Active Dreaming is More Powerful than Meditation and Safer than Psychedelics
Active Dreaming is an underrated way to introspect, combat mental health issues, and access exotic mindstates
Dreaming, meanwhile, hasn’t gotten as much attention. Dreaming provides the same deep immersion and mental flexibility as a psychedelic trip, but in a safer setting. And like meditation, Active Dreaming can become a daily practice.
Given the similarities to meditation and psychedelics, as well as the success of some pilot studies, we should start to take dreaming seriously.
What is Active Dreaming?
It’s common to take an apathetic attitude towards dreams. Many people simply don’t remember their dreams, or write them off as random nonsense. This isn’t a terrible default position—dreams are absolutely full of random nonsense.
But it’s pretty easy to find a middle ground between these two extremes. We can take our dreams seriously without taking them literally, and without projecting magical beliefs on them.
This is what I mean by “Active Dreaming”—any earnest attempt to engage with your dreams. This could mean keeping a dream journal, discussing your dreams with friends or a therapist, or learning advanced techniques like lucid dreaming.
Active Dreaming is a practice as old as civilization. And though it’s fallen out of favor since the heyday of psychotherapy, the science (see addendum) suggests it’s a potentially fruitful avenue for improving mental health.
Comparison With Psychedelics
There are a ton of similarities between dreaming and psychedelics: visual hallucinations, confused logic, and complex emotions to name a few. What can we learn from the overlap?
Large doses of psychedelics can induce dream-like hallucinations, especially when combined with sensory deprivation (e.g. a sleep mask or noise-cancelling headphones). This has led many to speculate that dreams and psychedelics are related, and there is some evidence that they share similar physiology (see source for citations):
While the experience elicited by serotonergic psychedelics has long been ascribed a dreamlike quality, only recently experiments in humans have provided evidence supporting a relationship between these drugs and REM sleep dreams. This evidence comes mostly from neuroimaging experiments using LSD and psilocybin…Earlier studies demonstrated that LSD facilitates REM sleep in humans when administered during sleep or before sleep onset and that [DMT] induces spontaneous eye movements similar to those observed during REM sleep.
Psychedelics seem to work by “relaxing priors”—i.e. softening core beliefs, allowing them to be reprogrammed:
…psychedelics initiate a cascade of neurobiological changes that manifest at multiple scales and ultimately culminate in the relaxation of high-level beliefs. The purpose of psychedelic therapy is to harness the opportunity afforded by this belief-relaxation to achieve a healthy revision of pathological beliefs.
—Robin Carhart-Harris, How do psychedelics work?
Something similar appears to be going on during dreams—one explanation for why we accept bizarre dream imagery is that prediction errors are resolved higher up in the hierarchy (source):
During sleep, the balance between top-down and bottom-up influences changes; sensory stimuli processing during sleep is attenuated, and attention is directed away from sensory afferents toward internally generated cognitive processes, especially during phasic REM sleep (when the most intense forms of dreaming take place). Attenuated precision on lower-level priors shifts the system toward top-down processes, and prediction errors are minimized mainly by higher-order predictions (more abstract, middle-to-high-level priors), in contrast to wakefulness when perception is also constrained by sensory afferents.
The hallucinogenic, category-breaking, and fabulist quality of dreams means they are extremely different from the “training set” of the animal (i.e., their daily experiences). The diurnal cycle of fitting to tasks during the day, and avoiding overfitting at night via a semi-random walk of experiences, may be viewed as a kind of “simulated annealing” in the brain. That is, it is the very strangeness of dreams in their divergence from waking experience that gives them their biological function.
The disruption of normal information processing systems, in both dreams and psychedelics, can lead to some strange mindstates. This includes major shifts in proprioception, up to and including ego death. Both psychedelics and dreams are associated with mystical experiences.
A proposed mystical experience questionnaire for dreams includes some particularly psychedelic criteria:
I have dreams in which I encounter a light that feels spiritual/holy.
I have dreams in which I feel released from the fear of death.
I have spiritual experiences in my dreams that cause me to lose sense of time and space.
I have spiritual experiences in my dreams that cannot be adequately described in human language.
