Imagine a world where the sky is pink, trees are blue, the vivid beauty of a single leaf is enough to reduce you to tears of joy, you can fly, communicate with animals, breathe underwater, or manipulate your surroundings until your very existence becomes a blissful pitstop in a utopian paradise. For experienced lucid dreamers, this is a paradise that is fully accessible. Each and every night.
In #Netflix's new original, Lucid Dream, protagonist Dae-ho (Ko Soo) enters this world for a much more practical purpose, in a desperate attempt to solve the long-running mystery of his son's kidnapping. The South Korean thriller, a directorial debut from Kim Joon-sung, imagines lucid dreaming as a tool to revisit old memories with added clarity, in a reverse of the concept-planting nature of Christopher Nolan's Inception.
For a film meddling with a subject entrenched in reality, the pacing of #LucidDream doesn't lend itself to detailed scientific explanation. The plot is set-up early on: It's revealed that Dae-ho has many enemies thanks to his journalistic career exposing corruption within elite circles; he is the sole carer of a son, Min-Woo (Kim Kang-Hoon); in the first 10 minutes, Min-Woo is abducted, in a scene we'll see repeated in Dae-ho's unconscious throughout the course of the movie.
The next three years pass as a collage of headlines and snapshots. Dae-ho talks with the detective working on the case, Song Bang-Sub (Sol Kyung-Gu), who paints a bleak picture of the investigation, but promises to continue the search for Min-Woo. This is the point where Dae-ho discovers news stories of criminals being caught through the peculiar method of lucid dreaming, leading him to a scientist researching the phenomenon, So-Hyun (Kang Hye-Jung), to help him uncover clues.
The Science Behind Netflix's 'Lucid Dream'
This leads to the first unexplained procedure — what technology is So-Hyun using? Admittedly, the lab coats and electrodes are more cinematically palatable, but there's no explanation about what those electrodes are doing, or how the set-up helps to promote lucidity. In reality, the process of inducing lucidity can be done anywhere, with lucid dreamers falling into two groups: The naturals and the trained.
Some people have experienced lucid dreams from a young age, to varying degrees. In their simplest form, they are dreams where the dreamer suddenly becomes aware they are in a dream, ranging from the ability to "open the eyes" and swiftly exit a nightmare, to a god-like ability to shape entire worlds. Unfortunately, it isn't something everyone will experience; a German study discovered that only 51 per cent of adults studied had a lucid dream at least once in their lives.
For those where lucidity doesn't come naturally, there are plenty of techniques that attempt to invoke the phenomenon, none of which require scientific equipment. Even going to sleep with the intent can be enough to become aware mid-dream (try it tonight, you never know). To function, most of these methods rely on what is known as a "reality check," or RC for short. RC's are little "red flags" used to jolt a dreamer into sudden realization.
Techniques include breathing while underwater or through a closed nose, staring at the hands (which often appear contorted in a dream state), or even marking an 'X' somewhere distinct in waking life, so its absence in a dream is conspicuous (expect questionable looks from work colleagues with this option.) In Lucid Dream, So-Hyun informs Dae-ho to check the time, another popular method. In Inception, each character had a distinct, personal "totem."
The Link Between Lucidity And Memory
Once in a lucid dream, the possibilities are endless, at least after a lot of "training." Beginners may experience fleeting glimpses of lucidity, but then awake abruptly. However, after practicing certain techniques, dreamers can take full control of their surroundings and situation, essentially acting out any desire they so choose, and making their dream world a kaleidoscopic paradise of the boundless. Or to have sex.
Lucid Dream shows something different. So-Hyun's technology opens the door for people to access memories, not to concoct an elaborate dreamscape. Although a seemingly far-fetched narrative device, lucid access to memories could feasibly happen. We've all had dreams that contain fragments of the previous day, in what Sigmund Freud referred to as "day-residue." One study discovered that 60 to 70 per cent of our dreams were this type; make-believe spliced with images from our daily lives.
However, the recollection of entire scenarios (known as episodic memories) — such as the fairground kidnapping in Lucid Dream — are less common but do occur. According to one study, episodic memories occur in only 2 per cent of dreams. Conceivably, if you combine this type of memory with a lucid dream you'll achieve a similar effect to So-Hyun's machine. Achieving this would take years of meticulous training with a healthy dose of luck, though, and not a simple command to "think" of the memory before sleep.
Could Lucid Dreams Help To Solve A Crime?
The answer is... not really. Unless the subject somehow had a photographic memory and the said lucidity brought something to light that was accurate lodged in the brain, the recollection of memory is just that — a recollection, with absolutely no procedure to validate for truth. Although, So-Hyun's technology does offer another technique that is much more likely; lucid dreaming as therapy.
In the film, chairman Myung-Chul Cho uses the machine to help with what appears to be PTSD. So-Hyun explains this to Dae-ho as follows:
"He's a psychiatric patient. He's also my biggest sponsor of lucid dreams. His son died in a car accident, he's getting treated for the shock of it. He's meeting his dead son, like you, through lucid dreams."
