The other night—most likely in anticipation of the Vive Pro 2 release—I dreamt that I was in VR. It was a really good dream. I was in total awe of the quality of the new VR gear I was wearing. The resolution was incredible and I could move about freely without any constraint. As I was holding up a large sheet of paper to straighten it (a poster of my favourite band in high school), I was impressed by the perfect fidelity of the feedback in my hands to every little vibration in the paper. “Wow, these haptics…,” I thought. But wait. VR doesn’t have this kind of haptics yet, does it?
Suddenly, it dawned on me that I was dreaming.
I quickly performed a ‘reality check’—sort of like Cobb’s spinning top Totem in Inception—by attempting to move one of my fingers through the palm of my other hand. Adopting such a practice is one of the ways to enter into lucid dreams; performing an action that will give an unexpected result if done in a dream.1This can be done either routinely in your everyday life to increase the chances of it occurring inside a dream, or it can be done upon suspicion. It is recommended to adopt it as a practice, however, as we very seldom wonder that we are dreaming because the dream is so convincing. If the finger goes through the palm of your other hand, it’s an indication, or shall we say proof, that you’re dreaming. The reality check actually passed (my finger didn’t go through2I attribute this false-negative to the fact that I at the time was under the impression that I was holding Vive wands, and for that reason only had my thumbs “free” to do the reality check instead of my Index finger which I would usually use. This reasoning also occurred in the dream, and I let go of the bodily consciousness of holding the wands.), but that didn’t matter. The reality check was only performed out of habit and curiousity, and by that point, I had already realized I was dreaming by recognizing the peculiar warm and buzzing presence that emerges upon the dawn of realization. I had become lucid.
What is lucid dreaming?
Before we move on to discuss how this experience provides a frame through which we can understand the potential of VR, we should explain what lucid dreaming actually is. We can define lucid dreaming as being aware of, and in control of, yourself, while realizing that you are dreaming. Thus it must not be confused with particularly vivid dreams, although lucid dreams often become very vivid dreams due to the excitement of ‘waking up.’ Lucid dreaming sounds crazy. It feels even crazier. Yet, it is very real and can be experienced through training or just by mere chance. In order to keep the sceptic reader motivated, we might add that the reality status of lucid dreaming has been shown not just through the personal experience of many people all over the world, but also through scientific experiments confirming communication between researchers and dreamers while lucid dreamers were confirmed to be sleeping.3 See this link for a very recent example. I should also add that, although describing the exact same phenomenon, lucid dreaming must not be confused with astral projection. I’m not going to go into this debate here, but my view is that it is very clear that those “travelling the astral planes” are simply lucid dreaming and ascribing it paranormal interpretations of entering into a realm of the spirits. This is sad and unnecessary because dreams are dreams, and one does not need to superscribe a paranormal interpretation of it in order for it to be meaningful or even mystical: being able to literally talk to the unconscious is fantastic no matter how it is framed. Describing it as what it does not “put down” the experience, but allows us to see it for what it is.
Lucid dreaming, therefore, refers to the experience of being aware—as some adaptation of your conscious self—that you are dreaming. Naturally, in regular dream states, you are also aware: you are experiencing the dream, but the memory fades rather quickly and you might recall only particular dreams where something extremely terrifying happened, or what you were dreaming right before you woke up. In regular dream states you “buy” the illusion so to speak, however absurd it may be, and regard it as reality. You, as such, are not present to regard something as absurd (as dreams usually are); you are present as a particular kind of self; one who can believe that what is going on is really happening. You flow with the dream and do not pause to consider the dream as such. In this way, you are dreaming not just the situation in which you find yourself; to a certain extent, the self you are experiencing is also a dream-synthesized one, and so you are not present as an actant. The dream in its totality is something that is happening, it is not something in which you as your conscious self can reflectively find your self and act.
Lucid dreaming is understanding that everything around you is currently being synthesized by your mind, and once this happens, an extreme excitement of the sheer craziness of it overwhelms you and brings the dream to ever more fidelity or lucidity. For novice lucid dreamers, once this realization hits, it is very hard to not wake up because your mind is so aroused. This arousal, however, is of an entirely different quality than the fright or excitement that can occur in an intensely vivid dream; what you gain upon lucidity is not so much the dream around you as your self within it.