I have dreams in which I sense the oneness of myself with God and all things.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Unlike dreams, psychedelics allow you to make contact with reality throughout the experience. If things are going poorly, a therapist can redirect your attention, or you can simply pull off your sleep mask and drink some water.
It’s also much easier to carry an intention (e.g. “I want to quit smoking” or “I want to be less anxious”) into the psychedelic experience, since there’s a smooth transition from sobriety into the psychedelic state.
The dream world, meanwhile, is completely isolated from reality. This has the advantage of keeping you safe (assuming you’re not this guy), but makes it tremendously difficult to carry an intention into the dream.
Lucid dreaming helps close the gap here. Lucid dreamers are able to “wake up” within the dream world, accept that they’re dreaming, and recall their waking intentions. There’s also been some success establishing communication between lucid dreamers and the waking world. A review of the literature on dreaming and psychedelics concludes (emphasis mine):
Common features between psychedelic states and night dreams include perception, mental imagery, emotion activation, fear memory extinction, and sense of self and body. Differences between these two states are related to differential perceptual input from the environment, clarity of consciousness and meta-cognitive abilities. Therefore, psychedelic states are closest to lucid dreaming which is characterized by a mixed state of dreaming and waking consciousness
But psychedelics should be used sparingly—even Terrence McKenna said “if I can get it in a couple to three times a year, I feel like I’m hitting it very hard.” Active Dreaming, on the other hand, can become a daily practice.
Active Dreaming is also much safer than psychedelic usage, simply because it acts more slowly. Both can push you down the schizotypy spectrum, but a single dose of psychedelics can lead to persistent hallucinations. Dreaming is much gentler.
And while the positive effects of a single psychedelic trip can often last for months or years, they don’t always; a large number of users eventually revert to baseline. Active Dreaming could be a sustainable way to prolong the healing effects of psychedelics.
Comparison With Meditation
Scientific comparisons of meditation and psychedelics are common these days. Both seem to induce states of ego dissolution, and are associated with decreased activity in the brain’s Default Mode Network.
Direct comparisons between meditation and dreaming are rarer, and mostly limited to spiritual literature.
While this table seems to present “pure consciousness” and “dreaming” as opposites, the paper clarifies that a “pure consciousness” state, without the normal dream imagery, can be achieved during bodily sleep:
Subjects reporting the integration of pure consciousness with sleep had simultaneous alpha1 and delta in their sleep records, which supports their subjective experience of self-awareness while the body rested deeply.
Clear Light Dreams
This idea is echoed by Tibetan lama Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche's guide to lucid dreaming, The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep (which is fantastic, if you can get past some of the weird ideas on physiology). Wangyal calls this state a “clear light dream”:
The clear light is generally spoken of in the teachings about sleep yoga and indicates a state free from dream, thought, and image, but there is also a clear light dream in which the dreamer remains in the nature of mind. This is not an easy accomplishment; the practitioner must be very stable in non-dual awareness before the clear light dream arises…
Developing the capacity for clear light dreams is similar to developing the capacity of abiding in the non-dual presence of rigpa during the day…
The clear light dream is not defined by the content of the dream, but is a clear light dream because there is no subjective dreamer or dream ego, nor any self in a dualistic relationship with the dream or the dream content. Although a dream arises, it is an activity of the mind that does not disturb the practitioner’s stability in clear light.
This (unpublished?) study of 18 meditators found that meditation practice deepened both vividness and lucidity in dreams:
…the longer the time spent in daily meditation the more visual, auditory and somatic vividness was reported in dreams…The length of time in years of regular meditation correlated with the lucidity of the dreamer
But meditation also seemed to harm recall, possibly by softening dream content:
…for some meditators the longer they spent meditating per day the less meaningful their dreams were and the less they recalled them….After they began meditating their dreams were calmer and less dramatic, conflicted and anxious. This may perhaps make dreams for some less meaningful and less memorable.
This result is contradicted by a similarly small study, which found a positive correlation between meditation and recall.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Meditation shares an advantage with psychedelics: a closer connection to the waking self. It’s easy to carry an intention into your meditation, and to return to that intention throughout the session. Doing this in dreams requires extensive practice.
