History of Lucid Dreaming

Lucid dreaming is the experience of knowing you are dreaming while still firmly located within the dream itself. The topic has become popular in the West in the last forty years, and was scientifically validated in 1981.

However, the history of lucid dreaming extends much further back in time, as it has been studied for millenia by numerous religious practioners. If you are interested in this chapter of lucid dreaming history, check out my article about the ancient history of lucid dreaming.

Freud was skeptical
Freud was skeptical

Nineteeth Century Lucid Dreamers

This hub will briefly cover the last two hundred years of lucid dreaming history, starting with the dawn of modern dream research. This title goes to Sigmund Freud, who only mentioned lucid dreaming once, in a brief and skeptical endnote in the second edition of his Interpretation of Dreams. The history of lucid dreaming would be very different if Freud himself was a lucid dreamer!

To Freud's credit, he tried repeatedly to secure a copy of Hervey de Saint-Denys' book Dreams and how to guide them, written in 1897. This work is one of the gems of the era. Alas, it was not meant to be.

Ethnographer Hervey Saint-Denys
Ethnographer Hervey Saint-Denys

Saint Denys was a prolific conscious dreamer, and he used his dreams as a scientific instrument. He tested theories in his dreams and made observations about what happened. Saint Denys' research was focused on memory and language, much like our modern neuropsychiatry.

Another notable nineteenth century dreamer was Frederic van Eeden, who was the first to use the term “lucid dream.” His long and detailed dream reports are fascinating to read, and clearly indicate an interest in the natural experience of lucid dreaming. van Eeden’s work focuses on sensations and emotions, not only his attempts to influence the content of the dream. Both of Saint-Denys and van Eeden’s works were marginalized during their lifetimes; in fact they were sometimes ridiculed at public scientific gatherings. Yet their work deeply influenced 20th century dream research.

The mercurial Castaneda
The mercurial Castaneda

The Psychedelic Sixties

The Psychedelic Sixties

Lucid dreaming was mentioned by a few more writers in the next few decades (notably Oliver Fox), but really it was the cultural zeitgeist of the postwar era that re-ignited public interest in lucid dreaming. One product of 20th century military colonialization was a renewed interest in indigenous peoples and traditional societies. With this flood of anthropological studies came bizarre stories of trance states, sorcery and the use of psychotropic plants.

In particular, the work of Carlos Castaneda galvanized a generation about new possibilities in consciousness and spirituality. In the United States and Europe, this underground academic movement culminated in “the Psychedelic Sixties." Humanist and Transpersonal Psychologies were also established in this era, focusing on positive psychology, human potential, and altered states of consciousness.

In this expansive cultural climate, Celia Greene’s phenomenological study of lucid dreams was published in 1968, popularizing van Eeden’s term from fifty years prior. Transpersonal psychologist Charles Tart compounded the popular interest in lucid dreaming by publishing his highly influential Altered States of Consciousness, which reprints van Eeden’s essay in full as well as anthropologist Kilton Stewart’s essay on lucid dreams as practiced by the Malaysian Senoi.

Like Castaneda, Stewart was a charismatic figure who influenced a generation of anthropologists and psychologists, even though both of their original works are now considered to be fictional , or at least highly imaginative accounts of their fieldwork experiences. Regardless, these two mercurial figures cast a long shadow in modern lucid dreaming studies.

Lucid Dreaming verified
Lucid Dreaming verified

Twentieth Century psychology

Lucid dreaming research was made a reputable course of scientific study when psycho-physiologist Stephen LaBerge and British parapsychologist Keith Hearne independently validated lucid dreaming by having subjects signal during lucid dreams while EEG monitors verified their mental states as REM sleep.

LaBerge’s ongoing work with the psycho-physiological domains of lucid dreaming has been particularly fruitful to cognitive psychology, leading to advances in mind/brain mapping and linguistic-cognitive studies.

The scientific legitimization of lucid dreaming added fuel to the fire, and the 1980s and early 1990s was characterized by a flurry of lucid dream research from every conceivable perspective. For example, influential lucid dream studies are represented in the areas of transpersonal psychology, sports psychology, cognition studies, and nightmare treatment.

However, while popular publications about lucid dreaming exploded on the mass market, formal academic research into the dream state cooled considerably once the interdisciplinary journal Lucidity Letter closed its doors in 1991. This journal published ten years of innovative lucid dreaming studies, ranging from physiology to clinical reports, further inspiring the contemporary dream movement.

If you want to learn more about LD, check out my hub titled lucid dreaming guide for beginners. 

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Comments 7 comments

Promo Video 6 years ago from London, UK

A nice summary of the history of Lucid dreaming


Sasha'sOnHubShell profile image

Sasha'sOnHubShell 5 years ago from Florida

This is amazing. I've experienced Lucid Dreams since the age of 9, and it's been largely attributed to my Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. Not to mention Sleep Paralysis and other Nocturnal Oddities, Lucid Dreaming is definitely the most distinct and paradoxal.

Altered States of Consciousness: This is what is attributed to the causations of hightened senses, lucid dreaming and other symptoms of seizure activity... I have a theory that in some way there is a universal relation to the epilepsy, paranormal awareness and hightened intuition that also contributes to the Lucid Dreaming. Thanks so much, looking forward to following this topic closely :)


kittythedreamer profile image

kittythedreamer 5 years ago from the Ether

again, awesome and informative hub on lucid dreaming.


Ryan Hurd profile image

Ryan Hurd 5 years ago from San Francisco, CA Author

Sasha, thanks for commenting about your experiences with epilepsy. In Brazil, some spiritist doctors believe epilepsy is the gift of mediumship that has not been cultivated yet... and there's some anecdotal evidence that learning how to navigate those strange realms can reduce seizure activity. this is drawn from Krippner and Villoldo's classic "Healing States: a journaey into the world of spiritual healiing and shamanism."

thanks Kittythedreamer! your hubs are lucid too. :)


Mrs. J. B. profile image

Mrs. J. B. 5 years ago from Southern California

You taught me something new. Thanks


jaredbangerter profile image

jaredbangerter 5 years ago from New York City

Interesting, Ryan. I am an oneironaut myself, so I appreciated this article. I knew it was practiced as early as 500 B.C. by the tibetan buddhist, but I had no idea it was involved in western culture as early as the nineteenth century.

Stephen LaBerge and the lucidity institute was the first I ever heard of it being in western culture. Very informative and much appreciated. Kudos.


JB 3 years ago

interesting but i could not find what i was looking for.

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