Dax Urbszat is a psychology lecturer at the University of Toronto. An avid oneironaut, Urbszat is interested in contemporary theories concerning the adaptive functions and evolutionary functions and evolutionary significance of sleep, dreaming and lucid dreaming.
MISC: How did you become interested in lucid dreaming?
Dax Urbszat: I read the book, Lucid Dreaming by Stephen LaBerge, and within a week I had my first lucid dream, and was hooked.
You’ve said that lucid dreaming is not ‘dream control’ but rather ‘dream influence.’ Can you tell me about that distinction?
Dream control assumes that I’m controlling what’s going on. And it certainly doesn’t feel that way. I don’t usually create who it is or where I am or what’s happening but when I find myself in a situation I can say I’d like to see that person or I’d like to go to this place. So in essence, I’m influencing the environments that I find myself in.
So you find yourself in some environment. You have near limitless agency to do what you want. Are there any limitations or physical laws that you can identify?
Well the dream world is not reality. Smell is one thing that is not really a big part of it. Although there are a few rare cases of people who report having smell in dreams. But most of us don’t at all. Language, especially in written form, is not the same. If you look at a stop sign in your dream, and then look away and look back, it will have changed. That’s one of the ways we clue ourselves into the fact that we’re dreaming. I call that a ‘glitch in a program.’
Have you experimented with any technologies to enhance lucid dreams or help record dreams?
Years ago I bought the NovaDreamer, once available through LaBerge’s lucidity institute. It’s a night mask you wear, and when you enter the Rapid Eye Movement phase, it detects that and signals a light to start flashing at a predetermined intensity, sequence and frequency. It makes you aware that you’re dreaming. It’s an outside cue to your consciousness. I also use an iPhone app called Dream Z that monitors how much REM time I’m getting. And I write down my dreams on that and how many times I’ve been lucid on that too.
Was NovaDreamer effective for you?
It does work for me. I don’t use it all the time. But when I feel like I haven’t had a lucid dream in a long time I’ll use it.
Can you imagine other technologies that might be further out, that might enable people to induce lucid dreaming.
I’m not sure what people are working on now, but I can foresee some things. If we could read our brainwaves, our electrical output from our dreams, more readily at home. It would be easy to pinpoint REM stages. And to send some stimulus to remind us when we’re in that stage would make it easier to induce lucid dreams.
Would you say the ability to lucid dream advanced you professionally?
Sure. It’s a stress reliever. It also helps with practice and performance. If you have a meeting coming up, you can go over it. You can think of ideas and come up with solutions. There are endless applications.
And developing skills in the dream world has worked for you?
Yes. The REM stage of sleep is when we consolidate memory and create new understandings and neural connections. There are limits. If you lift weights in your dreams, your muscles aren’t going to get any bigger. You need to tear your muscles and rebuild them. But if it’s something like learning to hit a golf ball better or any other type of skill that involves brain coordination, then dreaming is one of the best places to practice.
What skills have you practiced in dreams?
I practice my martial arts. Also confidence in performance situations, whether musical performance, or a lecture, or talking in front of a group of peers. It can be great for confidence building to overcome the stress because you feel like you’ve prepared the best you can; you’ve gone over it in a dream situation.
And it can help people overcome their phobias?
That’s one of the experimental applications of lucid dreaming. To cure phobias, we have what’s called in vivo exposure, where we systematically desensitize people’s fear by exposing them slowly to different situations of the feared situation. So if they’re afraid of snakes, we’ll show them pictures of snakes, then maybe a video of snakes, and maybe bring a snake in some kind of aquarium, and then the next week after that maybe have them try to hold it.
If lucid dreaming is like a virtual reality simulator for real life, what else can it be useful for?
I’ve use pre-sleep suggestion, so before I go to sleep I may say I want to write a song in my dream, and that has worked out quite nicely. It also has the capability of allowing us to experience others and empathize in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise or can’t. I think it has huge potential of bereavement and for grief and carrying on with those who have passed away in what I consider to be a very meaningful way.
Have you practiced that before? Have you used it as an opportunity to talk to people who aren’t available to you in waking life.
Yeah, no question. Often when I see one friend in particular, who died many many years ago, I know that I’m dreaming. I know that you died, so I can’t be awake right now. And we do lots of fun things. I don’t think it’s his ghost and I’m not sure that even matters. But we have a continuing interaction and that’s very pleasing.
This article appears in MISC Fall 2013, The Inspiration Issue