Meditation is also extremely approachable—almost anyone can sit quietly for a while; the rest can try walking meditation. But problems with dream recall, and especially lucidity, make it harder to develop an Active Dreaming practice.
On the other hand, dreams create an incredibly flexible mindstate, much like psychedelics. Dreams regularly induce extreme emotional experiences—joy, terror, excitement, surprise—while meditation is mostly low-affect (read: boring), at least for new practitioners.
Dreams also provide a direct line of communication with the unconscious, to whatever degree you believe that’s a thing. You can literally have conversations with dream characters, much like in the reports of DMT users.
Dreams regularly induce proprioceptive shifts—you might feel yourself expand or shrink, and even dissolve. In dreams, you can start to get a taste for the non-dual mindstates described by expert meditators. Sam Kriss recently wrote about death experiences in dreams.
One corollary here: the flexibility of dreams makes them much less stable. So while you’re more likely to find your way into an exotic mindstate during a dream, you’re also likely to wander out of it within a few seconds.
The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Dreaming
Meditation and psychedelics are powerful psychological tools, and effective at treating mental illness. Since dreaming bears a resemblance to both, what do we know about dreaming as a medical intervention?
The answer is: not enough. But the little science that does exist (see addendum) suggests Active Dreaming might be an effective treatment for nightmares, PTSD, and depression. There’s also a rich tradition of dream analysis as part of psychotherapy.
There’s still a lot of work to be done on exactly how to harness the power of dreams. Dream imagery is radically esoteric and personal (despite the multitudes of “dream dictionaries” in the wild). There’s no real consensus on how dream content relates to waking psychological states, aside from some vague correlations (like having nightmares after traumatic events, or the effect the pandemic had on dreams). But theories abound.
It does seem that dream-related skills can be practiced and improved, especially recall and lucid dreaming. Dream journaling is particularly helpful, as is intermittently waking up throughout the night. Reddit and YouTube are full of tips on how to induce lucid dreams (as well as frustrated commenters for whom nothing works). One of the most prominent lucid dream researchers, Stephen LaBerge, has shown that an over-the-counter Alzheimer’s drug reliably induces lucid dreams. (I can confirm this, but want to caution that the experience is very intense.)
In the absence of more robust studies, I’ll leave you with some anecdata: Active Dreaming has been massively helpful for me.
I’ve been lucid dreaming on-and-off for nearly 20 years, and taking dreams seriously for about 5 years. I also meditate daily, and have taken psychedelics at least a dozen times. All three of these practices weave into one another, so it’s hard to tease the effects of Active Dreaming apart from the others. But it’s been my most reliable source both for addressing mental health issues and for experiencing exotic mindstates.
I can’t help but recount one experience here, which I’ll abridge for everyone’s sake.
I’d been having a resurgence of intrusive thoughts over the previous few days, and decided to take action.
Before bed, I said, under my breath: “Let’s talk. We need to talk.” I wasn’t entirely sure who this was addressed to.
As I fell asleep, I had the rare experience of transitioning smoothly from the waking world into the dream world. This has happened to me maybe half a dozen times, and usually feels like slowly falling through the bed before popping out on the other side. This time was no different.
I was followed into the dream world by a smiling psychopath, who now stood next to me, eating a severed human hand. He was clearly trying to intimidate me, but I stood my ground. I puffed out my chest and said “you need to stop making me anxious.”
“Nah,” he replied, and started walking away. “I’m gonna keep doing what I do.”
I saw my opportunity for negotiation slipping away. “OK!” I shouted, “Fine! I can’t stop you. But, maybe not during work, or while I’m on a date?”
He turned around and laughed. He seemed genuinely amused, and started to soften. He turned into a beautiful woman, and we started to dance. As we whirled around, my vision blurred, and I felt us merging into a single being. After an explosion of electricity, I woke up.
And the intrusive thoughts stopped, at least for a while.
Addendum: Scientific Studies
Scientific study of dreaming is lacking. Nearly every study relies on self-reporting, which is notoriously fallible, especially given the strange interactions between dreaming and memory.
Studies of dream-related medical interventions—e.g. to help with recurring nightmares, PTSD, or depression—are wildly underpowered. Most cross-sectional studies have a sample size around n=200, and the longest “longitudinal” study I could find took place over two months.
