Jonathan Huang

Zeta Psi Fraternity of North America

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What good is being able to control our dreams?

This week in my Bioelectricity class, we discussed electrical stimulation and extracellular fields. We learned about how voltages far away from electrical sources in the body (eg the brain and heart) are directly linked to voltages across cell membranes.

We learned that in 1924, a German physiologist and psychiatrist Hans Berger recorded the first human electroencephalogram (EEG). From our discussion in class, it was evident that EEG activity for awake humans is quite similar to EEG activity during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. An intriguing correlation arrises as lucid dreaming, the act of controlling ones dreams or at least being aware of dreaming, occurs during the REM cycle of sleep.

My question is what does controlling our dreams mean to us as humans? Beyond treating those who suffer from night terrors, is there some correlation between the ability to control our dreams and having more control of our brains during our awake phase? Since people are able to "teach" themselves to lucid dream, does that mean we can use our brains in other ways that we don't yet know of? Or should we allow our dreams to remain "free..."

We can even talk about different forms of dreaming. Shilo Shiv Suleman shows in her INK talk (http://www.ted.com/talks/shilo_shiv_suleman_using_tech_to_enable_dreaming.html) an iPad app that enables the user to enter a fantasy world of dreaming. She says that this form of dreaming is missing from todays youth.

In Daniel Wopert's "The Real Reason for Brains" he says that brains exist solely to control movement. Does this mean that dreaming has no meaning? (http://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_wolpert_the_real_reason_for_brains.html)

Lastly, we can even ask what exists between the lines of dreaming and consciousness? Antonio Damasio shines light into this question in his TED talk "The Quest To Understand Consciousness" by looking at the living brain. (http://www.ted.com/talks/antonio_damasio_the_quest_to_understand_consciousness.html)

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    Apr 1 2013: Hey John,

    I really like this topic! It seems that throughout history, people have been interested in the mechanics of the unconscious mind. Being able to manipulate the dream state (at least, somewhat) would therefore seem to be a great way to begin understanding how the unconscious mind works. Since so little about the mechanics of the brain is well-understood, it's difficult to determine with our current knowledge how the ability to "interact" with your subconscious can influence your well-being. I think it would also be relevant here to consider the ages-old, but not well-characterized world of meditation, which I think falls under a similar category in terms of exploring one's mind.
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      Apr 2 2013: Awesome that you bring up meditation as we just spoke about this subject in class!

      I think that meditation is another form of mind control and something that is definitely relevant. Meditation is supposed to calm the soul, from what I understand. Perhaps lucid dreaming also calms the human body in its conscious state.
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      Apr 2 2013: Hey Osaze, I was also reminded of meditation when I was reading this question! (PS Jonathan, great question!) When I was in high school, a friend of mine introduced me to meditation, and it really helped me with anxiety issues when nothing else worked. Manipulating a semi-unconscious, dream-like state gave me a clarity and comfort that translated over to my conscious life.

      Also, I think the fact that humans can train ourselves to lucid dream is really similar to the way we can focus our creative efforts on a single topic. At its most basic level, it is a training of the mind. I've personally never been able to experience lucid dreaming, but I can imagine it definitely crosses the line between consciousness and dreaming. To be able to control a surrounding situation that your mind is producing is a really powerful skill, if one can harness it.
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    Apr 2 2013: Wow Jon, thank you so much for posting the video by Shilo Suleman. She was fascinating and so inspiring. She made me miss my imagination. I love to dream because it allows me to dip into ideas that are new and different from the things I read and think about all day long. The idea of being able to control my dreams, lucid dreaming, is both fascinating and terrifying. On one hand there is the possibility that I can do anything in my dreams, fly, breath under water, meet aliens, the possibilities are endless and fun to consider. On the other hand, what happens if I learn to control my dreams and then they lose their edge of fantasy?

    You also ask if there is some correlation between the ability to control our dreams and having more control of our brain during the awake phase. I don't know about that correlation but I think Kyung Lee's comment addresses the usefulness of lucid dreaming. I agree with Kyung that exploring how we dream will help us to understand the mind and how it functions.

