Dream lovers: Can lucid dreaming be addictive?

Last week I watched the South Korean film Lucid Dream (a 2017 Netflix original that premiered on June 2), the directorial debut by Kim Joon-sung. For those who don’t know, lucid dreams are those in “which the dreamer is aware of dreaming. During lucid dreaming, the dreamer may be able to exert some degree of control over the dream characters, narrative, and environment” (Wikipedia). The reason I mention this is because one of the characters in the film claims he is ‘addicted’ to lucid dreams. Obviously the use of the word ‘addicted’ in this context piqued my interest (in what must be said was a mediocre film).

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I’ve been fascinated by lucid dreams even before I knew what they were. Although I’ve suffered from insomnia for most of my life, I’m also someone that has very vivid dreams when I sleep. I learned a lot more about lucid dreaming during my PhD at the University of Exeter because one of my best friends (Rob Rooksby) was carrying out research into the area. Over the course of a few years, I had many conversations with Rob about the topic (both professional and personal) because I had experienced lucid dreams myself (and still do).

One of the academics that Rob mentioned many times to me was the psychologist Dr. Jayne Gackenbach who at the time was editor of a journal called Lucidity Letter (and in which Rob had a couple of papers published in, see ‘Further reading’ below. By co-incidence, I came to know Dr. Gackenbach professionally in the 1990s and since then I have written three chapters in some of her edited books – two on internet addiction and one on Game Transfer Phenomena – also see ‘Further reading’ below). In a short 1987 paper in Lucidity Letter, Dr. Gackenbach claimed that lucid dreaming could be potentially addictive:

“I would caution against taking an attitude toward the lucid dream state of it being unrelated to waking life. This could result in undue absorption in lucid dreaming, leading potentially to addiction (see the letter by Barroso in [the December, 1987] issue of Lucidity Letter for an excellent example)…After hearing about Tholey’s training of an Olympic athlete with dream lucidity, a colleague spontaneously remarked, “Dream lucidity is really the ultimate drug!” Yes, the state has that potential. But so too comes the potentiality of abuse through ignorance of proper use and possibly addiction”.

Consequently, I managed to track down a copy of Mark Barroso’s 1987 published letter where he asserted that:

“I would like to comment on how lucid dreaming became counterproductive. Like most everything else I’ve enjoyed, too much of it could be very destructive. Living in the dream world became preferable to reality. I would lay in bed, miss work, and wrap myself in a catatonic state in which to spin dreams, dreams, dreams. I would sleep in public places to use various stimuli for my lucid dreams: a park, a downtown bench, the beach, park the car near a school yard of children playing. If you have mastered lucid dreaming, you should try this, it really is incredible. Real and random sounds factor in the dream. Basically, all I did was lucid dream and nothing else. With a life like that it could be hard to pay the rent. So I just stopped. Over time I lost the ability to lucid dream…Although I never regarded myself as having a special ability, it never occurred to me that others did this as well. I finally “O.D.’d” on lucid dreaming when I stayed in bed for 4 or 5 days, only rising to drink and use the bathroom. I was a hermit with no other ambition. I got a job where people were counting on me to show up and found within me the motivation to shake the cobwebs from my eyes”.

Although I am highly sceptical that lucid dreaming can be potentially addictive, Barroso’s letter does contain anecdotal evidence at least suggestive of addiction-like symptoms where lucid dreaming completely took over his life and impacted negatively on every area of his life. These aren’t the only references to ‘lucid dreaming addiction’ in the academic literature. In a 1990 book by Dr. Stephen LaBerge and Dr. Howard Rheingold entitled Exploring The World of Lucid Dreaming, one chapter (‘Preparing for learning lucid dreaming’) featured a ‘Q&A’ section including the following question and answer:

“Q. Lucid dreams are so exciting and feel so good that real life pales by comparison. Isn’t it possible to get addicted to them and not wish to do anything else? 

A. It may be possible for the die-hard escapist whose life is otherwise dull to become obsessed with lucid dreaming. Whether or not this deserves to be called addiction is another question. In any case, some advice for those who find the idea of “sleeping their life away” for the sake of lucid dreaming is to consider applying what they have learned in lucid dreams to their waking lives. If lucid dreams seem so much more real and exciting, then this should inspire you to make your life more like your dreams – more vivid, intense, pleasurable, and rewarding. In both worlds your behavior strongly influences your experience”.

Another similar Q&A featured on the World of Lucid Dreaming (WLD) website founded by Rebecca Turner. One of the WLD readers (‘Nikki’) asked Turner: Is lucid dreaming addictive? I really want to have lucid dreams but I read that lucid dreaming is really addictive and this worries me. Would you compare this need to taking drugs? How do you keep control over it?” Turner responded by saying: “I [too] have read in the media that “lucid dreaming is addictive” but this is a poor use of language. They are trying to say that it’s highly enjoyable and you’ll want to do it more”.

