kind of like Steve Jobs, who had recently died,” Morgan recalls. “I really wanted to ask him, ‘Gee, are you okay?’ I was thinking, ‘I’m a doctor, he’ll tell me about these things.’” But when Morgan looked away for a moment and then turned back to Alda to begin his inquiry, an alarming change had taken place: instead of having thinning gray hair combed close to his head, Alda had spiky blonde hair sticking out in several directions. “It was like a three–part mohawk,” said the psychiatrist.
Morgan asked other people in the room to confirm what he had just seen, but they looked back at him blankly. “What are you talking about?” they said. “His hair didn’t change.” Morgan became excited again as he realized the only possible explanation for this mysterious sequence of events — he was dreaming.
“I thought, ‘Oh, I want to stay lucid,’” Morgan recalls, leaning forward in his chair at the Connecticut Mental Health Center. Often, as soon as people realize they are lucid, they bolt awake. But some people commit themselves to lucid dreaming, training their minds the way athletes train their muscles. Practiced lucid dreamers choose signals that help them anchor themselves in their dreams; Morgan decided that his sign would be staring at his hands as he circled them, one in front of the other. In his dream about Alda, that signal worked. Morgan didn’t wake up. Instead, he was free to do whatever he wanted, even to break the laws of physics. Triumphant, he leapt off the ground and began to fly through the catacombs.
Ever since he had his first lucid dream as a teenager, Morgan has been fascinated by lucid dreaming. But he brings to lucid dreaming what few other lucid dreaming enthusiasts do: an in-depth understanding of how the brain functions during sleep. Throughout most of his career, Morgan focused on treating his patients and conducting research on what cocaine abuse does to the brain. But about four years ago, he decided to begin researching the science of lucid dreaming, too. He wanted to know what happens in the brain that allows a dreamer to know that he is dreaming. And what does that mean for our understanding of the way our brains work?
While the cultural history of lucid dreaming is rich, research on lucid dreaming is sparse. Morgan currently has a $3 million grant for his cocaine research and a comparatively meager $15,000 one for his work on lucid dreaming. With limited funds, however, Morgan has already provided preliminary evidence that the brains of lucid and non-lucid dreamers work differently. He studies lucid dreams not only because they are fascinating in and of themselves, but also because he sees them as a window into the human mind, and, more specifically, a window into consciousness itself. “We want to understand ourselves,” Morgan says. “And the curious mind is going to look inside, to the brain, because that’s where the curiosity lies.”
Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs often depicted a person’s soul, called Ba, as a bird with a man’s head floating above a sleeping body. To lucid dreaming expert Robert Waggonner, this depiction is suggestive of a lucid dreaming state in which the dreamer is free to fly around within his dream, released from his inert physical body. However, it wasn’t until a few thousand years later — in ancient Hindu texts dated around 1000 BC — that the first documented case of lucid dreaming was recorded. Around 350 BC, Aristotle addressed the phenomenon in a treatise entitled “On Dreams”: “When one is asleep,” he writes, “there is something in consciousness which tells us that what presents itself is but a dream.”
With the rise of Christianity, exploration of lucid dreaming fell by the wayside. Many Christian scholars, including Thomas Aquinas, argued that dreams were the work of the devil. As a result, the next major development in lucid dreaming didn’t come until 1867, when the Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denys published a book called “Dreams and How to Guide Them,” in which he asserted that with the right training, anyone could become a lucid dreamer. In 1913, the Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden coined the term “lucid dreaming.”
These days, the Internet abounds with lucid dreaming forums where people share their experiences and help one another master the art. Even celebrities have gotten involved. The director Guillermo del Toro has spoken extensively about the ways the lucid dreams he had as a child have influenced his movies: “When I was a kid … I would go to sleep and start dreaming I was in the exact bed I was in, in the exact room I was in, and things would come out in that room. Monsters,” del Toro says in a 2008 interview on PBS. The faun in the movie “Pan’s Labyrinth” first came to del Toro while he was asleep.
