Friday, 18 June 2010

Lucid Dreaming: the (Un)Official New Scientist Addendum

Oh goody. This week has me almost vibrating in and out of conventional timespace with joy; there are two brilliant articles in the New Scientist.

The first is about wolves.

It turns out that their family/pack structure may be a strong determinant of their hunting habits and, consequently, whether those habits will be destructive or helpful in the context of their environment.

I’m told that wolves are inedible, so the motive for hunting such beautiful creatures in remote spots escapes me. In any case, regular readers will already know what I think about testosterone-infused fuckwits with big guns.

However, it turns out such people may be offending against more than my moral sensibilities. The article says that:

“Studies … have shown that intact wolf packs boost the diversity of plants and songbirds, and increase populations of beaver and amphibians”

The tendency has been to regard wolves as individuals and to cull to numbers; this disrupts family groups and sometimes picks-off highly-experienced individuals who are still teaching the young good hunting habits.

It is highly atypical for wolves to attack people, so I wonder if one of these decimated wolf packs was responsible for the death of Candice Berner, killed while out jogging in Chignik Lake, Alaska.

Please do buy The New Scientist and read it all.

I would normally have banged on about wolves for ages. I’m in the middle of preparing a ‘European Werewolf Trials’ presentation now, as coincidence would have it. But the second part of this week’s NS beckons even more urgently.

Lucid dreaming is awareness that you’re dreaming while you’re dreaming. If you get good, you can have lucid dreams at will, and eventually control the content.

It’s like a theme-park with psychic powers – wish it, and it will be so.

Lucidity has traditionally been so strongly associated with either hedonism or exotic spiritual practices that its scientific significance has been a little underplayed. In addition, the Freudian-inspired psychodynamic model which was influential for so much of the twentieth century created suspicion of anything which interfered in the dreamstate; it was regarded as a critical and sensitive interplay between the putative parts of the personality. Intervening would have been regarded as sensible as letting off a firecracker behind your mechanic while he’s fixing your brakes.

But the humanistic schools of psychology allowed for a less prescriptive and more evidence-based approach to psychology. Many have done their bit for oneirology (yes, it’s got an important-sounding title of its own). Stephen LaBerge has made a very respectable academic career of studying lucidity building on the work of Paul Tholey among others, and Susan Blackmore has done a great deal for the study of alternate mind states in general.

In addition, brain imaging techniques have allowed us to examine the neural correlates of all sorts of subjective states, lucidity among them. So now we can be reasonably sure that lucidity is a unique brain state, and not just a few people fibbing that they can do cool things while everybody else is just unconscious.

The New Scientist article starts by pointing out that lucidity can help us to understand the phenomenon of consciousness, a slippery concept. Primary consciousness is defined as simply being aware, and secondary consciousness is being aware that you are aware – a self-reflective state.

Secondary consciousness is thought to be limited to humans and has been difficult to pin down in a neuroscience-type way. However some liken regular dreams to primary consciousness. This means that measuring the difference between primary (normal) dreams’ and secondary (lucid) dreams’ neural activity could give meaningful data, free of the confounding variables which plague waking investigations into the same phenomenon.

The differences observed between normal dreaming and lucid dreaming included a 40Hz brainwave in the frontal regions and greater synchronised activity between the frontal and parietal regions. There may also be raised activity in a small part of the frontal lobes – the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – but that research is still being peer-reviewed.

None of this answers that enduring question: how does brain activity give rise to subjective experience of consciousness? It’s the trickiest question in neuroscience.

But some hope that the understanding of consciousness may help in the design of interventions for those with altered versions of it, such as people suffering from schizophrenia. This understanding of the brain regions that need to be subdued and those that need to be boosted may ultimately lead to a treatment approach, claims Ursula Voss, University of Frankfurt, in the article.

It’s all baby steps, but it’s just great to see lucidity brought into a respectable scientific sphere.

The New Scientist article is clearly written by a good technical reporter who’s never seen the state from the inside, apart from one fleeting moment after training. As such, the tips for attaining lucidity good do with some beefing up.

So if you want to try lucidity, here is my Mark II checklist. This is far from exhaustive, but it’s a good start.

Start by keeping a dream diary. You’ll notice themes popping up where you weren’t aware of them before. Emotional states, people, activities. When you have a couple of weeks’ worth, you’ll find patterns. When you’re aware of them, they’ll serve as indicators that you may be in a dream.