    I really enjoyed your question, links and reading everyone's responses. Very fun topic!
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      Apr 2 2013: Thats my problem with lucid dreaming and controlling your dreams. What happens if the dreams lose their mystic nature when we learn to fully control our dreams? Is this a part of human nature that is now lost?
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    Mar 31 2013: Hi Jonathan!

    You raise a very interesting question about the benefits of controlling our dreams. Personally, I think it is highly rewarding to delve into our subconscious mind and discover ourselves more. Controlling our dreams, however does not mean we can control our minds. Therefore, I view the exploration of the lucid dreaming as valuable. The more we can understand and shape our dreams, the more we become aware of our nature. Modifying our dreams according to our wants will allow us to be more mindful of who we are and the person we want to become. Dreams can take us places where reality can't. Because of this, there are no boundaries to our imagination in our dreams. This imagination is often needed in reality, and therefore, controlling our dreams will perhaps allow us to control our lives in the same way.

    Great topic!
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    Mar 28 2013: My view: We can't really control our dreams. However, we can become conscious, or "lucid" while dreaming, and control what we do in our dreams. Imagine having a conversation with someone in your dreams, where you are every bit as lucid as you are right now, and the reality around you looked just as "real" as normal reality, only perhaps shimmering a bit or even hyper-real. And all the senses work. When having such a conversation or interaction with another person in your dreams, you literally hear them say something. Who is coming up with these words that they say? And beyond that, the entire world around you that you see in your dreams - you're not consciously planning out what your'e going to see in every detail - it's just all there. Some place you've never been before. Or maybe some place you have. Or somewhere in between. It doesn't feel like you're planning what the other character in your dream is going to say. Yet you hear them say something, you can remember it, and write it down when you wake up. I've even composed orchestral music in a dream that I literally heard, remembered when I awoke, and then recorded on multi-track. That's an example of something good you can do with your dreams.

    Then while you're awake, you read what you wrote down or composed upon awaking. What does it mean? Where did it come from? And why did you dream that dream? What purpose does it serve? You can ask your character in your dream why they are there - you can ask them "What do I need to know". Of course they "free" to respond however they want.

    Reinforcing memories. Neuroplasticity. Telling you something your conscious mind is ignoring. Allowing you to think, behave, and act in ways not constrained by reality.
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        Mar 29 2013: Thank you for mentioning that. Have you tried speaking something out loud and consciously listening for a spoken response? I find that whatever sense I am really focusing on generally becomes more...active.

        For a visual lucid dream exercises I've practiced exercises (more experiments at first) to test out each individual sensual modality. My favorite for vision is to focus on looking at my own dream hand. I also love checking for visual dream signs - a clock, or some writing (those are classic lucid dreaming exercises to perform while *awake* to induce lucidity).

        For auditory, I love composing music by directing classical orchestras because I can literally hear what I am composing. While awake, I only hear it "in my mind".

        Thanks for sharing.
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    Apr 3 2013: I did not see any mention of Stephen Lebarge or his decades old seminal book "Lucid Dreaming" in which he legitimized the whole concept if not coined the term. He studied Dream Yoga with Tarthang Tulku Rhinpoche to whom he gives some credit for his understanding. Dreaming like much of human experience is a spectrum reflecting a bell curve of varying levels of awareness. On the lowest physiological level it does seem to have a stress releasing effect, analogous to erasing the tapes from a surveillance camera in preparation for the next day. The next level is wish fulfillment or fantasy and then symbolic dreams through which Jung thought our unconscious sends us hints of things that are too painful to confront directly. Beyond this realm many spontaneously dip in and out of semi or fully lucid dreaming. This can lead to an Eden like garden where the flowers contain truths and insights and then even to an encounter with a guide or guardian who may be an ancestor. At this point the whole experience begins to overlap with OBEs and NDEs as described by Dr. Raymond Moody in his "Life after Life " books. The question of what is Lucid Dreaming good for is like asking what is consciousness for? If all you do with it is neutralize nightmares that is already something isn't it? If it helps you to gain self realization that seems like everything to me.
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    Apr 3 2013: Lucid Dreaming has been on my mind since first entering Cooper Union and joining its "Lucid Dreaming Club".
    One thing that is interesting about controlling ones dreams is that it allows us the ability to synthesize and process things that occur during our conscious life.