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Monsters also haunted Melissa, a Yale senior majoring in psychology, in her childhood lucid dreams. “Maybe I was just a weird kid, but I had a disproportionate number of pretty scary dreams,” Melissa says. “As I grew older, the scary things happened, but there was a deep-seated sense that the monsters would go away. It became a lot less scary.” When she got to Yale, Melissa decided it was time she start exploring dreaming more closely. So she recruited her friend and fellow Yale student Kate Mayans ’12, and as many of her other friends as she could, to start actively trying to lucid dream.
The best way to have a lucid dream, any reputable lucid dreamer will tell you, is to start keeping a dream journal. Keeping a dream journal allows you to remember your dreams better, so that when they happen, you’re more likely to recognize them as dreams. The Lucid Dreaming Coalition began to keep their own journals, discuss their dreams at sporadic meetings, and experiment with new techniques.
While the crazier techniques the Coalition has tried haven’t worked — like drinking tea one member brought back from Canada, the taste of which Melissa admits she couldn’t stand — both Mayans and Melissa agree that keeping dream journals is effective. Soon after beginning her journal, Mayans had her first lucid dream. In the dream, her math teacher handed her back an exam that she knew she hadn’t taken and that made her realize she wasn’t awake. As Mayans described her dream, Melissa nodded knowingly. For Melissa, lucid dreaming is a chance to escape from the logic of the everyday world and enter into a world governed by different, stranger rules, rules that make sense only in the way they divide the real from the fantastical.
“Part of me is a little sad that we don’t live in a world with supernatural things,” Melissa says. “Lucid dreaming is as close as it gets.”
Compared to lucid dreaming’s rich cultural history, its scientific history is disappointingly meager. Part of the problem is that studying lucid dreaming doesn’t have the obvious scientific value studying something like cocaine abuse does because lucid dreaming is an enjoyable pastime, not a debilitating addiction. But some scientists believe lucid dreaming is still worth studying because of its potential promise as a psychiatric treatment of disorders like post-traumatic stress, which often involve recurrent nightmares. If psychiatrists understood exactly how lucid dreaming worked, they could theoretically teach a patient how to control his dreams and turn a nightmare into a pleasant adventure. The other barrier to studying lucid dreaming is the difficulty in scientifically proving that someone is even having a lucid dream: a patient’s word that he or she had a dream hardly meets the standard for scientific evidence.
For a long time, scientists couldn’t think of any other way to determine whether or not someone was having a lucid dream. During the period of sleep when most dreaming occurs, called Rapid Eye Movement (REM), the body shuts down. Muscle tone is lost and the ability to move is impaired. “It’s a protective mechanism,” Morgan explains. “People who don’t have that do terrible things while they’re sleeping.” Take Kenneth Parks: in 1987, he got into his car, drove to his in-laws’ house, and bludgeoned his mother-in-law to death with a tire iron, all while asleep. Parks’ jury decided his actions were involuntary, and they found him not guilty. While the paralysis of muscles may be good for people, though, it’s bad for researchers because lucid dreamers can’t press buttons or do anything else to signal to researchers that they’re in a lucid dream.
In the late 1970s, Stephen LaBerge, a researcher at Stanford, invented a way of bypassing this roadblock. During REM sleep, the body no longer produces a certain subset of molecules called neurotransmitters, which means that paralysis spreads through the muscles involved in movement. Other muscles — including the heart muscle and the eye muscles — remain active; REM sleep gets its name from the fact that while we’re in it, our eyes move quickly back and forth beneath our eyelids. Electrodes placed on either side of the eyes can measure these swift movements. “In a lucid dream I can volitionally do whatever I want, [so] why not make a signal that we could agree upon in advance; a pattern of eye-movement signals that could then be used to prove that I had a lucid dream?” said LaBerge in an interview for a website devoted to issues of consciousness called “Mavericks of the Mind.” LaBerge brought participants into his lab, hooked them up to electrodes, and then waited for them to fall asleep. While they slept, he monitored the movements of their eyes, searching for that pre-determined pattern of eye-movements. Skilled lucid dreamers but never non-lucid dreamers gave the signal during REM sleep, proving that lucid dreaming does, in fact, exist. Cases of lucid dreaming have been documented for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until LaBerge published his results around three decades ago that the scientific community finally recognized lucid dreaming as a real phenomenon.