For example, despite being just a girl ;-), I score well on spatial awareness tests (more averagely a male trait). I’ve been vaguely obsessed with how buildings go together since I was a child, and it turns out I do this in my dreams too. But it’s something I wouldn’t have noticed unless I had written it down in a dream diary.

If I find myself wondering if the first-floor balcony projects too far over the ground floor curtain wall, or whether the stairs have had one or two ninety degree turns, chances are I’m dreaming. When you become aware you’re dreaming – that’s lucidity.

Also get into the habit of performing reality checks during the day. Pick certain times or events (at least five per day) and use them to notice the distinct qualities of reality around you. How can you be truly sure you’re awake?

This technique is really only a kind of mindfulness, a Buddhist technique of awareness of the moment. It was first developed for lucidity (to my knowledge) by German Gestalt therapist Paul Tholey. It’s recounted well by Stephen LaBerge.

Constantly look for oddities in life. Whichever habits you practice during wakefulness, you will find yourself doing in dreams too. If you wonder whether things are odd, when they are (pink cats, trees floating by) you’ll realise you’re dreaming.

Definitely make one of your reality checks reading. It’s very difficult during lucidity. After much practice, I can sort of do it but the words don’t make a lot of sense.

The New Scientist article recommends getting up an hour before normal and going back to bed later. It’s a tip in the right ballpark, but for serious results get up after four hours. Stay awake for a couple and read about lucidity before you go back to bed. Buy a New Scientist and read the article, for example. Then go back to bed. This tip is for the weekends, or for those with a very understanding boss.

This technique works by what is termed ‘REM rebound’. The early half of your night’s sleep is very light on REM. REM is associated with the sleeping cycles during which we are more likely to remember dreams (it is no longer thought to be the only part of sleep during which we dream).

If you remove the opportunity for REM just as your body would naturally be doing it, it will grab it with both hands when you go back to sleep. This forced method of jumping into dreams produces more lucidity. Perhaps it’s because the break between normal consciousness, the loss of your secondary consciousness in other words, and dreaming is far shorter.

Finally, if you find yourself in a lucid state and it starts to ‘slip away’ (it will!) then create a somatic sensation – I rub my hands vigorously together. Other people like to spin on the spot. No idea why this works, but massive sensory input of the kinaesthetic or orientation variety seems to help.

These ‘waking from inside your dream techniques are called DILDS (dream induced lucid dreaming). There are other techniques, such as Mnemonic Induced Lucid Dreams (MILDs) and Waking Induced Lucid Dreams (WILDs) but don’t worry about those ‘til you’ve got DILDs licked. WILDing consists of falling asleep consciously. It’s a toughie and I’ve only ever managed it once.

If you want to bypass all the mental discipline, you could invest in a device called a Dreamlight. It’s a mask-like contraption which fires little light impulses at your eyes when it detects rapid eye movement. If you’re in a dream and notice these light flashes, you can then become self-aware that you’re dreaming – lucidity. I’ve never tried a Dreamlight, so let me know your results.

There are also pharmacological aids to lucidity. They broadly work on trying to increase certain neurotransmitters to assist with levels of concentration, awareness and memory. I don't know of anyone with a better grasp of the area than Thomas Yuschak.

However, ‘watch out, you might get what you’re after’ to quote David Byrne. Lucidity is the sibling of sleep paralysis. Here’s a diagram wot I drew earlier:

In my experience, sleep paralysis and lucidity are different sides of the same coin. (A quick catch up on sleep paralysis is here).

In fact, everything you do to avoid sleep paralysis, you do to attain lucidity. Sleep on your back, upset your sleep cycles, nap during the day …

You can see from the illustration that waking mind (ie. secondary consciousness) and sleeping body can occur simultaneously: when the real world is perceived it’s sleep paralysis; when the dream-world is perceived it’s lucid dreaming. It’s a tiny bit more complicated than this – sleep paralysis is often associated with dread, for example – but I broadly believe they’re basically the same states acted out in different arenas.

This is why I really don’t recommend the pharmacological approach for beginners. You can get stuck in ugly places. Here’s an excerpt from my dream diary after my first attempt with galantamine, an acetycholerinesterase inhibitor derived from snowdrops and used in (much) larger doses by people with Alzheimer’s:

“Nightmarish with several false awakenings … made me nervous of taking G with a daytime nap again”

I’m philosophical about waking up screaming from nightmares about six times per month (long-suffering Mr. Jourdemayne, less so), so if an experience made me nervous, it should probably make others nervous too. I remember that experience clearly and it wasn’t good. Luckily, the next one was better and I’ve been fine ever since.

