Dreams, meditation and psychedelics: a manifesto for lucidity

“The life of one day is enough to rejoice. Even though you live for just one day, if you can be awakened, that one day is vastly superior to one endless life of sleep.”

Zen master Dogen

Awake or asleep, “Am I dreaming?” may be one of the most important questions you ever ask yourself because, sooner or later, reality has a way of catching up with delusions and fantasies. There’s going to be a rude awakening.

Dreams are so convincing while you are in the midst of one. For all you know you could be dreaming right now. How do you know this is actually happening, that you are wide awake reading these words on a solidly, physically existing electronic device? You could be fast asleep dreaming the whole thing.

It is not difficult, in principle, to determine whether or not you are dreaming. There are plenty of readily available tests. Of course the classic is to pinch yourself. Another is to try pushing your finger through the palm of your hand. A popular though less discrete method is to jump into the air to check whether or not gravity is working as it should. Or you could scrutinise a clock or watch face: if the numbers are jumbled or the hands are moving too fast or too slow – or in the wrong direction – the chances are you’re dreaming. As you read this, are the words behaving themselves on the page? Are they making sense?

Anyone dreaming?

These are the kinds of tricks they teach you on a lucid dreaming retreat or online course, for example Andrew Holecek’s excellent Night Club. Lucid dreaming is the ability to become aware in the midst of a dream that what you are experiencing is pure fantasy. To develop the ability to have lucid dreams, one gets into the habit of performing “status checks”, such as jumping into the air, at pre-determined points during the day.

The idea is that these habits will seep into your dreams. And if you are dreaming, you will be able to push your finger through the palm of your hand, you will be able to defy gravity. Then you’ll know. And knowing makes the dream so much more vivid, so much more exciting and interesting, and it makes your nightmares less terrifying. Adept lucid dreamers can even seize control over what happens, allowing them to take to the air and fly, or act out their fantasies, though there is a much deeper, more worthwhile objective, which is to become more lucid all the time, awake or asleep.

Lucid thinking

What they teach you on lucid dreaming courses is to saturate your waking consciousness with thoughts of lucid dreaming. One of the most dependable ways, in addition to performing status checks and recording your dreams in a journal, is simply to read a book about lucid dreaming before you go to sleep at night.

The psychiatrist Allan Hobson from Harvard Medical School, one of the world’s most highly regarded sleep and dream researchers, described to me how the hostess at a dinner party in the Sixties lent him a wonderful book called Studies in Dreams written early in the 20th century by Mary Arnold-Forster (a niece of the novelist E. M. Forster) describing her extraordinary nocturnal adventures in lucid dreaming. Hobson was deeply sceptical about the phenomenon of lucid dreaming, as most scientists were back then, but he read the book anyway in bed that night, and as a result had the first lucid dreams of his adult life.

He described one of them to me like this:

“I was teaching at Harvard – where I did teach – and I took the students outside onto the grass to show them I could fly. I flew up above them about 30 feet high and continued to lecture as I was flying. And then I came back down to earth and levitated, just to show them that was easy as well. I held myself still, five feet off the ground, and then dropped to my feet and said: ‘You see, it’s really very simple.’”

Hobson conceded that he hasn’t had many lucid dreams since (their frequency declines steeply with increasing age), but the memory of that night stuck with him and several decades later, after this hybrid form of waking and dream consciousness had been proven to the satisfaction of even the most sceptical sleep scientists, he had a brilliant idea. What he realised was that beyond all the fun stuff like flying or acting out fantasies, lucid dreaming provides neuroscientists and psychologists with a unique window into metacognition or secondary consciousness – the ability to become self aware, to know our true situation.

He reasoned that in a lucid dream, even though the brain is asleep, the parts responsible for secondary consciousness – for lucidity – must come back online and allow us to see through all the weirdness and nonsense of the dream world. More importantly, these must be the very same faculties that help us penetrate the delusions of the waking world.

Hobson and the psychologist Ursula Voss at Goethe University in Frankfurt used EEG (electroencephalography) to record the brain activity of people while they were having lucid and non-lucid dreams in a sleep lab. Comparing the EEG traces allowed them to identify the brain wave frequencies associated with the (relatively) clear-sighted, objective insights we call lucidity. They localised these differences, which peak at around 40 Hz, to the front of the brain. Subsequent research using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) has pinpointed with greater precision the regions more active in lucid than non-lucid dreams: regions strongly implicated in metacognitive abilities.

