On Wednesday nights in the Scott Center, Daniel Morris ’20 makes tea and leads students through a workshop exploring the psychological, philosophical, scientific and spiritual aspects of sleep, dreaming and lucidity. For Morris, sleep and dreaming are not a mere idle fascination, but a long held passion. As a middle school student, Morris happened to pickup a book exploring sleep and dreams. The book sparked an interest that has not wavered since. Over the years, Morris has read countless books and scientific articles on the subject and made dream journaling, reality checks and meditation part of his daily routine.
As a neuroscience major and religion minor, Morris has found that sleep and dreaming are interesting bridges between the two subjects.
“Buddhism questions the existence of a self and questions what is real and permanent,” he said.
Dreaming also raises questions about what is real. Examining sleep and dreaming through both a neuroscientific and religious lens provides an interdisciplinary perspective.
“I’m interested in looking at dreaming as a reflection on waking life and how your relationship to your waking life appears in your dreams,” Morris said.
Toni Cross ’18, a student in the workshop, said she has learned more about how sleep patterns and dreams vary from person to person.
“The first night we went around and gave a little introduction,” Cross said. “I didn’t realize there is so much variation in people’s sleep patterns and dreams. Some people lucid dream every night. Some people had never lucid dreamed and wanted to. In a lot of my dreams, I’m not in them; I’m living out the dream as someone else. The other students were shocked by this.”
In order to increase awareness of dreaming, called lucid dreaming, Morris has taught the students to make reality checks.
Dreams can appear very real, so there are a few simple techniques to test “am I dreaming?” Morris tells his peers to look at text or a clock, then look away and will it to change, then look back to see if the text morphs or the time switches. You can also cover your nostrils and try breathing in. If you can breathe in, you’re dreaming. In the 30 minutes Morris and I were sitting in Crossroads talking about his workshop, he told me he had conducted several reality checks.
Another technique for improving sleep and increasing chances of a lucid dream is dream journaling. Before bed, Morris recommends writing down the time you go to bed and any events from the day to help clear your mind. He also suggests writing down something you have improved on related to sleep, dreaming and lucidity. In the morning, you write down the time you woke up and any dreams you can remember.
A third technique, called Mnemonically Induced Lucid Dream (MILD), is one of the most effective induction techniques. MILD can be used right after waking up from a dream or right before bed. First, you recall a recent dream, visualize yourself in it and notice its bizarre aspects. Next, you imagine yourself becoming lucid in the dream and then visualize the details of your experience in a lucid dream. By repeating these steps over and over in your head before falling asleep, you increase the likelihood that you will become aware of your dreams.
So what exactly does one do when in a lucid dream? Well, anything. Morris recommends doing something that engages with one of your senses.
“Eating is really cool and singing is really cool in lucid dreams,” he said. “Dreams can have a quality of synesthesia and everything feels extra real, more vivid, more present.”
For his third workshop, Morris plans to draw on his background as a neuroscience major to discuss the brain chemistry behind sleeping and dreaming. He will talk about supplements that help strengthen sleep like 5-HTP, a supplement that helps with deep sleep by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. He will also cover the natural supplement galantamine, which can be used to promote lucid dreaming. At higher dosages, galantamine is used to treat Alzheimer’s because its ability to increase acetylcholine levels is useful for memory.
The workshop has also explored dream analysis. Participants sent Morris their dreams and then the workshop discussed their possible meanings.
“[It’s] an environment where you can talk about what you’ve dreamt about without people interrupting,” Cross said. “Just talking about dreams and sleep made me remember things I had repressed from my childhood – like out of body experiences where I wasn’t sure if I was awake or sleeping.” Since beginning the workshop, Cross has started implementing the reality checks Morris introduced.
Morris hopes that participants walk away from his workshop with a better understanding of sleeping and dreaming and a desire to explore both further.
“My growth in waking life has always been mirrored by my growth in sleeping life,” Morris said. He hopes his workshop participants can find this, too. He is also thinking about continuing the workshop into the spring semester. Looking even further down the road, Morris is considering combining his passion for neuroscience, sleep and dreaming by pursuing graduate school for neuroscience and sleep research.