Out of Body Experiences (OBEs) may also be connected with lucidity. Anecdotal evidence suggests this is so. But that’s a huge subject and I’ll need another blogpost for it.

The New Scientist article mentioned the potential of beneficial mental health applications for the understanding of consciousness through lucidity. But is there any value in it for regular Joes?

I think that firstly, it’s huge fun. Why wouldn’t you do it?

Secondly, it can be akin to meditation in value. The whole point is the mental discipline which is both the route and the reward.

Tibetan Buddhists have been doing this for years and developed the practices which are being rediscovered today. Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche writes:

“The real point is to develop the flexibility of the mind and to pierce the boundaries that constrict it”

Ideally, the skills you develop will help you to think more creatively and expansively, and to concentrate.

His techniques for lucidity will sound familiar from the earlier part of this blogpost. He recommends meditation, avoiding the three pitfalls of agitation, drowsiness and laxity. His four foundational practices of lucidity are: recognising the dream-like nature of life; remove grasping and aversion; strengthening intention; cultivating memory and joyful effort.

At this point, I would like to remind everyone that I am a Jedi and have complete control over my dreamstates.

However, that would be telling big fat fib. It is my experience that the state is subject to a whole host of factors, some beyond your control. You can practice lucidity and even get good at it, but you’ll find that it’s frustratingly affected by many extraneous factors.

These include age: dreams usually peak in teenage years and seem to drop slowly off after that.

Hormones also play a very decisive factor. Sleep paralysis and lucid dreaming has been noted by many to peak just before a menstrual period. The physician and alchemist Paracelsus thought that the menstrual flux engendering phantoms in the air. This meant that “convents were seminaries of nighmares”. The old-fashioned use of the word ‘Nightmare’ in this context refers to sleep paralysis and incubus attacks.

If you’re female and going to try lucid dreaming therefore, the two or three days before a period will be the most likely bring results.

Finally, there is some correlation with depression, anti-depressants and serotonin status.

Hufford (p49) has wondered if sleep paralysis is associated with depression, and I’ve seen the idea mooted repeatedly by sufferers on internet chat boards. SSRI antidepressants have been noted to reduce sleep paralysis in some.

It’s hardly suprising that an emotional state should have a neurotransmitter correlate, or that that correlate could be linked to other states, like lucid dreaming. But the precise causal mechanisms are, to my knowledge, unknown. It’s a fascinating area for future research.

When that research is done, I look very much look forward to reading the New Scientist article. Just to make that week complete, perhaps they could revisit wolves again too?

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Homeopathy & Witchcraft

“Homeopathy is witchcraft” said Dr Tom Dolphin, deputy chairman of the BMA’s junior doctors committee at their annual conference in May. It seems the rest of the delegates agreed, since they passed a motion denouncing the use of alternative therapies where there was no evidence for their effectiveness.

I’m no expert on medicine or homeopathy. Witchcraft on the other hand …

Is the good doctor right? Or is he recklessly impugning homeopaths? Or witches?

Let’s start with a definition of witchcraft. In ordinary English dictionaries, the terms ‘witchcraft’ and ‘sorcery’ are broadly synonymous. But in anthropological writings, there is a subtle difference: this has arisen for the historical reason that the classic work on ethnological witchcraft was done on the Azande people of north central Africa (mostly modern Congo & Sudan) by Edward Evans Pritchard.

The Azande regard witchcraft and sorcery as slightly different (as do many other non-European peoples), so the distinction was and is useful, which is why it has lasted.

Both sorcery and witchcraft involve the manipulation of supernatural forces to produce magic. Sorcery is the production of magic using self-conscious ‘formulae’ – rituals and activities. Anyone with the ritual knowledge can perform sorcery. Being a witch involves qualities more intrinsic to the person: somebody can be born a witch, and even cast their evil inadvertently (such as with the evil eye).

Broadly, you are a sorcerer by your deeds and a witch by your nature.

