Benjamin Baird is a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience and cognitive science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. On November 21, 2015, while I was staying at the sleep center attempting to have a lucid dream under his care and supervision, he kindly agreed to record an interview with me about his interest and work in lucid dreaming.
Ben is looking for additional participants for the research study on lucid dreaming. If this interests you, if you have more than several lucid dreams per week, and you live close to Madison, Wisconsin or are willing to travel there, please contact Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It may be helpful for understanding the interview to see a brief definition of metacognition that Ben gave me: “In general terms, [metacognition] just means reflecting on your own cognition or thinking about your own cognition.”
Mike: You shared with me that, like myself, you didn’t grow up having spontaneous lucid dreams. How did lucid dreaming initially catch your interest?
Ben: I’ve been interested in consciousness since I was a little kid. Well, probably not a little kid, but about 13 or 14 years old, and I started exploring different things and came upon lucid dreaming a few years later within that context. It struck me as a potential method of exploring consciousness and the mind.
M: So something to be explored from that angle. It wasn’t so much about the different experiences you could have in lucid dreams?
B: I don’t know if I really had a logical, coherent set of reasons at that time for going into it. Looking back now, I can cast it in certain ways. For sure it’s true that it emerged for me from a broader framework of an interest in consciousness and the nature of the self, but my initial interest wasn’t in doing a particular thing in a lucid dream. I didn’t have any specific motivation along those lines.
I’ve heard funny stories about other people going into it for very specific reasons. One woman apparently went into it because she had dreams of Michael Jackson and she wanted to essentially continue having a relationship with Michael Jackson in her dreams.
M: I’ve met that woman [laughs].
B: Really? [laughs]
M: She was cool. She was self-aware about it, and there was a lot more to her and to her lucid dreaming practice than Michael Jackson, but yeah, that was also the most interesting motivation I’d ever heard. Although, like her, I had a very specific motivation for learning to lucid dream.
B: What was yours?
M: I had just gone through a breakup that was very sudden and unexpected, at least on my end, and it was keeping me up at night. You got a little taste of my struggles with insomnia last night [trying to fall asleep in the sleep lab]. I kept waking up from bad dreams related to the breakup at odd hours of the night. My idea was if I could become lucid in one of those dreams, I could use lucidity as a platform to achieve some closure.
I’ve never had one of the grand, cathartic dreams where the issue gets completely resolved in one night that you sometimes read about but, little by little, I worked at it and worked with it. None of this is much of an issue for me anymore. I’m pretty grateful and my interest level in the topic has remained sky high well past resolving that particular issue.
I’d heard of lucid dreaming a few years prior to this and thought it sounded cool, but it sounded like too much work. It took that low point to help me get serious about it.
B: I think I mentioned before, I never really had the sense that it was going to be a lot of work. Even though I never had them naturally growing up, I guess I had a bit of an innate knack for it. I’m one of these people that read about it for the first time and had my first lucid dream that night. Just with a little bit of practice I started having them fairly frequently.
When I first stumbled on to it, it was kind of like, wow! I did not even conceive of this as being a possibility. I was fortunate enough to stumble upon The Lucidity Institute website. I was just poking around online and found a good resource with good information.
When I actually had a lucid dream, it felt like a whole new continent of the mind; it’s a whole new way of experiencing this domain of experience, and a new way, potentially, of exploring the mind.
M: That’s incredible, having one that first night.
B: I’ve actually heard that a lot. It happens to a lot of people because it’s very salient. It’s something you never considered before, so it can be on your mind. I was also sleeping a lot at that time. I slept in super late and it happened after going back to bed in the morning.
M: Do you recall how old you were at the time?
B: Pretty old. This was a number of years after I first started getting interested in consciousness. I was probably about 18.
M: It was later in life for me, I didn’t start until I was 27. It seems like it’s never too late. I recall some of the other people at the Lucidity Institute workshops got discouraged and self-conscious about the fact that they were starting at 55, or whatever the case may be. I don’t see why that has to be a problem.
B: Yeah, totally. I mean an older friend of mine has definitely learned. He struggled to have regular lucid dreams, but he’s improved a lot and he does have them.
M: In some ways, for the reasons you mentioned about sleeping a lot and sleeping in late, it seems ideally suited for retired people, depending on their schedule.
B: Sure. Likewise with meditation.
M: Was your progress pretty rapid after your initial lucid dream? What were those early months like?
B: It’s hard to reconstruct accurately looking back. I definitely had a number of them in a short amount of time after that. I can’t give you a numerical answer, but there was a lot of increasing interest in the topic. I started reading a lot about it, learning about the techniques that Stephen LaBerge and other researchers had developed. I started implementing those and training up my dream recall. My dream recall rapidly improved over a short amount of time from doing those techniques of just waking up in the morning and writing down every single thing I could remember. That is a whole cool practice in itself of course.
