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).
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 that…I 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
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
Regular readers of my blog will know that when it comes to certain films and television shows (and their accompanying DVD box sets) I can be somewhat obsessive and fanatical (for instance see, my blog on my love of all things concerning Hannibal Lecter). I’m one of those individuals that will watch some films again and again looking for further insight and deeper meanings (such as Memento, The Usual Suspects, Donnie Darko, Inception, Shutter Island, Seven, and The Shining). One of the films I have watched many times is Cameron Crowe’s psychological thriller Vanilla Sky (starring Tom Cruise, Kurt Russell, Cameron Diaz and Penélope Cruz), a remake of the Spanish film Abre los Ojos (Open Your Eyes).
One of the reason I like the film is that it prominently features the concept of lucid dreaming. I’d never heard of lucid dreaming until 1988. I was doing my PhD at the University of Exeter at the time and one of my best friends (Robert Rooksby) was doing his PhD on lucid dreaming. As the Wikipedia entry on lucid dreaming notes:
“A lucid dream is any dream in which one is aware that one is dreaming. In relation to this phenomenon, Greek philosopher Aristotle observed: ‘often when one is asleep, there is something in consciousness which declares that what then presents itself is but a dream’…The person most widely acknowledged as having coined the term is Dutch psychiatrist and writer Frederik (Willem) van Eeden…In a lucid dream, the dreamer has greater chances to exert some degree of control over their participation within the dream or be able to manipulate their imaginary experiences in the dream environment…Lucid dreams can be realistic and vivid. It is shown that there are higher amounts of beta-1 frequency band (13–19 Hz) brain wave activity experienced by lucid dreamers, hence there is an increased amount of activity in the parietal lobes making lucid dreaming a conscious process”.
Much like the films of David Lynch (one of my favourite film directors), Vanilla Sky is a film forces you to think about what is going on and is one of those films that you can come to your own conclusions as to what it all means. As a psychologist, I love films that play with the mind and Vanilla Sky is one of those films, particularly as psychology in the form of dreams, subjective reality, and the unconscious lie at the heart of the film. The director Cameron Crowe added many obscure clues and hidden references throughout the film to help viewers further explain the film and to add more layers. There are dozens of dedicated websites that have compiled lists of theories, messages and/or hidden clues. In the film’s production notes, Crowe later admitted: “We constructed the movie, visually and story-wise, to reveal more and more the closer you look at it. As deep as you want to go with it, my desire was for the movie to meet you there”. That alone is enough of a hook to get me watching repeatedly.
Another aspect of the film that I love is the perfect use of music. Almost every lyric of every song used throughout the movie interweaves seamlessly between the actors, the in-scene narrative, and the developing story line. The songs are expertly chosen. This is no surprise given that Crowe was formerly a music journalist and a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine. Like me, Crowe is a huge fan of The Beatles, and referred to the “clues” in Vanilla Sky as his own version of the ‘Paul McCartney is Dead’ rumour that swept the world in 1969 (i.e., the notorious Beatles hoax when fans worldwide became convinced through song lyrics, sonic tricks, and album art that Paul McCartney had died and was replaced by a look-alike). As Crowe commented: “Divorcing it from whether Paul was really dead or not, that was a really great parlour game: searching for clues, the excitement of different layers, some of them chilling, some of them really funny. It was a great model for us [on Vanilla Sky]”. One of the homages to The Beatles in the film concerns their song Revolution 9. The film contains countless references to the number (or time) 9:09 (on Aames’ wristwatch, a child’s shirt, the prison chalkboard, and multiple references to cats who, has myth has it, have nine lives).
