A lot of what our brain does is synthesize a hallucination, a model of the world that we proceed to live in. This is a model reality; the real reality is completely unknowable. – Dennis McKenna
The earliest known descriptions of lucid dreaming come to us from Hindu scriptures dating back over 3,000 years ago, in the Upanishads and the Vigyan Bhairav Tantra, where there are instructions for how to direct one’s consciousness within a dream and during sleep. Other ancient descriptions of lucid-dreaming meditations, from the Tibetan Bön and Vajrayāna Buddhist traditions, are over 1,200 years old.
In the West, the earliest mention of lucid dreaming comes from Aristotle, some 2,000 years ago. In his treatise On Sleep and Dreams, Aristotle says that when we are asleep there is often something in our minds telling us that what we are experiencing is only a dream. However, as we learned in the introduction, the first attempt at a systematic scientific study of lucid dreaming began with the French sinologist Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denys, in the mid-1800s.
In 1867, Saint-Denys’ book Les rêves et les moyens de les diriger (Dreams and How to Guide Them) was published, and this landmark book is the first known record of a systematic exploration of lucid dreaming.
Originally published anonymously, Saint-Denys’ detailed personal reports span a period of thirty-two years. In this remarkable book, the author describes how he became interested in dreams as a young teenager, and how he learned to become lucid in his dreams and partially direct what happened. Saint-Denys coined the term rêve lucide, “lucid dream,” and he performed many experiments in his lucid dreams.
The first scientist in the West to explore lucid dreaming was Dutch physician Frederik van Eeden, a contemporary of Freud’s who corresponded with the psychoanalyst about dreams. Van Eeden’s famous first scientific paper on lucid dreaming, “A Study of Dreams,” was published in 1913. This landmark paper contains the first mention of the term “lucid dream” in the English language.
D. Ouspensky’s essay “On the Study of Dreams and Hypnotism” was published in 1931. Much of it is based on detailed observations of the author’s own accounts of lucid dreaming, which he calls “half-dream states.” Ouspensky, a mathematician, made a number of fascinating observations as well as perhaps generalized assertions based on his own experiences, which may not be as fixed as he believed, but they were an important part of the growing body of knowledge on lucid dreaming that eventually would lead to legitimate scientific study.