It did progress from there. Over the next 5 years or so, my practice really continued to improve until I reached a pinnacle. Then, as I mentioned, about 5 years after that was when I was starting grad school is when everything came crashing down. I became overwhelmed with the intellectual commitments of doing a PhD, which is hugely unfortunate. It’s a big regret of mine that I wasn’t able to balance my commitments more. It’s possible in principle, I know researchers who have done that, but many of the people I talk to really struggle with this as well. I think it’s just a large number of things that we can talk about, I don’t know how interesting that is…
M: I’d be curious. It strikes me as unfortunate that some of the people most motivated to study lucid dreaming in an objective, third-person way tend to find their opportunities to continue having the first-person experience of lucid dreaming decreased. Even split between you and Anna, who is helping you with the study, the requirements of looking after me in the sleep lab certainly don’t leave a lot of time for your own sleep. What else contributes?
B: Yeah, totally. Now that I’m doing sleep science, it’s way worse; staying up nights and having an irregular sleep schedule. Also, when I sleep now, my body is basically in survival mode, trying to meet the physiological requirements to stay alive [laughs].
M: On a physical level?
B: That’s how it feels. Just blackout, slow-wave sleep. Doing sleep work is even more difficult for maintaining a practice for all those reasons. It is a shame, and many, many people I talk to within cognitive and brain sciences feel this way too. These are people who are very interested in meditation and have very strong practices coming into the programs.
Another reason is the conceptual nature of intellectual and academic work. You’re required to think all the time. They want you to constantly think and read and engage with conceptual material and write and design new studies. The constant thinking, thinking, thinking is, in a way, anathema to some of the things that likely promote lucidity, such as mindfulness and more observational types of awareness. You are so caught up in the intellectual churning of data and information.
It’s kind of a different level of mind that does seem to butt heads with the monitoring kind of awareness that many people have suggested, and this holds true in my experience, to be related to success with lucid dreaming in the long run.
M: I would suspect, and you can confirm or refute this, that even when you get breaks, it can be hard to turn that analytical processing off.
B: Yeah, it’s like turning the Titanic around. It takes some time to turn it around. For myself, I’m able to do it in not too long of a time. It’s more natural for me to be in those [contemplative] states rather than the intellectual zone. Maybe I’m not really an intellectual at heart and more of a contemplative.
That’s one point. Another point is just the sheer time commitment. It’s just so overwhelming and these days it’s getting completely crazy with the publishing requirements of academia. It’s too much, and I think everyone is overburdened in the sciences in particular.
M: You’ll have to remind me if it was in your time here at the University of Wisconsin or during your PhD at the University of California-Santa Barbara that you were involved in studies on meditation as well.
B: Both places actually. At UC-Santa Barbara, my advisor Jonathan Schooler’s work is most focused on the opposite of mindfulness: mind-wandering. That’s the major thrust of the research in that lab. They started looking at mindfulness and meditation as potential ways to curb distracted thought and increase attention skills. They’re doing a variety of interesting projects now, including studying the effects of mindfulness in schools. So they’re actually implementing mindfulness programs in elementary, middle and high schools in the Santa Barbara area and studying how that impacts reading comprehension and simultaneously impacts their attention.
We also did a few studies looking at the impact of meditation practice on metacognition. The relationship between meta-awareness and mind wandering, as well as metacognition in the traditional sense of being aware of your own faculties and cognition and so forth is a tricky topic. We did a first pass on that question.
My thesis work, by the way, was all on metacognition and the brain connectivity underlying individual differences in metacognitive skills. For all that work we focused on memory and perception as the two domains of interest. This was mostly because that’s where pretty much all the work over the history of psychology and the history of science has been in metacognition: the field of meta-memory and confidence judgments in perceptual decision making. We focused on those as a first target area to see whether meditation has any influence on metacognitive skills in general, and we found a small, but significant, improvement in metacognition for memory, but nothing for perception. Why that is, we still really don’t know.
It’s a preliminary study. We essentially assessed the effect of a mindfulness meditation intervention that lasted 2 weeks…
M: …on school-aged children?
