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Trent Anthropologists Discover Cultural Background is Key to Lucid Dreaming

Research published by professor and graduate student shows that experience of lucid dreaming depends on cultural assumptions

Preparing to dream in the Asabano village of Yakob in 2007 (photo by Roger Lohmann)
Preparing to dream in the Asabano village of Yakob in 2007 (photo by Roger Lohmann)

Have you ever had a dream in which you realized that you were dreaming? What did you do next? New research by Trent University Oshawa Anthropology professor Roger Lohmann and graduate student Shayne Dahl indicates that cultural learning shapes the kind of awareness and control we can experience while dreaming, how we explain it, and what we can do with it.

“Scouring the ethnographic record on dreaming for hints of lucidity under Professor Lohmann’s guidance, I found something surprising: that lucid dreaming is widely thought to have serious consequences,” said Mr. Dahl, who completed his M.A. thesis entitled “Knowing Means Connecting with the Source of Life: Knowledge and Ethics among Blackfoot Traditionalists” at Trent in 2012, and is now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto. “As one of my Blackfoot informants put it, ‘You could die in your dream.’”

Prof. Lohmann and Mr. Dahl’s findings will be published in July 2014 in a piece called “Cultural Contingency and the Varieties of Lucid Dreaming” as part of the collection Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep. Lucid dreaming – waking consciousness arising during a dream – has been a hot topic of scientific research in recent years. According to Prof. Lohmann and Mr. Dahl’s research, the common assumption that dreams are products of isolated imaginations has distorted our understanding of lucidity’s variation in form, function, and real-world outcomes. While pop culture portrayals in films like Avatar and Inception present fantasies of lucid dreaming enabling marvelous powers outside the dream world, many traditional and religious cultural worldviews direct people in all seriousness to purposefully act while dreaming to effect changes in the waking world.

Prof. Lohmann’s fieldwork in Papua New Guinea among the Asabano people explored how they used dreaming as evidence for and contact with supernatural beings. “Asabano converts often told me that seeing dreams of Jesus or Heaven convinced them that what the missionary told them was true,” said Prof. Lohmann. “It struck me that they had to believe their dreams were more than figments of their own imaginations to reach that conclusion, and that I, for example, would not be convinced by the same experience because of my different cultural background.”

Similarly, Mr. Dahl’s M.A. fieldwork in Alberta included encounters with lucid dreaming practiced by Aboriginal medicine men. “Shayne’s field experiences and initial search of the world ethnographic literature brought home to us that lucid dreaming is an altogether different undertaking with profound potentials for people who think it’s more than just a fantasy. In fact, in our further investigation, we found that [descriptions of] lucid dreams are radically different in form, function, and outcome depending on the cultural assumptions of the dreamer,” said Prof. Lohmann.

Their research revealed evidence that in some cultures, lucid dreaming is unknown, while in others it is taught. In some, lucidity is tacit rather than acknowledged, but people nevertheless believe that they actively undertake goals in their dreams. Prof. Lohmann and Mr. Dahl found that this implicitly lucid “volitional dreaming” commonly appears in ethnographic accounts of dreaming. In cultures where “generative” theory holds sway, dreaming of something is understood to cause it to happen in the waking world. This leads people to experience lucid dreams as opportunities to create or do magic, spinning off a placebo effect or even a killing “nocebo” effect, as Dahl describes in his thesis. By contrast, people who believe dreams are what one sees during “soul travel” use lucid dreams as an opportunity to spiritually visit actual places.

“Even when we consciously disbelieve our dreams,” Mr. Dahl said, “they still affect us at a deeper, emotional level that we can’t easily control with reason.”

“All of this shows that cultural dream theories are multiple, that people invoke them in complex ways, and that they are at the very core of what lucid dreaming is and what it makes possible,” said Prof. Lohmann.

Posted on Tuesday, July 15, 2014.

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