Hallucinating reality

Lucid awareness – a key component of mindfulness – is hugely important for our mental health and wellbeing. To understand why, you need to know that what you are experiencing right now – even while wide awake, hopefully – is a kind of hallucination.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at the video clip below, which helps prove that we hallucinate even while wide awake – that our brains use their predictions and expectations to fabricate conscious perception from the sketchy, unreliable sensory evidence available to them.

The toy depicts a character called Brainstorm from the children’s animated TV series Ben Ten. The idea is that when you press the button, a green light pulses, and you hear the word “Brainstorm”. So if you play the clip, you will hear “Brainstorm”.

So what? But if you play it again only this time thinking the words “Green Needle” before the button is pressed, the chances are that’s what you will hear.

Now think “Brainstorm” again as you hit play.

Just to prove this isn’t some cheap trick with several versions of the video playing in sequence, try thinking whichever words you like – either “Brainstorm” or “Green Needle” or perhaps a combination of the two, say, “Brain Needle”.

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Believe me now? It’s almost as if the toy is reading our minds. But in actual fact it is our minds that have the final say on what words we hear, not the sound waves that impinge on our ear drums. To paraphrase the boy in the Matrix – who seems to be able to bend spoons without touching them – “It’s not the sound that changes. That’s impossible. It’s your mind that changes.”

Illusions like this reveal the truth about perception, which is that what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch, rather than being a passive harvesting of information from the environment, is more like a scientific hypothesis about what’s happening out there in the world.

Neuroscientists now believe that all perception is the result of the brain’s inferences or predictions about the causes of its sensory inputs. Perception is the brain’s best guess about the causes of stimuli, based on its past experience.

Virtual reality generator

The brain has evolved to do this out of necessity, because the raw sensory information we receive through our eyes, ears and so on is inherently noisy, sparse and ambiguous. The workaround that evolution appears to have come up with is to impose order on that data, drawing upon the brain’s inbuilt, learned models of reality. Your brain, in a very real sense, is a generator of virtual realities.

This is how neuroscientists think it all works – in fact, everything in consciousness: perception, emotion and cognition. The brain’s virtual reality generator, they believe, is organised hierarchically in layers like the floors of a multinational’s HQ. Two streams of information flow in opposite directions through this hierarchy. There are predictions or hypotheses going top-down, and prediction errors – which are the discrepancies between what was predicted and raw data from the senses – coming back in the other direction.

Importantly, as the signals ascend the hierarchy, the information represented is increasingly abstract and temporally drawn out. So at the bottom there is raw sensory data and at the top are thoughts, plans and ruminations about the past and future.

The job of the brain appears to be to minimise prediction errors at every level of the hierarchy. To do this it can either allow the error signals to pass upwards and update its models of reality – which is the basis of learning and perception – or it can change the sensory inputs – which is the basis of action, changing the world or our physiology in some way.

I won’t unpack these ideas any further here (you’ll have to read my latest book for that), but suffice to say that whenever the sensory data is sparse or ambiguous – that is, most of the time – your brain will favour its expectations over evidence from the senses. It will lend its expectations more credence or weight than the sensory data.

Optical illusions
Optical illusions demonstrate that perception is the brain’s best guess or hypothesis about the causes of sensory stimuli based on the rough-and-ready “rules of thumb” it has learned

In effect, all conscious experience is a controlled hallucination or best guess. This usually only becomes apparent when we experience auditory illusions like the Brainstorm toy or optical illusions like the classic ones illustrated above. But it also becomes plain during hypnosis, either the stage kind, where volunteers from the audience can be convinced of almost anything – that they’ve gone blind or lost the power of speech, for example – or the clinical kind, which can even allow patients to have surgery without anaesthesia, convinced that they are not in any pain.

The brain’s expectations exert a powerful influence over our physiology, too, which also only becomes apparent under special circumstances. If, for example, you believe in the efficacy of a pill or a medical procedure it will be more likely to work, in other words the placebo effect. Conversely, if you believe a drug or procedure will cause unpleasant side effects or won’t work, that’s more likely to happen too, known as the nocebo effect.

Red tape

These are all consequences of a brain operating on prediction, almost entirely automatically. Most of the time our predictive brains work perfectly well, but they do have a downside that may be responsible for all kinds of mental illness, because as time goes by, through learning, our predictive models become increasingly complicated and hidebound. They are less open to change. Our top-down expectations dominate and potentially useful sensory information is disregarded.

