Is waking consciousness just a dream within a dream?

Buddha Dreaming
Buddha Dreaming by Alice Popkorn – “Our life is shaped by our mind”. Source: Flickr

Earlier this week I was honoured to spend some time as a guest at Night Club, chatting to its founder Andrew Holecek about dreaming, meditation and consciousness. Night Club is an online forum where members learn how to become lucid during their dreams – fully aware that what they’re experiencing is a fantasy created by their own minds. But Night Club offers a whole lot more than this, because the practices and disciplines that can be deployed to cultivate nighttime lucidity also help members penetrate the illusions of their waking consciousness.

Andrew is a renowned lucid dream and dream yoga teacher who has written several wonderful books on this and related subjects. At the request of my publisher a few months ago he had kindly set aside some time to read my own book Am I Dreaming? before it hits the shelves on 1 August, and subsequently invited me to be interviewed for Night Club.

We had plenty to talk about and the interview is now live (see below).

Am I Dreaming? explores the neuroscience of altered states of consciousness, such as dreams, trance, hypnosis, meditation and the psychedelic state, and the role they can play in improving our spiritual and psychological wellbeing. The major surprise that came from my investigation of the latest scientific thinking is that all forms of consciousness, including ordinary, waking consciousness, are based on hallucinatory, virtual reality conjured by the brain and are powerfully influenced by expectation and belief.

Dreams reveal just how good the brain is at deceiving us. In the words of Professor Karl Friston at University College London: “Perception is just hallucination that is constrained by sensory evidence … Dreaming is just hallucination that is not constrained by it.”

If you’re in any doubt that the mind plays the leading role in everything we see, hear, smell, taste and touch, this video I found on Twitter will freak you out. Play the video and see what happens when you think “brainstorm”, and then what happens when you think “green needle”. As many times as you try it, you will hear what you expect to hear.

Perhaps unsurprisingly – after all, this is a huge subject with far-reaching implications – Andrew and I had run out of time before we knew it and didn’t manage to address the excellent questions posted by a Night Club member, ArthurG, before the interview. I do my best to answer Arthur’s questions below.

ArthurG: What do you see as the salient differences and similarities between lucid dreaming and virtual reality?

Andrew tells me he will address this very issue in a forthcoming interview with a scientist who specialises in virtual reality. For what it’s worth, my own take on this is that both lucid dreaming and VR can be used to cultivate greater lucidity, which will carry over into ordinary consciousness. But whereas lucid dreaming is a totally subjective, evanescent state that is challenging to cultivate, artificial VR can be reliably induced, maintained and monitored, and the environment designed specifically to provide particular exercises for participants and address particular research questions.

ArthurG: Do you see a role for virtual reality in facilitating dream work, training to have lucid dreams, or learning skills that can be applied to dreams (lucid or non-lucid)?

Andrew’s published research on VR lucidity is particularly relevant here. It may be that VR can used to improve dream lucidity through targeted training, which in turn could help people confront their demons during sleep. Rather than being deceived by the illusion and running away or freezing, the training could help them take back control.

I guess you could also create a VR environment containing certain cues that would train participants to make status checks during their waking hours and spot dream signs when they’re asleep (two strategies for promoting lucid dreaming).

ArthurG: Are there dream practices (shamanic, dream yoga etc) that can be fruitfully applied to virtual reality experiences for psychological or spiritual growth?

In theory a dream yoga exercise could be programmed into VR, such as pushing your hand through apparently solid objects, but of course in an artificial VR environment you can’t make things happen using your mind alone – at least not with current technology! – so that does limit the overlap in spiritual and psychological training. In VR you can’t will an object to become bigger or smaller, for example, which is a classic dream yoga exercise.

ArthurG: The Lucidity Institute FAQ notes that “Drugs in the LSD family, including psilocybin and tryptamines actually stimulate REM sleep (in doses small enough to allow sleep), leading to longer REM periods.” Do you know of any anecdotal accounts or research into the effect of nocturnal microdosing of psychedelics, e.g. combining microdosing with the Wake Back To Bed method? Do you think this would produce a beneficial synergistic effect?

Research to date into microdosing per se is extremely limited, though the Beckley Foundation in the UK is running a couple of new studies right now that investigate its alleged effects on creativity and pattern recognition. I don’t known of any formal study that has looked at the effects of microdoses on lucidity in dreams. Having said that, a synergistic effect seems likely, given that both dreams and psychedelics release the mind from the grip of established top-down executive and bottom-up sensory constraints (there’s more background on this in the interview).  They both allow your mind to explore alternative interpretations of reality by freeing the brain’s VR generator to do its thing.

ArthurG: Does that mean an endogenous psychedelic is involved in dreaming?

I would say no. The brain is perfectly capable of generating virtual realities without the help of any psychedelic, through well known neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine, serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline. Indeed this is the basis of all perception, both in dreams and while we’re awake. I suspect you may be referring to the theory that endogenous DMT influences dream consciousness and induces mystical experiences, popularised by Rick Strassman. According to the biochemist and veteran psychedelic research David Nichols, however, DMT is produced in insufficient quantities in the brain to produce either dreams or near death experiences.

I go into this issue in some detail in my book. Essentially, dreams and mystical experiences such as near death experiences (NDEs) can be explained by changes in levels of neurotransmitters. Nichols gave a fascinating talk about DMT and NDEs at the Breaking Convention psychedelics conference in 2017 – see below.

In a sense, serotonin is the brain’s own psychedelic. One of the receptors to which it binds in the brain, called the serotonin 2A receptor, is the very same receptor that the classic psychedelics such as LSD, psilocybin and mescaline bind to. We know that a surge of serotonin is released in situations of extreme physiological stress, which may well explain the trippy effects of NDEs, asphyxiation, fevers and so on.

 

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