Searches for an explanation of consciousness that do not take into account the complexities of dreaming are doomed to failure, according to psychologist Steven LaBerge.
In fact the study of lucid dreaming, when the subject is aware of being in a dream state, could offer powerful insights into the nature of consciousness.
Dr LaBerge explained that when a person is asleep, sensory input is minimal and the dream experience is informed by past experience and wishes and fears which are essentially subjective. He was convinced that studies of these experiences had great potential. "Theories of consciousness that do not take account of them are incomplete and theories that are contradicted by the findings of phenomenological and psychophysiological studies on dreaming must be wrong," he said.
The behaviourists' assumption that stimulation of brain activity is a direct result of the sensory input from the outside world, and the belief that consciousness can also be similarly explained, has clearly been shown to be wrong by dream researchers, he said. The notion that dreams were a function of memories had also been shown to be false.
Dr LaBerge, based at the Lucidity Institute in California and a pioneer of research into lucid dreaming, said that recent studies by his team had shown that during such activity, the subject is able freely to remember the circumstances of his or her waking life, and to think clearly.
He highlighted a series of studies which show that lucid dreamers are able to make prearranged signals to researchers while in a dream state. This has allowed the researchers to glean valuable psychophysiological information and test theories of how consciousness relates to sleep and the world of dreams.
Brenda Giguere, also based at the the Lucidity Institute argued that the experience of the lucid dream state offers a means of observing variations in intensity of awareness in both waking and sleeping.
"The emergence of a higher level of consciousness from a lower one is, in effect, what happens when lucidity occurs during dreaming sleep," she said.
By studying the lucid dream state in subjects researchers can see what consciousness is, how it operates and even how it develops, argued Ms Giguere who regards lucidity as a "powerful and revealing version of consciousness".