B: No, this was university students. Pre-post, compared to an active control condition, which was a nutrition training course. We found this modest improvement in metacognition in the memory domain. It was totally preliminary, and clearly requires follow-up. I’d like to see it replicated and extended to other realms as well. It’s an interesting question though, to what extent meditation influences our meta-awareness or metacognitive skills. Of course, this is one of the classic traits that’s hypothesized to be influenced through meditation. It makes intuitive sense why it would be, since you’re not only training your ability to maintain focus, but also your ability to recognize that your mind has drifted to something else. It’s a sort of monitoring of the intentional relation between yourself and your intended object of focus. It makes intuitive sense, and we got some interesting preliminary results, but clearly much more work is needed there.
M: What about your work here at UW?
B: When I first came to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I came under a large grant that was a collaboration between my current advisor, Dr. Giulio Tononi, and Dr. Richard Davidson, who has really been spearheading most of the mainstream work on meditation within the cognitive and neuro- sciences. That’s a huge grant funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to look at a large number of variables. It’s really an exploratory study to further evaluate the effects of mindfulness meditation and long-term meditation.
Our side of it here at the sleep center is to see what effects meditation has on brain activity in sleep and also consciousness in sleep, along with some of these other variables while awake like attention and decreased mind-wandering.
M: That’s still in process right? Are you able to share any findings there?
B: It’s still launching. We’re just beginning the first phases of data collection. In fact, no long-term meditators have been brought in yet. Only a few groups have been through the first mindfulness training. There aren’t any results yet, it will be in the data collection phase for a long time, probably a few years. It’s a monster project.
In part, it’s based on a previous grant and project along similar lines in which they found that long-term meditators had increased gamma activity in the parietal-occipital cortex during sleep. Now, they didn’t measure dreaming or consciousness in sleep, so the obvious questions are: first of all, does this difference in gamma activity replicate; and secondly, is it related to changes in conscious experience during dreams? An obvious candidate is, of course, changes in awareness such as lucid dreaming. It’ll be interesting to see if we find something there.
Unfortunately, we’re not looking at people who are really practitioners of meditation in sleep, such as the dream yoga tradition. This is more focused on what you might call serious hobbyist meditators: people who have an ongoing practice of an hour a day for an extended period of time. It’s not clear whether we’ll find differences in lucid dreaming in this group, but all of these are ripe areas for future work. There’s been a few studies on this, but I think much more work is needed to elucidate the relationship between meditation practice and increases in lucid dreaming and awareness in sleep.
M: This is a good opportunity for me to throw out some of the “common knowledge” about lucid dreaming and meditation and what has been “scientifically proven” about them. I’m curious about the extent to which you’ve actually come across the findings that people seem to think exist.
The relationship between meditation practice and increases in lucid dreaming is a good one to start with. I’ve seen it in a few places, and have likely propagated that idea myself, that we know of a correlation between meditation and having more lucid dreams.
B: You’re asking what those studies are?
M: I’m curious if you, as a scientist working in this field, would be comfortable saying, “Yes, we have strong data suggesting this.”
B: I’d say no, we don’t right now, unfortunately. It’s kind of an obvious thing for people who are practitioners of meditation and lucid dreaming.
M: Sure. My personal experience suggests there’s a link.
B: Me too. There’s been a few studies that have shown links, but in general it’s far from proven. We need a lot more work investigating this. It’s still an open question in my mind. It seems obvious, but it would be nice to have more objective data to quantify the extent to which meditation has these influences.
Likewise, what types of meditation have these influences? It seems to be the case that there may be some traditions that really don’t have a strong dream practice, or people that meditate for a long time and don’t actually report having lucid dreams. It might be that certain types of meditation practice lend themselves more to lucid dreaming than others. This hasn’t been studied.
Likewise, what’s the amount of meditation that’s required to have an effect? All we really have from prior work is correlations; there’s never been a causal intervention. It’d be really nice to take a group of people that are naïve to meditation practice, train them in a specific set of practices, and then evaluate whether that has an influence on their awareness in sleep.
I also have the sense that major changes in awareness in sleep are something that may come from quite a bit of training in meditation, and that just an introductory course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction isn’t going to have enough of an impact to generate a huge difference in sleep awareness. So, it may be that we see the largest effects for these kinds of things from looking at long-term practitioners, but that can sometimes be tricky to interpret causally.
M: I’ve also seen the claim made, and am probably guilty of making it myself, that we know lucid dreaming improves metacognitive awareness. It sounds to me, based on what you said before, that we can’t even really pin down that meditation improves metacognitive awareness.
B: You’ve seen the claim that lucid dreaming improves metacognitive awareness?
B: Or at least that there’s a link between the two? I think you could probably read it a little bit softer.
M: Yeah, that’s probably fairer.