    Wopert, I feel is incorrect in that our brains are only for movement. Emotions, thoughts, and ideas are all housed in brain functions and how could those exist if our brains are limited to only providing us physical movement.

    Many mornings I wake from a dream and lay in bed until I can make sense of why a certain person or situationmanifested itself in my dream. It is truly eye opening to realize what my subconscious is working on during my slumbers.

    When learning to control one's dreams, the first step is to begin a dream diary. As it is stated in the film Waking Life, "They say dreaming is dead, no one does it anymore. It’s not dead it’s just that it’s been forgotten, removed from our language. Nobody teaches it so nobody knows it exists. The dreamer is banished to obscurity."

    I couldnt agree more. The importance of dreams was once so clear to humankind and it seems as though it has lost value as more people discard their dreams to obscurity.

    The quote continues: "Well, I’m trying to change all that, and I hope you are too. By dreaming, every day. Dreaming with our hands and dreaming with our minds. Our planet is facing the greatest problems it’s ever faced, ever. So whatever you do, don’t be bored, this is absolutely the most exciting time we could have possibly hoped to be alive. And things are just starting."
  • Apr 1 2013: Hey all. In my experience the Seth/Jane Roberts books, "Dreams and Projection of Consciousness/Jane Roberts" is one, gave me a Onederful understanding of dreaming and dream reality and reality in general. Peace
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    Apr 1 2013: Hi Jonathan,

    I remember reading about dreams as randomly chosen memories in our brains. So if we think about certain things for a longer period of time, they are more likely to appear in our dreams. Exploring what/how we dream can be valuable in the sense that it helps us understand our brain better. Control of dreams will require extensive understanding of how our brain works, and it will definitely be of our advantage to be able to do so.
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      Apr 1 2013: Hi Kyung!

      I completely agree with you! Dreams allow a passage into one's subconscious mind. What we learn and retain during the daytime, manifests themselves in our dreams. This must mean that our brains reprocess information that we collected during the day. "I'll sleep on it" is a very common saying for those that need more time and a clearer mind to make a decision or understand a concept. Similarly, it is said that if you read before bed, or review a to-do list for the next day, you will wake up the next morning with a clearer, more organized thought process. Therefore, a lot happens in our brains while we rest!

      Being able to interpret and control our dreams opens a doorway into understanding in more detail, how the brain retains, processes and organizes information, even how to help those that have problems with retention or processing, like Alzheimer's and autism patients, and people with ADD/ADHD or learning disabilities. Understanding how their brains work differently or similarly helps get us closer to developing greater medicine and providing people with the faith and reassurance that everyone is equally equipped and capable to do great things.
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        Apr 2 2013: Swetha,

        I never really thought about how my dreams come about. But now that you mention relating dreams to daytime memories, I can recall many dreams that have come about from events that have occurred during my conscious state.
  • Mar 31 2013: (Related Story I believe......)
    The great Taoist master Chuang Tzu once dreamt that he was a butterfly fluttering here and there. In the dream he had no awareness of his individuality as a person. He was only a butterfly. Suddenly, he awoke and found himself laying there, a person once again. But then he thought to himself, "Was I before a man who dreamt about being a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams about being a man?"
    -have you blocked yourself with the assumption that this daily life is not a dream?
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    Mar 31 2013: Hi Jonathan,
    I think that the phenomenon of dreaming is often overrated. Scientists have conducted electrical recordings of mice while they are awake and while they were sleeping, and have shown that the same regions of the brain that were active while a mouse was running during the day, lets say, were later active that night while the mouse was sleeping. This seems to suggest that during sleep, our brain is simply reactivating the neurons which were active during the day which in a way is "recalling" what occurred during the day. Obviously, this doesn't fully explain the intricacies of the more complex human dreams, however it could be that those more dreams are due to the parts of our brain responsible for our thoughts and emotions firing. As the neuroscience field continues to make more progress in developing understandings of how we think and learn mechanistically, I'm sure we'll one day we'll understand what our dreams are due too
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      Apr 2 2013: Lauren,