So sorcery is the appliance of science to the supernatural: the consistent application of objects, words and rituals to produce consistent results. In fact, ideally:

“A spell need never go wrong, unless some detail of ritual observance had been omitted or a rival magician had been practicing stronger counter-magic”

So in sorcery, there is a standardised product – not an unusual phenomenon in religion (anyone for Mass?) There is also a standardised result – expected in sorcery, but not in religion, expressed thus:

“a prayer … (is) a form of supplication: a spell (is) a mechanical means of manipulation”

Sorcery assumes the existence of a more subtle world than we can perceive with our natural facilities, that this subtle world has influence over us and that we can transact with it. That’s not necessarily so weird. I believe in electricity even though I can’t see electrons.

Many complimentary therapies also have unproven concepts such as meridians, or chi. But that doesn’t really matter: the map is not the territory. At school, they told you that atoms were like little coloured snooker balls whizzing around other snooker balls - that isn’t quite true either.

But the difference between acupuncture meridians and ‘snooker ball’ atoms is that one is a good scientific model, and the other is a person with lines drawn on their body.

The measure of a scientific model not so much whether it describes the truth; the truth is, after all, a philosophical concept. The measure of a good scientific model is whether it can be used to consistently predict results.

Strictly speaking, sodium atoms don’t have extra red snooker balls in their outer shells, nor chlorine atoms lack blue snooker balls in their outer shell. I’m assured by better qualified people than I that it’s all a bit more complicated than that. However it’s a bloody good model, because we know what happens every time sodium and chlorine get together.

So for magic and homeopathy to be scientific, we don’t necessarily have to have yet validated their theoretical postulates. Many things remain yet to be discovered, after all. We would simply have to be convinced that their models produce consistent and predictable results.

Do they?

Let’s stick to homeopathy. The answer may be ‘yes’.

Homeopathy appears, in some, to offer the same kind of results that placebos do. In other words, results not beyond what can be achieved with utterly neutral substances.

Placebos are a fascinating phenomenon. They appear to invoke some kind of natural health assistance via a belief mechanism. Modern studies demonstrate that he placebo effect certainly works in some people and we even seem to have subconscious preferences about the relationship between effectiveness and potency: the colour of pills matters, as does the dosage (two pills are better than one) and whether or not the pill is branded.

The effects of the placebo’s malevolent sibling, the nocebo have also been noted as powerful from time to time, when a human target of a powerful curse obediently gives up the ghost and surrenders to their maliciously prescribed fate.

Nicholas Humphrey’s postulated ‘health management system’ proposes that natural defensive bodily functions such as vomiting or fevers are marshalled at an appropriate time to combat illness in a ‘top-down’ (from the cognitive to the subconscious/physical parts of the brain) mechanism. The triggers for the engagement of these powerful tools are, in this model, a compelling experience, such as a shamanic/religious ritual (or administration of a medicine by an authority figure such a qualified practitioner in whom you have trust).

Studies on the modern counterparts of shamanic rituals - faith-healing – have found that while the participants have subjectively felt and improvement in their conditions, that they have objectively not improved1. Furthermore, psychometric tests suggest that the participants who benefited from these rituals ‘engaged in denial and disregard of reality’2.

So what makes prescription drugs different from homeopathic medicine if homeopathic medicine also works?

The use of empirical techniques, such as randomised controlled trials (RCTs), demonstrate that prescription drugs work more than placebos. They affect something more than our natural, and distressingly moderate, ability to rally our own defences.

As fascinating as the placebo effect is, it doesn’t work on enough people or consistently enough to count as being as potent as medicine.

I started with a cussedly detailed differentiation between witchcraft and sorcery because I assumed that you, dear reader, are interested in such fine distinctions. You have, after all, visited the blog of a woman depicted on a broomstick.

But I think it has a further application in some complementary and alternative therapies.

I would say that ‘spiritual healing’ and ‘psychic healing’ bear more relation to ‘witchcraft’, in the anthropological sense. They employ the ‘intrinsic’ model of a naturally gifted practitioner.

Practices such as homeopathy and reflexology bear more relation to ‘sorcery’, in the anthropological sense. They provide for recipes or rituals, consistent with established models imparted during standardised courses of study.

But in the European sense and in day-to-day English, ‘witchcraft’ and ‘sorcery’ can pass for the same thing.

Dr. Tom Dolphin said “Homeopathy is witchcraft”

I believe he’s right.

Thank you to Tessera2009 for nagging me to write this. I've been a bit behind for a month or so, and wouldn't have done it without the gentle nudge.

1 'The Psychology of Religious Behaviour, Belief & Experience' Beit-Hallahmi & Argyle citing Glik (1986) and Pattison et al (1973)
2 Minnesota Personality Multiphasic Inventory