In Lucid Dream, this moment is perhaps the most relevant to real life. Lucid dreaming is still a fairly unexplored option in psychotherapy, but is beginning to gain traction in the field. In an interview with Vice, Dr. Joseph Green, a therapist who actively uses lucid dreaming as a helpful tool, explained how the process can help overcome PTSD, as often PTSD is interlinked with recurring nightmares of the traumatic event. He explained one case where lucid dreaming offered a solution:
"A girl came to me after being bitten by dogs. She had this recurring dream of being chased by two dogs and hiding behind a tree. I told her, 'the next time you have that dream, and you're hiding behind that tree, I want you to say, 'this is just a dream, and I can do whatever I want.' At our next session, she said, 'I did what you told me to do. I stepped out from behind that tree and I faced the dogs. I said, 'I want you to turn into hot dogs. And they did, and I ate them.' She never had the nightmare again."
It must be said that experimenting with lucid dreaming as a tool to overcome such raw, emotional issues isn't something that should be taken lightly — or alone. But on a much simpler level, many lucid dreamers use the experience as a tool for self growth. This may be rehearsing a difficult conversation, singing in front of a crowd or playing out a number of alternative scenarios or options before a life-changing decision.
Such dreamworlds also contain "dream characters" (or DCs) that can be interacted with. Need guidance? Whip up a dream character of someone you deeply respect and ask them a for advice. Need motivation? Imagine Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket whipping you into shape. This reflects numerous spiritual teachings, as well as Carl Jung's "wise-man" active imagination model, a visualization process allowing the subject to imagine talking to a sage-like figure for advice during meditation.
DCs are one of the weirdest aspects of lucid dreams; they're seemingly conscious and autonomous, have distinct personalities and can even return to the dreamers dream, over and over. This is a subject that has fascinated psychologists, with a number of theories on what these beings stand for. One such theory is a Freudian view that these characters represented a deep-rooted aspect of the dreamer's psyche, including the ID, the ego and the super-ego.
Is Lucid Dreaming Another Plain Of Existence?
Another theory leads us onto our most far-fetched, out-of-this-world, it-couldn't-really-be-true-could it? topic. In years gone by (and in modern day shamanic traditions), these DCs were considering spiritual beings, who existed on another plain of existence, fitting with spiritual theories that propose lucid dreaming is an elevated realm. Taking it one step further, astral travel is the term given to the exploration of this limitless "realm," separate from our physical world.
Which brings us back to Lucid Dream. The most contentious, blockbuster-ripe feature of Netlix's film is dream-sharing, popularized emphatically by Inception (a film that clearly inspired director Kim Joon-sung). Here, Dae-ho encounters the mysterious Kwon Yong-Hyun, firstly in a lucid dream, then in real life. Yong-Hyun teaches Dae-ho to dream share, using some obscure technology to match brainwaves with another subject.
This offers a solution to a tricky problem: one of the kidnappers, Choi Kyung-Hwan, is the only person who knows the whereabouts of Dae-ho's son. And, inconveniently, he's in a coma. But Yong-Hyun helps Dae-ho enter his subconscious mind, interact with him, find the answer he is looking for, and locate his son (spoilers: while also encountering deceitful detective Song Bang-Sub, who also enters the dreamworld after we discover he orchestrated the kidnapping).
Admittedly, we're dipping our toe in pseudoscience now, but it's a lukewarm pool that is inviting us in for a gentle swim. Theories of astral travel do suggest that, if the astral plain does exist (and quantum physics suggests that's a possibility), there's no reason two lucid dreamers couldn't meet on a different level of reality. In the soothing, less-intimidating shallow end of the pool, numerous studies have looked into "dream telepathy," a field of research again first initiated by Freud.
Known as ESP in science terminology (extrasensory perception), the results have been far from conclusive, but haven't ruled out superhuman-sleeping-ability either. A 2009 study by the University of Northampton in the UK — which explored findings from psychiatrist Montague Ullman's dream laboratory at the Maimonides Medical Center — highlights a large number of reported ESP events in dreams, noting that ESP "remains a promising, if somewhat neglected, area for parapsychological research."
So while the concept of dream-sharing highlighted in Lucid Dream (and Inception) may seem way beyond the realms of plausibility, the truth is, we can't rule out that on some level, they might be attainable. Which leads into an important disclaimer of the biggest misstep of the film: There is absolutely no scientific evidence that lucid dreams are in any way, shape or form damaging to your brain.
In fact, as we've discovered, they can be an effective tool to open the mind, work through problems or enjoy the expansive exploration of a potentially alternative plain of existence. So as you go to sleep tonight, remind yourself to be lucid. Check the clocks. Hold your nose. Explore a dreamland paradise. Roam free.
Have you ever had a lucid dream? What happened? Share your craziest stories below!