      Interesting take on dreams. We do often hear of dreams being this magical thing. However, I think there is a valid reasoning to it. In our dreams we can often do things that are impossible in real life. Yet, in this subconscious state our minds truly believe that we are in reality... until we wake up that is
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    Mar 30 2013: Hi John,
    I thought your question about teaching ourselves to lucid dream and perhaps using our brain unknown ways is very interesting. Lucid dreaming does require practice, it’s a skill we can learn after working at it for a period of time; so maybe we can teach our brain other things as well? The brain is such an incredible entity, I feel there is so much more it can do that we just don’t know about. Our brains have an incredible capacity to learn and grow so with the right training, I’m sure we can accomplish a lot. I think dreams are always free no matter how hard we try to control them. Even during lucid dreaming, the dreams take us places we cannot go when fully conscious. Shilo Shiv Suleman stresses the importance of dreaming and how we must not lose the ability to imagine up fantasy worlds. I agree, I feel dreams are much more important than we often think because they allow our brain to create ideas in the most limitless way possible.
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      Mar 31 2013: I agree with both Neema and Lauren that there is so much about the brain that we are learning each day. I wouldn't be surprised if in the near future we do find a direct correlation between the two. [It's interesting to note, that many years ago, the later prophets prophesied only in while asleep and "dreaming."]
      The very limited information I know about lucid dreaming is based on the Hollywood film, Inception, but I see no reason to believe that our brains have that incredible capacity to "train" our conscious. In a sense, it might be, that dreams can in fact influence the day to day decisions of humans. If scientists are in fact able to prove the correlation between the conscious of a human while sleeping and awake, perhaps more people will start listening/believing in their prophetic dreams.
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      Mar 30 2013: Carolyn,

      Very interesting view on dreams! I can see that you value your dreams immensely and that they really mean a lot to you. You say your dreams parallel your reality. Does this mean that nightmares and such mean that things arent going so well in real life? While enjoyable dreams represent a happy reality? This is interesting!
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  • Mar 28 2013: I dream regularly and vividly and my dreams are generally exaggerated emotions, humor, or fear that tie together the days activity.

    As an example, I was taking apart the interior of my car because there was water getting in somewhere and I had to dry out the flooring and noise dampening material. When I removed the seats I saw the black floor vents with four vanes to direct the blowing air (these were normally covered by the front bucket seats so I never took note of them before). Later that night I had a dream I was pulling on a pair of black socks that only had four toes and the tips were cut off like a pair of gloves smokers would use. My mind had conjured up a comical way to remember the floor vents as in my dream I'm looking down to put my socks on, my socks are black, the individual toes looked a lot like the vanes, and if I were sitting in the backseat those vents would be pointing at my feet. This is one of many examples that come to mind. Sometimes I'll be in a house that feels familiar and I know it's mine but it's just not quite the same...our minds thrive on novel experience, and I am of the opinion dreams afford us that opportunity so that our memories become more memorable.

    As for being able to control dreams, I've experienced it, can't relate it to the previous days activities, but I feel pretty damn awesome when I wake-up.
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    Apr 3 2013: Jonathan Yellow,

    I do believe that learning to control our dreams enables us to have more power over our brain. Some neurologists even prescribe lucid dreaming as a method to relieve chronic migraines or night terrors. It may not be possible to determine for sure what advantages lucid dreaming will invoke during our awake phase, however, it is undeniable that the technique provides us with more control.

    -George
  • Apr 3 2013: "Control" is but one aspect of our relationship to dreams, what if we changed that word to "harness"?....

    As a teenager I learned about dream control and out of body experiences. I get very good at realizing what I was dreaming, I could do it several times a week. And I had my first out of body experience and a kind of terrified me. Since then my ability to realize when I was dreaming has diminished greatly, but it still happens a couple times a month.

