“Total Recall” or just total BS?
Screenshot via Luciding documentary “Kiev Dreamers.”
First you’re riding a dragon, the forest rushing beneath you. Then you’re having sex—real, very good sex — with a celebrity from your favorite show. Next you’re talking to a long-dead parent, making peace with painful memories, finding profound, healing closure.
And then you wake up.
“Imagine that you can feel in a dream like you feel in your daily life, but better,” says Maryna Vermishian, chief operating officer of Luciding, the Kiev-based company behind the LucidCatcher. “You can travel, you can fly, you can do anything.”
Compared to a normal dream, which can be like watching a movie, lucid dreaming gives the dreamer the opportunity to “wake up” or become aware within a dream. In some cases, that awareness gives the dreamer the ability to influence the dream’s plot, characters or events. That power makes a lucid dream, for many, the ultimate holy grail: a video game with no rules, a real-life Holodeck, a movie where the dreamer is lead actor, director, and special effects tech.
That’s why a handful of wearable tech companies want to make lucid dreaming the next step in human and technological evolution. By harnessing the latest in neurology and sleep research, these start-ups want to make lucid dreaming available to the masses, no longer confined to those lucky ones for whom the ability comes naturally.
In one of her own dreams, Vermishian says she was on the moon. On rollerblades. Except the rollerblades were flames. And she could control time and space. "When I woke up I was so excited, I could see my hands shaking,” she says.
The LucidCatcher headband uses low-powered electrical pulses, or transcranial electrical stimulation, to provoke lucid dreams while the user is in deep REM sleep, says Vermishian. The technology was developed alongside researchers from Russia’s Novosibirsk State University, and the company currently has angel investors from Kiev, Moscow, San Francisco and Montevideo. Vermishian says the potential market is huge.
"Even people who already lucid dream, if they can increase their success even by 2% they will buy anything. They will take courses, or buy a new book, or buy a device,” she says. “When people have a lucid dream they understand how great it is, so they want to have one every night."
If all this makes you skeptical—or in my case, makes you suspect everything is a dream and nothing matters and am I really typing these words?—join the club. Allan Hobson is a retired Harvard professor and psychiatrist, considered a global authority on dream science. (He’s credited in this frequently cited study of transcranial electrical stimulation by German sleep researcher Ursula Voss.)
Over his career, Hobson says he’s seen claims from numerous devices claiming to harness the power of lucid dreaming. The Aurora, a U.S.-manufactured headband which uses lights and sounds, has raised nearly $240,000 on Kickstarter — $150,000 more than its goal — while a quick online search brings up dozens similar sleep-mask-like devices.
"People are right to want to be lucid, but if they think that a gadget is going to help them, and they don't try pre-sleep autosuggestion first, or they're over 40, good luck with a gadget,” says Hobson. “They're just wasting their money."
LucidCatcher’s business model is designed for skeptics, says Vermishian. While they’re still hammering out details, the company plans to offer the technology at a below-cost price with a subscription model. Customers can either pay full price (still TBD but ballparked in the hundreds of dollars) for the device, or else buy 3 or 6-month subscription packages. When time and money runs out, the headband will stop working.
In 1996, a Dutch student calling herself pasQuale Ourtane started a lucid dreaming forum and website as a graduation project: LD4all.com just celebrated its 20th anniversary. Over the past two decades, she says the board’s members have had “countless discussions” about lucid aids, which can also include certain drugs and herbal substances.
“Lucid dreaming sounds so good, so people try to find a way to accomplish it with as [little] effort as possible,” writes Ourtane, in an email. She made this video, complete with soaring music, to illustrate the possibilities. “My personal feeling about companies offering these [devices] is that they are jumping into a new market and trying to make money out of it. But if it works, hey, that’s great.”
For those who have them, lucid dreams are a peak experience, says Robert Waggoner. He’s an author of two books on the practice and past president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. (That’s a real thing.) "The extraordinary freedom of lucid dreaming is exhilarating. There's nothing like it," he says. "You can do whatever you can imagine, as long as you have the technical skills and know how to do it."
Waggoner just got back from lucid dreaming workshop he ran in Tel Aviv, and, like Hobson, he’s always skeptical of tech companies boasting of a magic bullet. "When it comes to technology, and especially new technology, I think everyone needs to be cautious."
There are thousands of books and resources online about how to induce a lucid dream, says Hobson, who suggests that an equally effective analog to a device would be poking your partner during REM sleep. "I have a lot of dreams and I have them for nothing.”
"Of course people can do it themselves. No one is forcing them to buy anything,” responds Vermishian. But for those who are struggling to achieve lucidity or who don’t want to spend years honing auto-suggestion skills, she says the device can be a handy shortcut. "Right now we are in another evolution of humans [using] technology. Instead of hunting for 10 hours we can buy a sandwich in 30 seconds."
Doctors and researchers have already signed up to buy the technology, alongside hotels and airlines who want to offer the experience of lucid dreaming as a perk. Is there a danger we’ll all end up constantly dreaming, lined up in chairs, covered in cords, blind to our lives passing before our eyes? pasQuale says she’s constantly asked this question. And no.
“People seem to forget we are talking about dreaming here; a process that happens naturally,” she writes. “I think there are plenty of ways already for people who want to ignore life to do so, that are much easier to accomplish. Lucid dreaming takes effort.”
Did you just dream this article? Maybe. Pinch yourself to find out.