It was beyond darkness; it was emptiness.
A short time ago, I went with some friends to spend 2 hours in a sensory deprivation chamber. As strange as that may sound, the idea behind the chamber is simply to eliminate all of your senses so that your mind is free to roam and meditate.
In practice, the chamber is really just a shallow hot tub in a closet. Inside the steel door is 2 feet of water with 800 pounds of dissolved salt, silence, and complete darkness. But once you begin floating inside this confined abyss; you somehow forget that your body exists and become only a mind in the darkness. Closed off inside this tiny chamber, a larger world begins to open up.
This basement facility had 7 individual chambers. And to be honest, they were mildly terrifying.
The experience itself was incredible. As I floated there, my mind drifted between lucid thought and subconscious medication. At times I would realize where I was and an awareness of reality would come rushing back into my mind. The salty room shrank back down. But at times I was almost in a different plane of being, fleeting images ran through my mind and I was in awe of my own consciousness. The mind is still our greatest mystery.
Some people who enter these chambers can have full hallucinations and feel like they are completely transported to another world. My visions were not as vivid, but it did feel like a dream. And it was far from boring.
On our way to the chambers that night, we were all a little nervous about the experience. Aside from the chamber doors looking like they belong in a morgue, there was also some anxiety about being alone with our thoughts for 2 hours. It seems like a silly fear looking back, but then again, the mind is so very powerful. So much so that most people do their best to constantly distract it every day. The unknown realm within a mind can be quite daunting. What would happen if I let it run free? Where would it wander off to? Am I actually in control?
The truth is that your mind wanders off every night. And no one really knows why…
The idea is that the mind, when sleeping, is trying to organize your memories, get rid of unnecessary data, and prepare you for future threats. The electrical impulses of these processes leak into your cerebral cortex causing it to simulate an experience or a “dream.” Biologists speculate that this behavior evolved as our ancestors who were able to simulate interactions with predators could better handle the situation in real life.
It does seem that we dream about the biggest threats in our lives. As children we worry about monsters snatching us up, but then as we get older we dream about anxiety at work or showing up to class without our pants.
I’m not saying that you never forgot to put your pants on before school because you had bad dreams about it, but I’m not not saying that…
The mind appears to be preparing us to handle stressful situations and problem solve even while we are dreaming. There have been countless inventions that were first realized in a dream. Some famous examples are: the sowing machine, the periodic table of elements, the Terminator movies, various Beatles songs and the freaking General Theory of Relativity. Seriously, where would humanity be without dreams?
Studies have shown that we are much better at problem solving after a night of processing a problem in our dreams.
Some experiments have shown improved aptitude of solving math problems in college students who dreamt about the problem the night before and lab rats show similar improvement at solving mazes when they are allowed to enter REM sleep in between sessions.
When in REM sleep or Rapid Eye Movement, people are known to be having their most vivid dreams. During this time the brain is functioning almost identically to how it would consciously but without the production and transmission of chemicals like norepinepherine, histamine, and seratonin that control the movement of muscles.
(A failure of the mind to shut down these chemicals is what causes sleep walking and failure to start their production back up upon walking up is what causes sleep paralysis.)
It is like a practice facility for your life! And if you are able to actually become conscious of the fact you are dreaming while in REM, you are able to control your actions and environment in a process called lucid dreaming. This is not a phenomenon that all people have experienced but some people are able to lucidly dream every night and the good news is that it is something that can be learned.
Training Scene from “The Matrix”
If you are interested in increasing your chances of lucidly dreaming here are a few tricks I have used in the past with success:
- Periodically throughout your day read a sign, look away and then look back. Upon looking back, make sure that you are reading the same words as before.
- Draw two dots on the back of your thumbs and periodically check to make sure they are still there while awake.
- These first two tricks are simply to train your mind to question reality.
- Set an alarm for a hour or two before you wake up and then fall back to sleep focusing on consciously re-entering your REM state dreams.
- It is much easier to lucidly dream when our brain is already in the REM cycle, there are some apps that can help you determine just when that time is during your sleep.
Once you first realize that you are dreaming, this is the most important and precarious moment. At that point, you can either fall back into unconscious dreaming or even wake yourself up if you lose focus. It is important to have a plan for what you want to do once you become lucid in your dream and also to learn how to focus on one thing without letting a flood of conscious thoughts rush you awake. You can train to focus like this by “single point meditation” which can be as simple as focusing on your breath or a candle light, any singular stimuli will do. And as far as having a plan, attempting to fly has always been my favorite.
(Also, to help you remember your dreams many people find keeping a journal is useful.)
Dreams are one of the most incredible mysteries of life and give us a look into the power of the mind to shape reality. Whether our dreams have deeper meaning or not, we may never truly know. They remain such an obvious mystery that we too often discount them as a fluke of brain chemistry, yet they account for one third of our existence.
Perhaps we should take our dreams more seriously. Through our dreams we are able to make discoveries, find inspiration, prepare ourselves for life, and even gain understanding of the human condition. History has shown that, quite literally, dreams can change the world. And the best part? We can now feel productive about sleeping, and feel free to reference this article when asking your boss if you can stay on the clock for your midday nap.