As LaBerge was conducting his pioneering research, Peter Morgan was still a boy in Livermore, California, a town he refers to as “suburbia U.S.A.” He already knew he wanted to become a doctor. “My friends had always come to me for their medical concerns,” Morgan says. “I don’t know that I knew anything more than anyone else did, but I was sort of fitting into that role.” Even now, it’s easy to see why they came to him. He’s undeniably intelligent, but he’s also one of the few scientists at Yale who includes smiley faces in his emails. Everyone calls him Peter, not Dr. Morgan.
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Morgan discovered his interest in dreaming just as early as his passion for medicine. At around 16 or 17 years old — he had just started driving — he heard a program on the radio about lucid dreaming that offered tips on how to do it yourself. Within a week, he had had his first lucid dream, and he was hooked. “It’s exhilarating to have done it,” Morgan says. “Sleep sometimes can be scary. It’s giving up to the darkness, to the nothingness. For a lucid dreamer, you’re not doing that. You’re just going into another state where you’re still going to be there.”
Around the same time Morgan began dreaming lucidly, he was in a skiing accident. He wasn’t hurt, but for the briefest of moments he lost consciousness. “It felt like just a jump in my timeline from being upright, getting the sense that I might be falling, to being 10 or 20 feet down the hill, spinning around and going down quickly on my back and tumbling. Something about the experience didn’t accrue whatever was required to have that sort of remembered present, so it got me philosophizing about consciousness.”
A couple years later, Morgan began at Yale as a traditional pre-medical student but grew frustrated with the competitive nature of his pre-med classes. In physics, however, he found a sense of camaraderie with his peers and a major that fed his ego. “[Physics] is appealing to a young person who thinks he’s smart and wants everybody to know that,” Morgan said. And so the Yale student put his fascination with the laws that govern the mind on hold to learn a bit more about the laws that govern the universe. After college, Morgan decided to enroll in a graduate program in physics back in Livermore, where, he says, “I discovered that I do really like physics, but … my heart was really still in medicine, and in neuroscience.” After one year as a graduate student in physics, Peter Morgan enrolled in the MD/PhD program at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
For his PhD work in psychiatry, he looked at how neurons, the cells that make up our brains and nervous system, control behavior in the sea slug. Learning about how neurons control behavior in sea slugs helped Morgan better understand how neurons control our own behavior. It wasn’t long before he began to research how the neurons in the human brain controlled behavior in the context of cocaine addiction. But it was only recently that he finally returned to the interest in lucid dreaming he had developed as a teenage boy, this time as a scientist rather than a dreamer. Just a few years ago, Morgan could lucid dream proficiently, but he couldn’t understand what was happening at the level of the billions of neurons firing in his brain while he slept.
It would take an excuse in the form of a high school student to “justify taking time away from the research that pays the bills,” as Morgan puts it, and to study lucid dreaming as he had long wanted to. Michelle Neider was interested in dreams and needed a mentor for a science competition she wanted to enter; meanwhile, if Morgan was going to begin researching lucid dreaming, he wanted his participants to be high school students because there is some anecdotal evidence that younger people have an easier time lucid dreaming. When Michelle contacted Morgan, she got her research mentor, and Morgan got ready access to a group of New York high school students who would participate in his study. For a week, Michelle’s peers at Briarcliff High School who agreed to participate in the study kept dream journals and filled out questionnaires about their dreams. Over the course of the study, students also underwent cognitive testing to see how they were using different parts of their brain. The goal was to see whether the brains of lucid dreamers functioned differently than the brains of non-lucid dreamers.