Thus, what is really significant about the experience of lucid dreaming is that you do not only gain self-consciousness; you also gain your will and your cognitive functions. Controlling one’s body feels exactly like it does in real life.4 It might be worth nuancing the point that “it feels exactly like reality.” While this is not a false statement (when you are lucid in the dream, it does, in fact, feel exactly as it does now), what I’m describing is the feeling of presence and realness, not the actual contents of the dream world. You are still experiencing your crazy unconscious, and you feel like your real self (i.e., you have the self-narrative going on, have access to your memories, etc.), but I find that upon retrospective inspection of my memories of these experiences, I am clearly not my stone-cold sober self as on a Monday morning. This isn’t to say that you don’t feel that you are yourself, or that the reality around you does not feel real, but that it is very different in quality. I think the easiest way to describe this is to say that a lucid dream is far more comparable to a psychedelic trip than it is to a sober experience. You walk by walking, jump by jumping, etc. There is no interface or perceivable medium that you must learn to be able to translate your intentions into action. At first, you may think: “If I move my legs, my body will surely wake up as I will feel the touch of my duvet.” But this does not (in successful attempts anyhow) happen. You can rely on your knowledge of how to engage with the real world while residing in the dream world. When embodied in your dream body, you feel in control and ownership of it as if it was your real body.
While the experience of this is intense, this is usually only where the dream begins. Even more significant is the fact that the dream state is far more flexible than reality because of its virtuality. Seasoned lucid dreamers can instantiate their own worlds, their own dream characters, and give themselves superpowers. Want to fly? Try it. Want to see a particular person or object? Pretend that you will see it, or her, behind you, and turn your head. You can engage in full conversations with your unconscious, where you are literally talking to yourself, not knowing how it will answer back to you.
Lucid Dreaming & VR
In my own personal case, I have perhaps had 30 lucid dreams since my teens, whereas about 10 of them has occurred this year. While I usually could only make them last for about 3 to 15 seconds, I now can make them go for what feels like a couple of minutes, except for one in which I was particularly successful and was lucid for several hours. In the VR-induced lucid dream that I described at the beginning of this piece—where it suddenly dawned on me that no VR could afford this kind of fidelity—, I was able to keep the dream up for a couple of minutes. I didn’t wake up after, but somehow (this happens), I was tricked back into the illusion of the dream.
Given that my lucidity was triggered by the fact that VR is simply not as immersive as lucid dreaming, we might do a quick tongue-in-cheek comparison between lucid dreaming and VR, using technical terminology that is usually utilized to describe the quality of various VR systems. What I want to achieve by this comparison is to show how lucid dreaming is somewhat akin to the ultimate potential of VR technology.
Lucid dreaming requires no physical playspace, you can’t bump into your TV, or ever get to the end of your guardian. Consequently, you need no teleportation to navigate, nor do you need a supercomputer or expensive VR gear. There is no head-mounted display pressing on your face, and neither do you need controllers: fingers are precisely tracked, and any kind of tool can be synthesized at will. The field of view is extremely wide, there is no screen door effect, the sweet spot is huge, the resolution is super sharp, the refresh rate is great, the haptics is incredible and it’s got full-body tracking out of the box. As a final nail in the coffin, it features a brain-computer interface where you can manipulate the virtual environment with your mind, the most advanced AI characters you’ve ever seen, and an infinite library of virtual environments to immerse yourself in.
Tongue-in-cheek comparison aside, VR enthusiasts should definitely explore lucid dreaming, as it already is what we one day hope virtual reality will become. Lucid dreaming may stimulate new ideas, and without being framed in competition with VR5After all, it is not as easy to enter into lucid dreaming as it is to enter into VR. It usually takes a lot of time and dedication to achieve. Unless you spend years engaged in techniques, keeping a dream journal, and so on, becoming lucid upon entering sleep is usually not something you can rely on. , it can offer a similar way of exploring the potential of human experience that can be complementary to VR, in the same way that psychedelics often inspire and guide VR enthusiasts. There is here great synergistic potential between these various approaches to support creative ideation. All the avenues that we have for exploring the human experience, whether through technology, psychedelics, or dreams, can be of benefit in discovering new ideas, gain new perspectives on our selves, and discover new ways of being-in-the-world.
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The interested reader can go on to these entries discussing ideation of Virtual Reality:
In Virtual Reality & Depersonalization/Derealization (DPDR), we discuss the risks of developing DPDR that follows from prolonged VR use. We also discuss this interesting phenomenon in how it is conceptually linked to various religious beliefs as a kind of “dark side of enlightenment.”
In Meaning and Virtuality we discuss the following questions: Will the fundamentally immaterial, virtual nature of VR impact the kind of relationships that we can develop to it? What will “meaning” look like in the virtual worlds of the future?
In The Virtually Extended Mind, we discuss how we may virtually extend our minds, and what kind of VR Minds we would like to create.
In The Virtual Freud, we discussed how VR can induce what we can call out of body experiences; by allowing us a view of ourselves from outside, we may allow us to be more compassionate towards our selves.
In Virtual Embodiment we discussed how powerful illusions can be facilitated so that users can identify completely with virtual avatars and so help us overcome prejudices, reduce racism and violence.
In A Psychedelic Virtual Reality we discussed how VR may take inspiration from psychedelic drugs and facilitate for non-dual states of consciousness through the merging of self and other.