It’s as if, over the years, a multinational company has got itself tied up in red tape. Despite its exciting origins as a startup, the business is now much less creative and responsive to market changes. Its operations are dominated by top-down, bureaucratic thinking, whereas ideas coming up from below are mostly ignored. This is the fate of all large, intelligent organisations and life forms. It is practically inevitable.

For the brain, this progressive loss of flexibility manifests even over the course of a single day. We all know that feeling of becoming more cranky and paranoid towards the evening. We’re just not functioning so well either emotionally or creatively.

To solve this dilemma, the solution that evolution appears to have hit upon is sleep. A few years ago, Hobson proposed a fascinating hypothesis in collaboration with two other scientists, Karl Friston from University College London and Charles Hong from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. They suggested that by disconnecting the brain from bottom-up sensory and top-down rational inputs, intermediate layers of the predictive hierarchy are given the freedom to reconfigure themselves into more efficient, streamlined forms, almost like defragging the hard disk on a computer – which of course you can only do while the computer is not in use.

Dreams are what you get when you take the predictive brain offline. The brain continues to do its thing just the same as in daytime, generating virtual realities or “controlled hallucinations”, but these are no longer constrained by bottom-up sensory inputs or top-down reality checks.

At the level of nerve cells, the “reboot” afforded by sleep may well involve pruning the tangle of connections that have accumulated during the day’s learning experiences. The result is that overnight, through this “synaptic homeostasis”, your predictive models regain some of their former flexibility and efficiency.

This helps explain why getting a good night’s sleep is so important for mental health – something that has been shown again and again in studies. Sleep is also vital for ensuring the optimal regulation of physiological variables such as body temperature. Animal studies suggest that, as a result, going without sleep ultimately results in death.

But here’s the catch. There are some models of thinking and behaving that become so deeply ingrained – so hardwired into the brain – that even a good night’s sleep can’t shift them. I’m talking about things like the constant rumination and self-criticism of depression, the excessive fears of PTSD, and the insatiable hunger of addiction.

Sleep isn’t enough to relearn or optimise these harmful models. Something more powerful is needed.

This is where other altered states of consciousness may be particularly useful for our mental health, whether they are induced by drugs, meditation or virtual reality. They can also occur spontaneously as a result of a near death experience, for example. Like sleep, these altered states all involve the temporary disconnection or disruption of the brain’s information processing hierarchies. In this way they open up a window of opportunity that can be used for relearning harmful ways of thinking and behaving.

Restore factory settings

Its seems the brain has evolved a way to reboot itself when things get really tough, perhaps as a result of starvation, asphyxiation or a cardiac arrest. The same mechanism may come into play in severe mental illness such as OCD or major depression, when the brain has become “stuck”. Like an electronic device so cluttered with files and apps it has seized up, the only way to get it working efficiently once more may be to hit the button marked “restore factory settings”.

In the brain this button appears to be a nerve receptor for serotonin called the 2A receptor. In normal circumstances it doesn’t seem to have a big influence because it has a relatively low affinity for the neurotransmitter. But when things get really bad, for example in the seconds after a cardiac arrest, there is a massive release of serotonin in addition to other brain chemicals. We can’t do the experiment in humans, but in rats, serotonin levels increase 20-fold in the minutes after asphyxia. This serotonin rush may hit the 2A reset button, disrupting established, ingrained ways of thinking, perceiving and behaving, triggering what is popularly known as a near death experience.

Up to 20% of cardiac arrest survivors report having a near death experience. In a life-or-death situation, such as being on the verge of starvation or facing down a predator, pushing the serotonin 2A reset button might just save your life because it promotes novel ways of thinking and doing things – new ways of finding food or fighting back, perhaps.

So the serotonin 2A receptor could be the button that restores the brain’s factory settings. It’s the very same receptor that psychedelics such as psilocybin – the active component of magic mushrooms – LSD and DMT activate when they shake up perception and cognition during a psychedelic trip.

Two scientists at Imperial College London, David Nutt and Robin Carhart-Harris, put forward this theory in 2017. They say it helps to explain why a near death experience and a psychedelic trip have so much in common. Both are associated with feelings of awe, spiritual insights and the ineffable sensation of being “at one with the universe”. And both experiences can lead to long-term improvements in emotional wellbeing, including more openness, sense of purpose and a greater feeling of connectedness to nature and other people.