Morgan hypothesized that people who have a propensity towards lucid dreaming would have different levels of brain activity than people who don’t — perhaps a region of the brain was more active in lucid dreamers. To determine whether or not that was the case, Morgan wanted to find signs of strong activity in a particular region even when a person who has a propensity towards lucid dreaming was awake. Based on previous research in the field of dreaming, Morgan knew that when people fall asleep two areas — those normally active when someone has conscious awareness — shut down. One is the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a part of the prefrontal lobe located just behind the forehead and involved in working memory. During REM sleep, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex turns back on. The other is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which sits adjacent to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and is involved in emotional decision-making. These two regions were the areas Morgan would focus on. Since lucid dreaming takes place during REM sleep, Morgan hypothesized that students with a propensity towards lucid dreaming would perform better on cognitive tasks that engage the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, but would perform the same as their peers on tasks that engage the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
His hypothesis proved correct. In one task, the Wisconsin Card Sort Task, participants had to sort cards based on things like color or shape without being told how to sort them. The computer gave participants feedback to let them know whether they were sorting the cards correctly or incorrectly. fMRI, a special machine that takes in-depth pictures of the brain, has shown that this task engages the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. In another computer-based test, the Iowa Gambling Task, participants selected cards from one of four decks in order to gain as much virtual money as they could. Two of the decks are high risk, high reward; two of the decks are low-risk, low reward. This task engages the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.
While the Wisconsin Card Sort Task measures activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and how good students are at remembering things in the short term, the Iowa Gambling Task measures activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and how great a role emotions are playing in influencing a participant’s decision making. Lucid and non-lucid dreamers performed exactly the same on the Wisconsin Card Sort Task, but those with a propensity for lucid dreaming performed much better on the Iowa Gambling Task than those who didn’t. These results meant that Morgan was right: lucid dreamers, even while awake, are fundamentally different from non-lucid dreamers. They also meant that Morgan got the funding he needed — $15,000 from the Mind Science Foundation — to start his current research project.
That project began this past summer and is spearheaded by Sofija Canavan ’12, a Yale senior majoring in the neuroscience track in psychology. “The goal of the research is to reproduce and add onto the original finding,” Morgan says. “We want to do a better job of confirming lucidity to see if that’s really what’s distinguishing people’s performance on these cognitive tasks.” He also wants to see if there are physical or anatomical differences in the brains of lucid and non-lucid dreamers.
The first part of this study is a chance to prove the results of Morgan’s first experiment one more time and make sure they hold in an adult population. The second part of the study takes the research to its next logical next step — moving from studying lucid dreamers while they are awake to studying them while they are dreaming. This time, to confirm lucidity, people will come into the lab to be monitored as they sleep. Sofija is often the one doing the monitoring.
Tonight, she is setting up a control subject for a night in a room at the Connecticut Mental Health Center. There is a cold, sanitized feeling to everything, from the pillows wrapped in plastic beneath the pillowcases to the crisp pink blankets. The subject for this evening, whose name is being withheld due to the privacy laws governing research, has never had a lucid dream, but he is a dreamer. “I had a lot of realistic dreams. Some were weird. Don’t judge me,” he jokes to Sofija as he hands over the small green spiral notebook where all those dreams were recorded — his dream journal.
The subject then sits down in a chair next to his bed. Sofija places a sheet of paper in front of him and explains the directions. He will complete a series of word puzzles involving associations between one word and another. As he works, Sofija prepares the equipment needed to monitor him while he sleeps. Out come adhesive tape, wooden Q-tips, a black pack bulging with the many multi-colored wires topped with little circular metal head called electrodes, tubes of gel, and a greasy red pencil. Once the subject finishes the task, Sofija attaches six electrodes around his head: two reference electrodes (as a basis for comparison) behind his ears, two just below his collar bone, two below his chin to measure his muscle movements, two next to his eyes to measure his eye movements, and two on his leg. The whole process takes about an hour, and by the time it is over the subject has a whole tangle of wires hanging behind him.