I’m assuming that anyone that has read this far has seen the film (but if you haven’t – spoiler alert – some of what I’m about to write will likely reduce the enjoyment of watching the film for the first time). The thrust of the plot is as follows:
“From a prison cell where he has been charged for murder, David Aames (Tom Cruise, in a prosthetic mask, tells his life story to court psychologist Dr. Curtis McCabe (Kurt Russell). In flashback, David [who is acrophobic with an irrational fear of heights] is shown to be the wealthy owner of a large publishing firm in New York City which he inherited from his father, leaving its regular duties to his father’s trusted associates. As David enjoys the bachelor lifestyle, he is introduced to Sofia Serrano (Penélope Cruz) by his best friend and author Brian Shelby [who is writing a book on Aames] at a party. David and Sofia spend a night together talking, and fall in love. When David’s former lover, Julianna “Julie” Gianni (Cameron Diaz) hears of Sofia, she attempts to kill herself and David in a car crash. Julie dies but David survives, his face grotesquely disfigured, leading him to wear a mask to hide the injuries. With no hope to use plastic surgery to repair the damage, David cannot come to grips with the idea of wearing the mask for the rest of his life. One night on a night out with Sofia…David gets hopelessly drunk, and [is left by Sophia] to wallow in the street outside” (Wikipedia entry on Vanilla Sky)
It is generally accepted that everything from this point in the film is a dream (although others say the whole film is a dream). Rather than live out the rest of his life in a disfigured state, Aames has his body cryogenically frozen by a company called Life Extension after attempting suicide. He lives the rest of his life as a lucid dream from the moment he was found on the pavement after his drunken night out (“under the ‘vanilla sky’ from a Monet painting”). However, during cryogenic sleep, the lucid dream goes horribly wrong and starts to incorporate elements from his subconscious. After 150 years in suspended sleep, the company that placed Aames into cryogenic suspension calls in ‘Tech Support’ and Aames is offered a choice to either be reinserted into a corrected lucid dream, or to wake up by taking a leap of faith – literally – from the top of a high roof (that forces him to challenge his fear of heights).
“Conquering his final fear, David jumps off the building, his life flashing before his eyes, and whites out immediately before hitting the ground. A female voice commands him to ‘open your eyes’ (a recurring theme in the movie), and the film ends with David opening his eyes” (Wikipedia entry on Vanilla Sky).
Many different websites examining the film claim there are five interpretations of the film’s ending (and this is supported by Crowe himself). The five interpretations (taken verbatim from the Wikipedia entry on the film) are:
- “Tech support is telling the truth: 150 years have passed since Aames killed himself and subsequent events form a lucid dream.
- The entire film is a dream, evidenced by the sticker on Aames’ car that reads “2/30/01” (February 30 does not occur in the Gregorian Calendar).
- The events following the crash form a dream that occurs while Aames is in a coma.
- The entire film is the plot of the book that Brian [Shelby, his best friend] is writing.
- The entire film after the crash is a hallucination caused by the drugs that were administered during Aames’ reconstructive surgery”.
(I’m most persuaded by the first interpretation). What I also love about the film is that Crowe added lots of little details that take a few viewings of the film before they are usually spotted. All of these help in both trying to interpret the film, as well as becoming a game where repeated watching becomes more rewarding. For instance:
- In the first scene in which Julianna appears, the tune ringing on her cell phone is Row Row Row Your Boat that features the lyric “life is but a dream”.
- At his birthday party, Aames is asked how it’s going to which he responds “Livin’ the dream, baby…livin’ the dream”.
- At the same party, Aames’ best friend Brian Shelby comes into the second apartment wears a t-shirt with the words “fantasy” in sparkly sequins.
- In one of the prison scenes, the word ‘DREAM’ is spelt out backwards on a chalkboard.
- In the prison cell, the book, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections (by Carl Jung) is on the table while Aames is talking to his psychiatrist Dr. McCabe. The book concerns Jung’s personal dreams and how they helped uncover his “shadow” and removed his persona (his ‘mask’). In fact one critique of the film by Carlo Cavagna described the whole film as “overtly Jungian”. More specifically, he asserted that Vanilla Sky is “fundamentally about the relationship between the ego and the unconscious, and practically a primer on the most fundamental concepts found in any Jungian glossary…For Jung, the unconscious includes desires repressed by our education and socialization, but there is more ‘psychic material that lies below the threshold of consciousness’. The unconscious is the foundation on which the conscious mind is based”.
- On Aames’ prison uniform the name tag says “Frozen Guy”.
- His patient number on his Life Extension cryogenic tank says “PL515NT 4R51MS” (which if the numbers are replaced with their corresponding letters of the alphabet, it almost spells “Pleasant Dreams”).