This discovery of the brain’s reset button has profound implications for the treatment of mental illness. In a pilot study at Imperial College, just two doses of psilocybin, combined with psychotherapy, led to dramatic improvements in the symptoms of depressed patients who had failed to respond to any other treatment. And these improvements lasted for up to six months. As a result of this pilot study, there are now a couple of much larger clinical trials under way of psilocybin for depression. One of them, at Imperial, is comparing two one-off doses of psilocybin to a daily dose of an SSRI antidepressant.

There have also been impressive early studies in the past few years suggesting psilocybin can help people break their smoking habit and allow patients to come to terms with life-threatening illness. And you may know that in the 1950s and 60s, before research was effectively banned under international law, LSD was showing huge promise for treating alcoholism.

The psychedelic renaissance has begun.

Death to the self

By hitting the 2A reset button, these drugs shatter established models of thinking, perceiving and behaving. Binding to the 2A receptor has the effect of turning down the influence of top-down models in the predictive hierarchy and turning up the volume of sensory inputs. During the trip, this makes conscious experience much more intense and meaningful.

If the dose is high enough psychedelics even disrupt the deepest predictive model of all: our sense of embodying a distinct, solid self with a particular personality and history.

Scientists call this “drug-induced ego dissolution” – or DIED for short, which is entirely appropriate givewn that having your sense of selfhood or ego stripped away really does feel like dying. I know this because I’ve experienced it for myself.

It was in May last year after eating 30 grams of psilocybin-containing magic truffles – which are the underground mycelium of magic mushrooms. This was on a retreat in the Netherlands, where magic truffles are legal. The retreat was organised by the UK’s excellent Psychedelic Society.

What did I learn from this extraordinary, at times harrowing experience? One of the things it taught me was that without ego, consciousness continues. Selfhood isn’t the be-all and end-all of existence. This opening up changes your entire perspective. Afterwards, you feel more connected to other people, nature and the wonders of the universe, an effect that can last for weeks, months or a lifetime.

Ego dissolution may explain why psychedelic therapy is showing so much promise for reducing anxieties about death among people with life-threatening illnesses such as cancer. Psychedelic DIEDs, out-of-body and near death experiences can have similar long-term psychological benefits, including reduced fear of death. Perhaps it’s the apparent proof that consciousness can survive without a physical self. In one lab-based study, even a virtually induced out-of-body experience reduced fear of dying.

These experiences demonstrate that there is more to consciousness than physical, autobiographical selfhood. They help reveal that the self is just another model used by the brain to make predictions about the world to maximise our chances of survival – predictions that, nonetheless, in many ways limit us as human beings.

In The Doors of Perception, Aldhous Huxley had a neat turn of phrase to describe what it felt like when the psychedelic drug mescaline uncoupled conscious awareness from his ego.

“For the moment,” he wrote, “that interfering neurotic, who in waking hours tries to run the show, was blessedly out of the way.”

Taking back control

Altered states offer us a way to overcome our natural tendency to think, perceive and behave in these automatic, egocentric ways. They can wake us up.

There are studies suggesting that drinking ayahuasca, the South American psychedelic brew, or ingesting psilocybin can boost mindfulness and lucidity in the days and weeks after a trip.

While meditation is well known for promoting mindfulness – which has established benefits for mental health – research published just last month suggests meditation and psilocybin may have synergistic effects during a group mindfulness retreat, enhancing mindfulness and producing larger positive psychological changes four months later compared with meditation plus placebo. The researchers write tha psilocybin also “increased meditation depth and incidence of positively experienced self-dissolution along the perception-hallucination continuum, without concomitant anxiety … Meditation seems to enhance psilocybin’s positive effects while counteracting possible dysphoric [unpleasant] responses.”

Your altered state of choice needn’t be as exotic as meditation or magic mushrooms to bring positive change. Even playing videogames has been linked to greater cognitive control and lucidity, perhaps because the games allow us to disconnect temporarily from everyday concerns while honing our virtual-life-preserving attention skills. Interestingly, people who play a lot of videogames are also more likely to have lucid dreams.

So to conclude this rather lengthy post, if we don’t undertake regular reboots, life will entail a steady narrowing of opportunities and possibilities as our brain’s predictive models become ever more entrenched with the passage of time. We will become less open to new experiences, more driven by habit and prejudice. We will be stuck with our fears, our insecurities and delusions.

Altered states can help unstick us, re-opening us to fresh sensory and cognitive inputs. Consciousness might be a controlled hallucination – a waking dream only weakly constrained by reality – but simply knowing that it’s so gives us the power to take back control of our lives.

These reflections are more fully explored in my new book Am I Dreaming? The New Science of Consciousness and How Altered States Reboot the Brain

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