“You’ve got this kind of strange, Mohawk thing going on,” Sofija told him.
“Take a picture,” he jokes.
Those wires measure the electrical impulses emitted as neurons in the brain fire and record them as a series of lines on a graph. People trained in reading the graphs, like Sofija, are able to determine things like whether the subject is awake or asleep and whether his eyes are moving left or right. Subjects capable of lucid dreaming will be able to give the pattern of eye signals, first conceived of by LaBerge, that will let researchers know when they are within a lucid dream. Using all this information, Morgan will be able to group people based on their performance on cognitive tasks and whether or not they are able to lucid dream. Hopefully, he will be able to confirm that the people doing better on the cognitive tasks are actually able to lucid dream, and that the people performing less well, like the subject in question, are not.
Then Morgan will use the fMRI to show which regions of the brain are lighting up and to determine how active the ventromedial and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortexes are in any given individual. Using fMRI is more expensive and more challenging than using electrodes — the machine is high-tech and it’s hard for people to fall asleep in a giant, loud magnet — but it will allow Morgan to prove that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is off while the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is engaged during a lucid dream.
Morgan hopes to one day understand what it is about our brains that allows us to be conscious creatures, able to contemplate our own existence and our own mortality. When Morgan fell on that mountain so many years ago, what he lost for the briefest of moments was meta-awareness — his awareness that he was aware. For much of history, meta-awareness has fallen into the realm of philosophy. Philosophers ponder what it means to experience a color, or pain, or even consciousness itself. But while it’s been possible to design an experiment to determine how someone can distinguish one color from another or pain from hot or cold, there is no way to do an experiment on the experience of consciousness, or meta-awareness. As far as we know, the brain is the source of all of our thoughts and experiments, and “if you assume that everything we experience has to arise from the brain, there is the fundamental issue of using the tool itself to look at itself,” Morgan says.
Moreover, if someone loses meta-awareness, they’re not able to convey that they’ve lost it. Consider someone who has had so much to drink that he becomes blackout drunk. Talk to that person, and he may seem relatively normal. He may even have a reasonable working memory (he’d do okay on the Wisconsin Card Sort Task). But the next morning, he would not remember anything that happened to him the night before. Did he lose meta-awareness while he was drunk? Right now, “all we know for sure is that he didn’t remember it,” Morgan says. “The real-time monitoring of the presence or absence of [meta-awareness] is tough.”
But Morgan’s study on lucid dreaming allows for real-time monitoring. A lucid dreamer has meta-awareness, while the typical sleeper doesn’t. Compare the two of them as they sleep, and it might be possible to see where in the brain meta-awareness arises. Morgan hypothesizes that at least the ventromedial prefrontal cortex will be involved. The experience of consciousness will remain elusive — it is still impossible to determine whether or not the blackout drunk lost meta-awareness, or to determine whether we are the only creatures on this planet who have consciousness at all — but the study could bring us one step closer to understanding what makes us thinking, feeling creatures, and what gives us the unflagging certainty that we have those feelings in the first place. Knowing that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is involved in meta-awareness, at the most basic level, would indicate that our consciousness is not the result of some elusive soul separate from the physical body, like the Egyptian Ba floating above the sleeping body, but rather is intimately linked to our brains. And it could also give scientists a region to focus on in future experiments as they try to figure out how exactly meta-awareness works.
In a recurrent dream of his, Morgan comes up to plate and hits a baseball. The ball soars up into a perfect blue sky as he dashes towards first base. Under normal circumstances, the hit would definitely let him make a single or a double. But in the dream, the closer he gets to first base, the slower he runs.
“The ball would always get there first,” he said. “A beautiful hit would be wasted.”
Morgan knows a home run in his dream is completely out of the question, just as certain aspects of consciousness are simply unknowable. But in the world outside his dreams, he refuses to stop running just before first base.