Recall is an important part of dream research—without it, there’s not much we can measure (at least until we manage to record dreams).
A common misconception is that dreaming only happens during REM sleep—in reality, it seems that REM dreams are only more frequent, or more likely to be recalled. A meta-analysis suggests a recall rate of 80% for patients woken during REM, and 50% for patients woken during NREM. The content of REM vs NREM dreams seems to be qualitatively different, with some authors preferring the more general word “mentation” over “dream” when comparing the two.
A relatively large study (n=2,492) linked recall to openness, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and “attitude towards dreams” (surprise! people who think dreams are important tend to recall them more). Another study (n=444) found weak but significant correlations:
…the four factors which were significantly related to DRF [dream recall frequency]: personality (openness to experience, thin boundaries, absorption), creativity, nocturnal awakenings, and attitude toward dreams, explained only 8.4% of the total variance.
The best source I found for overall dream recall rates is this CBS poll, which found recall to be higher in women and young adults (note the margin of error).
Many authors are quick to point out how difficult it is to measure even something as simple as recall rates, since so much relies on self-reporting. For example, people’s “attitude towards dreaming” biases their estimation of how much they can recall, which means the poll above is probably inaccurate.
Dream logs are considered the best measure of recall levels, but keeping those logs seems to enhance recall. This means any longitudinal study will suffer from an observer effect—we can’t ask people about their dreams without affecting them.
Everyone seems to agree that kids have more nightmares. Half of kids aged 3-6 suffer from “frequent” nightmares; that number drops to 20% for ages 6 to 12.
For adults, this large study (n=69,813) of Finnish adults finds that about 4.2% of adults have frequent nightmares, and cites several other studies with similar findings. They also found elevated rates of nightmares in both women and war veterans.
This study (n=846) finds that nightmare frequency and duration are correlated with higher levels of worry, depersonalization, hallucinatory experiences, and paranoia.
This meta-analysis found that lucid dreaming “may be a feasible aid in the treatment of patients with nightmares through minimizing their frequency, intensity and psychological distress,” but the studies it draws from are wildly underpowered (half are single-person case studies).
Depression and Stress
Both depression and stress are correlated with nightmares and negative-affect dreams. This study (n=63) found a correlation between suicidal tendencies and nightmares in depressed patients. Another study finds that patients with depression and PTSD are more likely to dream about the past.
This (fairly underpowered) study finds a positive correlation between PTSD and trauma-related dreams shortly after the traumatic event. This seems to contradict the success of exposure therapy in treating PTSD; the paradox is discussed here.
This study (n=79) of Israelis shows that frequent lucid dreaming is correlated with lower levels of distress after an experience with terrorism.
This survey of 163 lucid dreamers suggests that lucid dreaming might help with depression.
One supposed benefit of lucid dreaming is the ability to rehearse tasks to be performed in waking life. A few studies have tried to quantify this.
This study (n=20) measured participants’ ability to toss a dime into a cup. It found that people who could rehearse the activity in a lucid dream performed better. Another (n=18) shows an improvement at throwing darts.
Surveys of athletes suggest that a few percent deliberately rehearse their sport in lucid dreams.
An interesting study (n=131) finds that lucid dreaming is correlated with better balance, which reinforces the preliminary finding that lucid dreaming is linked to performance of the vestibular system.
I’m still pretty skeptical that in-dream rehearsal can improve athletic performance—dream world physics is just too bizarre. I would love to see some better studies here.
Insight and Mystical Experience
A survey of 100 adults found that half reported a “mystical experience” (as defined by William James) while dreaming. This study creates a questionnaire for mystical experience in dreams (and inspired in part by James’ criteria), and finds that adults have an average of 10 “spiritual dreams” per year.
This study (n=33) of a particular technique for analyzing dreams showed higher rates of “personal insight” than in the control groups.
A study of 45 people with symptoms of psychosis (and 28 neurotypical people) found that the psychotic subjects were more likely to report having control during lucid dreams. A study of 187 undergrads makes a causal connection here, saying “deliberate [lucid dream] induction predicted an increase in dissociation and schizotypy symptoms across 2 months.”