- As Aames is getting his prison photograph taken, the slate spells ‘When did the dream become a nightmare?’ (in simple code).
- Sofia calls Aames a “pleasure delayer” twice in the film (but says it so subtly that it’s hard to hear properly).
- When Aames and Sophia are lying in bed after making love, Sophia asks “Is this is a dream?” and Aames replied “absolutely”.
- At one point in the film, Dr. McCabe tells Aames that he’d had a nightmare the day before. Aames replies that “It’s all a nightmare”.
I said earlier in the article that I thought the songs were perfectly chosen. Many fans of the film have noted that the lyrics repeatedly appear to match the emotion of the scene where it is played. As the Uncool website notes:
“For example, the song that plays over David leaving Sophia’s in the morning is Jeff Buckley’s, ‘Last Goodbye’…that morning was there last one true goodbye. Yes, they see each other after this, but after the car wreck when both of their lives are forever changed. ‘Last Goodbye’ also contains the lyrics: ‘Kiss me, please kiss me, but kiss me out of desire, babe not consolation’ which follows David’s plight rather well (as the next time he sees her is after the accident and he wants her affections but not sympathy for his disfigurement)…Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The River’ album (featured in the closing montage) also has some lyrical significance. One of the best lines from the song ‘The River’ is: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Also, two R.E.M. songs are featured. Don’t forget what R.E.M. stands for. Rapid eye movement. As in a state of sleep. It’s when you dream”.
It doesn’t take a psychologist to work out that I simply love the level of detail that went into making the film. I am not a great fan of psychodynamic (psychoanalytic) interpretation, but in Vanilla Sky, the mask that Aames wore became his ‘persona’ and the term was used by Carl Jung to describe the face that we as individuals present to society and (in some cases) to ourselves. Carlo Cavagna argues that:
“[Aames] attraction to [Sophie] is irresistible because she is his anima, his archetypal dream lover, the personification of the feminine nature in his own unconscious. Jung posited that all men carry an ideal image of woman in their heads and unconsciously project that image onto “the person of the beloved…David’s disfigured face, which he sometimes hides with his mask, represents his shadow. For Jung, the shadow is the inferior part of the personality, the sum of all personal and collective psychic elements that, because of their incompatibility with the chosen conscious attitude, are denied expression in life and therefore coalesce into a relatively autonomous “splinter personality” in the unconscious. Despite the negative connotations of the word ‘shadow’, Jung meant it to encompass all those qualities that are suppressed, both positive and negative. ‘The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself and yet is always thrusting itself upon him directly or indirectly’… [Aames] reality is subjective, and his shadow is breaking through into consciousness. This is the source of the film’s main conflict. In discussing dream therapy and the difficulty of processing and assimilating the unconscious, Jung wrote that several negative outcomes are possible – eccentricity, infantilism, paranoia, schizophrenia, or regression (the restoration of the persona). The revelation and assimilation of David’s unconscious is essentially the story of Vanilla Sky”.
Although there are many critics who hated the film, I love it on many different levels (including the underlying psychology).
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Cavagna, C. (2001, December). Vanilla Sky. Located at: http://www.aboutfilm.com/movies/v/vanillasky.htm
Jung, C.G. (1961). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vantage.
Kummer, R. (2010). “What is happiness to you?” Vanilla Sky (2001) Film Analysis. Located at: http://rkummer.hubpages.com/hub/What-is-happiness-to-you-Vanilla-Sky-2001-Film-Analysis
Rooksby, R. and Terwee, Sybe J.S. (1990). Freud, van Eeden and lucid dreaming. Lucidity Letter, 9(2), 18–28. Located at: http://www.sawka.com/spiritwatch/freudvan.htm
Turner, R. (2014). Vanilla Sky movie review: Beyond lucid dreams. Located at: http://www.world-of-lucid-dreaming.com/vanilla-sky-review.html
The Uncool (2015). Vanilla Sky secrets. Located at: http://www.theuncool.com/films/vanilla-sky/vanilla-sky-secrets
Wikipedia (2015). Vanilla Sky. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Vanilla_Sky