    I also have a long history with positive thinking (i.e. Napoleon Hill), and so I see it is very important to pay close attention to and take responsibility for one's thoughts. Within the past year I received training as a remote viewer, which is fascinating though time-consuming. So I decided to try blending remote viewing with dreaming to see what kind of results I would get. (With 20 years of personal history of dream control, I can say that I did it for entertainment value, though using it to get answers to questions seems a much more valuable excercise).

    In short, it is been a fascinating experiment that I am still doing today, and getting some very interesting results. I am not "controlling" my dreams so much as putting forth a question before I go to sleep and see if I get an answer in my dreams.

    You can read a more extended right up in the "harnessing dreams" section of my blog post:
    http://danpouliot.com/blog/2013/03/more-about-remote-viewing/

    If you are not familiar with remote viewing, I have an extensive post on that too, including my own results:
    http://danpouliot.com/blog/2012/07/remote-viewing/

    it is relevant because remote viewing and dreams share a common base which is the unconscious.
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    Apr 3 2013: One short answer seems to be that we can use our dreams to make better use of our mental resources.

    Napoleon Hill, in his 1937 book Think and Grow Rich, which has formed the basis for a great deal of personal development literature, urged readers to ask their dreams for answers to difficult questions. He seems also to have developed a personal waking dream capability.

    While I can't make any claims on behalf of his approach - and there are things in the original book which are, to say the least, dated - there may be some value in asking questions of our dreams.

    If our brain is, at least in part, a bit like a computer then there may be a lot of spare processor capacity available when we are asleep. Some of that might be able to be accessed a bit like the way SETI at Home uses distributed spare processor power. Of course like seti@home our 'dream processing' may suffer from errors creeping in either accidentally or through one part of the system trying to promote its own bias.
  • Apr 3 2013: Are sleep dreaming and daydreaming the same? Why do we often fall asleep as a passenger on a journey even if we weren't tired before the journey began? How many of us make a regular journey from A to B, even as a driver, and realise when we arrive that we can't remember any of the journey?
    Do only humans attatch an ethereal significance to dreams?
    Dreaming is a thing of nature, we know even animals do it. We haven't worked out why it happens yet. When we do it may not be as magic as it seems. Will we be better off for that?
  • Mar 31 2013: I'm not an academic, no access to peers etc. but i do think about the logic of why we are as we are. I'm on my own with my ideas and rarely write any: Maybe not a bad thing?
    For me dreams have little if any serious significance.
    First my own experience, (a much shortened version).
    When I was about 20 I dreamt I was a cowboy at a bar and I got stabbed in the back. As I drifted off (presumably to death) I said to myself clearly, "@*7$% I've been stabbed. I'd better wake up quick." I did. I checked the bed for anything sharp that may have caused a sensation but there was nothing.
    Was that lucid dreaming? Did I save myself? Make of that what you will.
    For me, when we try for proper sleep we make every attempt to prevent unwanted stimuli., bedcovers for natural body temperature, darkness to prevent light, and silence. If it's warm we often can't sleep because we can't cool oursleves efficiently and the overwarmth becomes unwanted sensory input. If the brain did shut down completely during sleep how would we ever wake up, hear the alarm etc? My thought on it is the part of the brain that matches incoming information to resident memory (hippocampus?) doesn't shut down, it keeps operating in case there is some incoming stimuli -in the wild a threat perhaps. Think how quickly a dog or cat wakes if something happens, even something we ourselves aren't aware of- When it has no input the hippocampus? flits about in resident memories, (rather like a hosepipe with no one holding it) and dreams however wierd may be the result of delving into old immature memories possibly as far back as birth or even in the womb.
    Perhaps accessing early immature memories may have some connection with sleep paralysis.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep_paralysis
    As I said I'm not an academic. It's only ideas (from daydreaming perhaps?) ;0)
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      Apr 2 2013: Wow Phillip,

      Your ideas really ring a bell. Looking back at my dreams (that I still remember), I tend to wake up when a near-death scenario occurs. Perhaps this is the point in the dream that one realizes that reality no longer exists and thus the brain comes back into consciousness.
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    Mar 29 2013: we can control our dreams but it s not controled thoroughly .

    the afternoon ,i hummed tune spontaneously.Sundenlly i realized i did not know the tune. I am not sure that i have heard it before. when or where . and on the way to back home ,i heard a same melody when passing a CD shop.