As far as I am aware, no empirical study has ever examined addiction to lucid dreaming although there are plenty of individuals on various lucid dreaming online forums who have claimed that such activity can be addictive from either their own experiences or by those known to them. Here are a few of the more detailed examples I have come across:

  • Extract 1: “I first lucid dreamed purposely about 5-6 years ago. For the past year and a half. I’ve lucid dreamed every single night, except when I’m really drunk, I don’t seem to dream then. I have a bit of an addictive personality, I smoke weed every day. I have a sex in my dreams very often, a few times a week, and they almost always end up with an orgasm and a wet awakening later. I always just have the greatest times and see the greatest things while I’m dreaming. But it is getting harder and harder to get up in the morning. I will sleep an extra 2-3 hours after I want to wake up because I don’t want to leave the dream world, and I find if I go to sleep while the dream is fresh in my mind still I can continue it with ease. I have lost many jobs, and fucked up many opportunities because I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning…Now I am on welfare, get money from the government every month, and I sleep all the time, I have no set sleep schedule, I sleep in the day, I sleep at night, I sleep whenever I feel like it. I feel like the second my head hits the pillow I’m sucked into another world in my head. I daydream whenever I’m not sleeping, I’ve lost track of time. My whole world feels like a lucid dream now” (Steezy 233).
  • Extract 2: I think I spend at least half of my nights lucid dreaming. I never get tired of it…I love the world my mind creates every night…I have a really long history with lucid dreaming and hallucinations, but if I were to go that in-depth this post would end up being a novel or something. Long story short, I used to have hypnagogic hallucinations and sleep paralysis every night when I was young (4-10, I think)…Then one night I had my first lucid dream, and did some investigating…I became better and better at lucid dreaming, and somehow parts of my dream world have become consistent (architecture, people, holidays even). I love living in the dream world. It’s fun, and horrifying at times, but either way it’s exciting. But in the day, everything is drab. Living feels so dull and dead and repetitive and stressful…I love dreaming. I’m depressed when I’m not dreaming. Sometimes I wish I could dream and never wake up. I’m not suicidal or anything dangerous like thatI don’t really want people I know to know I have this addiction to dreaming” (‘JDBar’).
  • Extract 3: “When I first learned how to induce lucid dreams as a teenager, and then program the dream I wanted to have, it was intoxicating! Every night before I went to sleep I would have to decide if I wanted to do something romantic with a hunky male movie star, or save the world as Storm from the X-Men, or work on astral projection, or try to contact my friends who were also lucid dreaming, etc. I was practically living a double life because my night life was vastly different than my waking life.  I was becoming addicted to the pleasures of lucid dreaming. That habit led to some unfortunate experiences, however.  The more I explored the dream world and different planes of existence, the less connected I was to my waking life.  This was not at all healthy. It would take too long to explain everything that happened…but suffice it to say, it nearly destroyed my sanity. I eventually decided I had to plug back into my “real” life and leave some of the other world behind.  It took a couple of years to reconnect with the living instead of the astral” (Erin).
  • Extract 4: Well, I’ll admit that I went through a bad stage last year. I had high levels of anxiety and depression and I saw lucid dreaming as a way to escape from everything that was going on at school and in my life. I would even fake sick just to stay home and sleep all day to lucid dream. But something just changed lately and I’m no longer depressed…I don’t rely on lucid dreaming like I used to, instead I just see it as some fun. I wouldn’t say there’s any real reason not to lucid dream, though. It’s a lot of fun and can help with night terrors and nightmares” (Daydreamer14).

Most accounts I have come across online see the benefits of lucid dreaming as far outweighing any negatives. In fact, I came across a few websites claiming that lucid dreaming can be used as a method of overcoming more traditional addictions (similar to the idea of Dr. Bill Glasser’s positive addictions that I examined in a previous blog). For instance, at the Lucid Dream Leaf website it was claimed that:

“Lucid dreaming has a seemingly endless list of benefits attached to it. It can help people who are struggling with emotional pain, end recurring dreams and nightmares, expand consciousness, and so on. In addition to all of this, regular lucid dreaming practice can also be a useful tool to those in recovery (or moving toward recovery) from addictions”.

Other websites (such as the Remedy Free website) provide advice on how to overcome addiction to lucid dreaming or how to overcome problems with lucid dreaming (‘7 nasty side effects of lucid dreaming and how to fix them’ and ‘Lucid dreaming dangers – Obsession [Addiction]’). Although I’ve argued that any activity can be potentially addictive as long as there are constant rewards from the activity, lucid dreaming can only occur when an individual is asleep, so unless someone is constantly sleeping, it doesn’t appear it could be an addiction by my own criteria – but as ever, I am happy to be proved wrong. I ought to add that some online articles (such as one on the Dreaming Life blogsite) claim that lucid dreaming can be a consequence of ‘sleeping addiction’ (but I’ll leave that for another blog).

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Barroso, M., (1987). Letter to the Editor. Lucidity Letter, 6(2). Retrieved from https://journals.macewan.ca/lucidity/article/view/763/704

Gackenbach, J. (1987). Clinical and transpersonal concerns with lucid dreaming voiced. Lucidity Letter, 6(2), 1-4.

Glasser, W. (1976), Positive Addictions. Harper & Row, New York, NY.

Griffiths, M.D. (1998). Internet addiction: Does it really exist? In J. Gackenbach (Ed.), Psychology and the Internet: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal and Transpersonal Applications (pp. 61-75). New York: Academic Press.

LaBerge, S., & Rheingold, H. (1990). Exploring The World of Lucid Dreaming. New York: Ballantine Books.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An introduction to Game Transfer Phenomena in video game playing. In J. Gackenbach (Ed.), Video Game Play and Consciousness (pp.223-250). Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science.

Rooksby, R. (1989). Problems in the historical research of lucid dreaming. Lucidity Letter, 8(2), 75-80.

Rooksby, B., & Terwee, S. (1990). Freud, van Eeden and lucid dreaming. Lucidity Letter, 9(2), 1-10.

Widyanto, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Internet addiction: Does it really exist? (Revisited). In J. Gackenbach (Ed.), Psychology and the Internet: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal and Transpersonal Applications (2nd Edition), (pp.141-163). New York: Academic Press.

Wikipedia (2017). Lucid dream. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucid_dream

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on June 11, 2017, in Addiction, Case Studies, Compulsion, Obsession, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Interesting article!

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