B: There’s a lot of tricky things in interpreting some of the current literature on lucid dreaming. One of which is being able to have a robust definition of what a “lucid dreamer” is [laughs]. Or a frequent lucid dreamer, however you want to define it. It seems clear that we need some better tools for being able to make rigorous definitions of individual differences in lucid dream frequency and, likewise, what constitutes a lucid dream in a sleep lab setting, for example.
Again, it’s sort of strange from one perspective. It’s kind of this obvious thing: of course lucid dreaming itself, by definition almost, is a kind of metacognitive skill, to be able to recognize the state of consciousness you’re in at a certain time. That is a metacognitive act, so from one perspective, almost definitionally, there has to be a relationship with metacognition somehow.
Whether that translates, and how, to other kinds of metacognition, such as reflecting accurately on your performance in tasks, which is the classic cognitive psychology definition of metacognition, is unclear. I actually did a few studies on that which I haven’t published, which failed to find a link. I was comparing people who reported having lucid dreams more frequently than once a month to people who never report having them. That’s a fairly loose definition. Once a month is not bad, but I’m not sure whether we should call them frequent lucid dreamers. These are some basic things we need to decide on going forward. It would be great if we could come to more of a consensus. At that level there doesn’t appear to be a direct correlation between those kinds of metacognitive skills and the metacognitive skill of becoming lucid.
Similarly, I think the studies you’re talking about are showing a link between activation in the frontal brain regions and so forth during metacognitive-type tasks and the extent of that activation and the extent of lucidity. I think in reading those studies we have to be very careful about how lucid dreaming is being defined as well as its frequency, and I think that needs to be done much more rigorously moving forward, especially controlling for the potentially confounding influence of individual differences in dream recall.
M: The last one is the most nebulous: the idea that a frequent lucid dreaming practice (with this idea of frequent itself being pretty nebulous) will improve one’s waking life. I think research was done on the correlations between lucid dreaming and the big 5 personality traits: neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.
B: The only correlation that seemed to survive in the years since those studies that I know of was some association between lucid dreaming and openness to experience. It would be nice to see those results replicated, but who knows.
M: Personally, I want the scientific support for all these things. I’m more than happy to publish a conversation like this that hopefully encourages some in the lucid dreaming community, and me most of all, to slow down a bit [laughs] and choose words carefully when we talk about what’s “scientifically proven” and what we do and don’t have data for.
At the same time, the progression of my life since starting to have a regular lucid dreaming practice gives me the suspicion that I am more metacognitively aware as a result of the practice. I think I am becoming more agreeable and open to new experience, and my relationship to fear has improved over the course of all these lucid dreams.
What do you think is a good approach to balancing scientific rigor with one’s own intuitive sense of things?
B: Well, one might think about it as different domains in a way. You have your own personal life in which you have to find what works for you. In fact, the clock is ticking so we can’t wait 30 years to have scientific evidence for everything or it would be too late by that point. So you have to find what works for you, and that’s fine.
Science, as a body of knowledge, really has to adhere to more rigorous standards. For those of us who are interested in finding out what’s true about the world and reality, science is a good way of doing that because we can separate out the sense of whether something is working or not from whether it actually works or not. One person can say one thing works and think it does, but it could actually be something else.
M: What does a good balance between those domains look like for a scientist?
B: In a way, we all have a little bit of faith, if you want to call it that, going into a topic. You have to decide what you’re going to spend your time on, scientifically or otherwise. For me, it started out by having the experience of lucid dreaming. Many other pioneers of the scientific study of lucid dreaming, including Stephen LaBerge, came to it through similar lines. They had lucid dreams, they were fairly convinced from their own first-person experience it was a real phenomenon and then, from there, went and spent a decade doing a PhD trying to validate that it’s real. If you didn’t have those experiences, you might not want to do that.
I think there’s definitely a critical role for that kind of thing, especially in inspiring research, choosing a path, and exploring it further. Not just at the beginning, I think it’s ongoing, this interplay between the third-person and the first-person that can really help push the potential of a field like lucid dreaming forward. You can use the first-person side to push the boundary of what’s possible and explore it for yourself, and come back to the third-person and say, “How can we test this?” Whereas, if you were just fully in one perspective or the other, you may get a little bit stuck.
M: Thanks a lot Ben.
In true enthusiast fashion, Ben and I continued talking about lucid dreaming for another 35 minutes after I turned off the recorder.
One more reminder: Ben is looking for additional participants for the research study on lucid dreaming. If this interests you, if you have more than several lucid dreams per week, and you live close to Madison, Wisconsin or are willing to travel there, please contact Ben at email@example.com.
I now host a monthly lucid dreaming workshop in North Toronto and was apparently the first listener to ever reach out and comment on The Lucid Sage podcast. I had no idea!
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