    My poin is the conduct of slide-conscious is the subconscious .

    We can bound our most of minds but we can not ban the subconscious .Because these derive by our strongly mental instructions like musn't sth, should't sth, force ourself to do sth and The subconscious will appear and transform another form to infer your deep feeling which is your real wish.

    and sometimes we cannot control the unconsciousness-memory. the brain can' t help to keeping we touched ,heard or smelled.
  • Mar 29 2013: Lol,If what we can control it is still can be called:dreams?But anyway we have a saying in chinese:what would be caused dreaming at night if you think too much in daytime .
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    Mar 28 2013: Can anyone tell me what lucid dreaming is? And what is the opposite of it?
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      Mar 29 2013: In a lucid dream you are aware that you are dreaming. I've had two and they were the most remarkable experiences. When I first became aware that I was dreaming the world around me began to fade out of focus. I felt a lack of sensation; only weightlessness as if I was being pulled up and backwards at the same time. I tried to focus on the elements around me and after what felt like a few seconds all sensations from the world around me returned at once. I can remember feeling temperature, smelling the air, and touching objects around me. The only difference from reality was that I had complete control over my environment. In a lucid dream you can fly, control objects with your mind, and make people, objects and places appear and disappear. It's neat.

      The opposite of a lucid dream then is any dream where you're not aware that you're dreaming.
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          Mar 30 2013: I'm only speaking from experience. I'm completely ignorant of the subject otherwise.
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        Mar 29 2013: Thanks, Mark.
        While I'm at it, is there a term or phrase for things outside your dreams that effects what happens in your dreams? For instance, a water bottle falls off of the nighgstand next to me. The sound of thhe impact is heard in my dream but as the sound of something else.
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          Mar 30 2013: Couldn't tell you. I've never had an experience like that. I've had the occasional nightmare where I wake up from the dream but I'm still in the dream. I call that a double-dream.
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        Mar 29 2013: Hi Mark, Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and I think your definitions are great. I offer my interpretation as a lucid dreamer...

        What often happens, especially to first time lucid dreamers, is that when you realize you are dreaming, you get so excited and interested in what is going on, that you start to wake yourself up and fall out of the dream. Your description matches this exactly, in my experience. Some people wake up and that's the end of the lucid dream. Other people, like you, fall back into the lucid dream. Still a third path, is that you can fall back into a non-lucid dream. Sounds like you went down the path of falling back into a lucid dream which is excellent!

        Here is a tip: If you discover that you are falling out of a lucid dream and want to stay in it, try spinning around in a counter clockwise direction. (Some say clockwise, I say counterclockwise - some debate about the spiritual dimension of the direction of rotation, for some.)
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          Mar 30 2013: Both of the dreams came right after a run of final exams. I've often wondered if the hours of studying I put in might have been the cause. My brain had been in overdrive for almost 3 weeks.

          I've had an experience like the third scenario you've described where I became aware of the dream and then fell back into a non lucid state. I didn't think that counted so I didn't mention it before.

          I've always had very elaborate and nonsensical dreams. I once had a 4 month stretch of nightmares that got progressively worse until the night they ended; after the first couple of weeks I got used to fighting back and thereafter sleeping became comparable to playing a video game. Sometimes I would win; most times I would lose. Losing was not fun.

          Back to the matter at hand I don't think it would be beneficial for people to be choose to dream lucidly. In my experience I became a deity in my own mind; none of my decisions had any consequences in the real world. A person repeatedly exposed to that circumstance might be tempted to experiment. You could play murderer or rapist or torturer with no restrictions or restraint. I think that's a slippery slope.
  • Mar 28 2013: Okay I haven't done too much lucid dreaming lately, but it's easy to do.