Have you ever had a lucid dream? Have you ever realized you’re dreaming, and with this realisation, been able to influence its course? Most people I’ve asked have told me that this has happened at least once to them, but not often. I experience lucid dreams around once a week. They’ve been a constant of my sleeping habits for the last two years after I decided to train myself to increase the frequency of their occurrence. This involved keeping a journal to help identify recurring objects and patterns in my dreams, not hitting the snooze button, and repeatedly questioning whether or not I was dreaming even when I knew that I was awake. These methods were intended give me the inclination and information required to notice that I was dreaming.
So I was very interested to see the recent article on LiveScience about the link between games and lucid dreams. It fascinated me. There are several parallels in the study that match my own experiences almost exactly, as well as intriguing differences. Before this point, I had never really thought about how one of my main hobbies could affect my sleeping imagination; my subconscious.
Dreams and games both present virtual environments. The senses are tricked by the imagination in the case of dreams, and by graphics engines in the case of games. There are obviously several key differences between the two, of course. The main one that I’ve been considering is that we immerse ourselves in game environments intentionally—we suspend our belief on purpose—while dreams come without warning, and usually without control, leaving us to remember evanescent fragments in the morning. They’re abstract narratives told by a reflection of your mind: frequently full of non-sequiturs, fantasies, and irrationalities. Experiencing them while lucid can be a disorientating meeting of conscious and subconscious; a cognitive dissonance.
“If you’re spending hours a day in a virtual reality, if nothing else it’s practice,” said Jayne Gackenbach, a psychologist at Grant MacEwan University in Canada. “Gamers are used to controlling their game environments, so that can translate into dreams.”
This rang true. In the past year, since I started playing more games, my dreams have changed. I was already able to exert a degree of control over them, but they’ve become less murky, and more structured. Environments are consistent where they were in constant flux before. It is almost as if the expectations I’ve gained from computer games have carried over to my sleeping, along with actual “gamey” content. Order and systems have been imposed where none existed before.
An example of this is when, in a lucid dream, I want to move my body. I know that it isn’t my body. I know that I’m not physically moving around the dream world. This leads me to question why I’m able to move at all. Previously, I never thought about this, probably because the “scenes” were so inconsistent that I didn’t have to navigate anyway. Now it is as though I have a control scheme in my head. That’s not to say I’ve got a spectral keyboard and mouse at my disposal: more like I know what to think in order to get from place to place. This was a few nights ago: I’m in a run down old house, I want to get to the attic. There’s a ladder. I stand at the bottom of the ladder and think about climbing up. I perform this “action” and I appear in the attic, without my hands ever touching the rungs. It is almost exactly like a scene transition in a game. Fortunately, I’ve yet to encounter a loading screen, though if we were to get more technical, I suppose non-REM sleep could be construed as such.
The first study suggested that people who frequently played video games were more likely to report lucid dreams, observer dreams where they viewed themselves from outside their bodies, and dream control that allowed people to actively influence or change their dream worlds – qualities suggestive of watching or controlling the action of a video-game character.
I’ve never had a third person dream. I’ve been an observer to events played out by other bits of my head, but I haven’t controlled myself from a third person perspective. As for changing the dream world, it is often hit or miss. Sometimes I can change scene, fly, visit people I know, and have conversations with imaginary entities almost at will. Other times it’s like the dream, the AI or the engine, doesn’t let me. It provides limitations and rules in the same way that a game might. I’ve even encountered what I suppose could be called puzzles in some dreams: a gatekeeper asking cryptic questions, the correct configuration of tiles on a wall, even a dreaded item combination puzzle. I don’t remember solving the last one. I can’t imagine that it was logical.
She found that gamers experienced less or even reversed threat simulation (in which the dreamer became the threatening presence), with fewer aggression dreams overall. In other words, a scary nightmare scenario turned into something “fun” for a gamer.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that my dreams have become more objective based. If I become aware in the middle of dream where aliens are hiding in subway stations around the world, I know instinctively that it’s my job to follow the narrative thread and find out what’s going on, defeating antagonists and overcoming obstacles along the way. Gaming has somehow conditioned me to think that I’m the world shaking protagonist, the farmboy turned good, the space captain, and I know what to do in any of these scenarios. Nightmares are already less frightening if you’re lucid—the ultimate “this isn’t really happening” card—and this newfound pragmatism in the face of adversity renders them, well, fun.
These game-like dreams are more likely to occur after a long session before I sleep. I still get enough capricious, nonsensical, downright Lynchian experiences to keep things interesting, but gaming has definitely changed the framework of my mind. Now what I’m wondering is if gaming has changed your dreams in the same way. The study suggests that we’re a demographic more likely to have lucid dreams. I’d love to know if anyone else has similar experiences to share.