My Not-So-Excellent Lucid Dreaming Adventure

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I started writing fiction because of a dream. I was in my mid-30s, and the last fiction I’d written was in English Comp class in college, but when I had this cool dream of a guy parachuting off a chip of Manhattan hanging in an otherwise empty sky, and landing days later on another small piece of the world, I couldn’t resist trying to write it as a short story. Just recently, I turned that first story into a novel, titled Faller.

Meanwhile, until four years ago I made my living as a psychology professor, and one of my favorite lecture topics in Intro Psych was sleep and dreams. My students were especially fascinated by the idea of lucid dreaming—being consciously aware that you’re dreaming while you’re still in the dream. The thinking is, if you learn to become aware in your dreams, you can take control of them, and when you face your unconscious fears while dreaming, you can more easily face them in the waking world. I decided to give lucid dreaming a try. I figured if I had more control over them, I might be able to boost my creative firepower. Plus I was just curious to see what would happen.

To become lucid in dreams, you repeatedly stop what you’re doing while you’re awake, and ask yourself, “Am I dreaming right now?” Then you look around, and answer the question. No, I’m awake. What we think about while we’re awake eventually ends up seeping into our dreams, so eventually you’ll ask yourself the question while you’re dreaming, and boom, you’re lucid dreaming.

The first time it worked, I was so excited I immediately woke myself up. Eventually I managed to stay calm, and stay asleep. At first I mostly looked around my dreams, startled by how colorful and vivid the details were. When I remember dreams after waking, they’re typically fuzzy black and white, but my dream world turned out to be hyper-real.

Eventually I tried taking control. The first time I did this, I was dreaming about a childhood friend, and I interrupted him and said, “Do you know this is a dream? You’re not real.” My friend ignored me. He went on talking as if reading from a script. I tried again, but he wouldn’t budge off the script. The same thing happened when I tried talking to people in other dreams. They would not engage.

I thought I knew what was happening. Modern brain research tells us our brains are highly compartmentalized. There are parts of it that literally think independently from the conscious awareness you think of as you. Dreams originate in an unconscious part of your mind, and that dream-creating part doesn’t necessarily want to engage with the aware part intruding on its turf. It might even flat-out resent what the aware part is trying to do.

I’ll never forget the final dream I had in my lucid dreaming experiment. I was driving in the neighborhood where I grew up, and I stopped in front of my childhood house. I figured the script was for me to go inside and meet some people from my past, maybe become a kid again. I decided not to go along with the script. I would take control. So instead I reached over and opened the glove compartment. I wanted to see if I could read while I was dreaming.

The moment that glove compartment snapped open, a huge, cowled figure appeared in the passenger seat. His hand whipped out and grabbed me by the throat, pinning my head against the head rest.

The cowled figure said, “Don’t mess with things you know nothing about.”

I spent a few long seconds pinned by that hand, staring into the darkness inside that hood, trying to wake myself up.

Before this dream, it had been a long time since a dream truly scared me. As an adult I’d always felt like an actor in a movie when I dreamed. Part of me always knew nothing bad could happen. This dream terrified me, though. It took a couple of hours to fall back to sleep, and I had that feeling of not wanting to let my feet stray too close to the edges of the bed, lest that dark figure reach out from under the bed and grab my ankle.

I understand what happened, from a psychological perspective. My unconscious mind got fed up with me screwing around on its turf, so it lashed out; it warned me off. I think that’s why it scared me so badly. I know that dark figure wasn’t real; I understand it was conjured by another part of my mind. And I find that idea pretty damned terrifying, that one part of my mind can lash out at another. That’s how our minds work. The various parts don’t always agree, and that is so far from how I think about myself, about my mind.

So I stopped screwing around with my dreams. It’s private property. I can respect that.

Top image: Inception (2010)

faller-smallWill McIntosh is a frequent contributor to Asimov’s Science Fiction, where his story “Bridesicle” won the 2010 Reader’s Award, as well as the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Short Story. He lives in Williamsburg, Virginia.  He left his position as a psychology professor in Southeast Georgia to write full time, but continues to teach as an adjunct at the College of William and Mary. His most recent book, Faller, is available now from Tor.

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