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WORLD Radio - Dreamland

A young man teaches himself to “lucid dream” and stumbles into one of life’s great mysteries

LES SILLARS, HOST: From WORLD Radio, this is Doubletake.

MUSIC: Bewitching Hour

ABI CHURCHILL: I was probably 8 years old, and I remember dreaming I was with my brother, and we were about to walk into these big sand tunnels. Somehow I knew there were a ton of layers to them and it was really complicated. But I stopped outside the sand tunnel entry, and I was like, this is going to be kind of scary maybe.

Abi Churchill is one of our Doubletake correspondents. She remembered this dream last year after hearing about something called “lucid dreaming.” It’s when you’re aware you’re dreaming while still in the dream. You’re dreaming and awake at the same time. Sort of. Caught between sleep and consciousness.

ABI: I don’t know how to explain this because I don’t normally dream at all, but I could kind of see myself asleep on my bed, and I was like, OK, this is fine, this is just a dream. If it gets too scary, then I’ll just wake myself up.

In lucid dreaming you can often choose how to react to what you encounter. Some people can even control what happens to them.

ABI: I happily trundled off into the sand tunnels with my brother, and it did get kind of scary. The sand tunnels kind of started to collapse on us, and I tried to wake myself up, but I couldn’t. So they just continued to collapse on us until I woke up. At the end. But not ‘cause I tried to.

LES: [laughter]

ABI: It was disappointing.

LES: Wait a sec. It was disappointing. Why was it disappointing?

ABI: Because I had thought about it in the beginning, and oh, I can do this. And then I went off and completely failed.

LES: You failed to wake up when you thought that you would?

ABI: Yeah. I thought I could save myself from getting scared. And I just got scared, and had a bad dream. And then I woke up.

MUSIC: Find Your Heart

Abi learned that sand tunnels and lucid dreams have something in common: once you choose to go in, you shouldn’t expect to come out on your own terms.

Abi heard that someone she’d seen around college had lucid dreams every night. So she arranged some interviews with a young man named Connor Clough.

CONNOR: It feels very much like you are conscious. Very conscious. … There’s nothing different about it in the sense of like, “Oh, this is a dream.”

Connor taught himself how to lucid dream as a teenager. He entered the sand tunnel, you might say. He thought it was cool at first. Kind of fun. But since then it’s been making his life miserable. When he started to lucid dream, he unwittingly stumbled into one of humanity’s great mysteries.

We experience dreams as a blurry link between our sleeping minds and reality. Are they just collections of memories and emotions dredged up from our subconscious in non-chronological order? A storm of flashing neurons and biochemical waves? Or can dreams really be some sort of window into transcendent reality?

At different times in this episode we’ll be quoting the Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton. Read here by Michael Edmeades. Chesterton observed in a 1901 essay, “The Meaning of Dreams” that

CHESTERTON: The greatest act of faith that a man can perform is the act that we perform every night. We abandon our identity, we turn our soul and body into chaos and old night. We uncreate ourselves as if at the end of the world: for all practical purposes we become dead men, in the sure and certain hope of a glorious resurrection.

After taking this leap of faith, we dream. Every night. Even if we don’t remember them. Chesterton thought we could never really know what dreams are. Exactly. But Chesterton also thought there was value in considering dreams.

CHESTERTON: We find marvelous things in dreamland—things often more precious than anything that is made under the sun. But the one thing we never find is the thing we are looking for.

MUSIC: Meet Me in Dreamland

I’m Les Sillars. And that’s what we’re going to do today on Doubletake: explore dreamland.

We’re going to do that by telling the story of a guy just trying to get a good night’s sleep. Who sees strange things, sometimes scary things, when he closes his eyes. Who has experiences that he seems to control but whose meaning, if there is any, is elusive.

Here’s Abi with our story.

Abi will be back in just a minute with the story.

ABI: The idea of “lucid dreaming” might sound weird, but it’s actually pretty common. I was surprised by how many of my friends and family had experienced it. Studies show that about fifty-five percent of adults have had at least one lucid dream. About twenty-three percent of adults lucid dream at least once a month. But only one percent of adults have lucid dreams multiple times a week.

Connor is part of that one percent. He lives in Sterling, Virginia. He’s 21. Kind of a big guy. He reminds me of a red-haired Kristof from the movie Frozen. He had his first lucid dream when he was 15. Living in Northfield, Massachusetts.

CONNOR: I was just driving, and then I was like, “Oh, this isn’t real.”

That one simple dream was enough—he was hooked. He didn’t know where it would lead. It just seemed cool to be dreaming and know it.

He researched online different ways to know you’re dreaming. He had all the enthusiasm of a teenage boy who can do something that’s different. Special.

He discovered people like Stephen LaBerge. He’s a psychophysiologist who specializes in lucid dreams. He founded the Lucidity Institute in 1987. This is him explaining one of the struggles with lucid dreaming.

LABERGE: There is an art of lucid dreaming. It’s not something that once you know, “oh, this is a dream,” then you know how to do everything. There are certain arts you have to develop to find exactly how you can accomplish tasks. Because we have to overcome our very extensive sets of expectations based on our experiences in waking life.

LaBerge encourages people to overcome those expectations by constantly asking themselves if they are awake or asleep. To make it a habit. LaBerge even tries to fly away from his chair while he’s awake. The idea is that he will eventually ask himself when he’s asleep and realize, “Hey. I’m asleep.”

Connor soon figured out some clues that he was sleeping.

CONNOR: When you’re texting in a dream, like, the words don’t make sense. … Or when you’re driving in a dream, like, I can’t use my brakes.

LaBerge was right—daytime habits really do transfer over to sleep.

CONNOR: When I was driving in real life, every now and then I’d, like, tap the brakes to check if they would work. … And it became such a part of my driving habit that when I was just driving regularly, I would have [tap?] my brakes. And then in the dream I would tap my brakes automatically and then be like “Ah. Brakes don’t work. I’m dreaming.”

Then Connor started training himself to have lucid dreams. He’d set 10 to 30 minute timers …

SFX: Man sleeping

… and wake himself up throughout the night.

It sounds crazy, but it's effective. LaBerge teaches something called 'The Wake Back to Bed' technique. It's the most common way to induce lucid dreaming. Although it’s usually done in 90 minute or two hour segments.

It works by playing with your sleep cycle. Studies show that there are two kinds of sleep: Short Wave sleep and Rapid Eye Movement sleep, known as REM. Short Wave sleep has much quieter brain waves and three stages. Each stage of Short Wave sleep gets into progressively deeper sleep before transitioning to REM, where your brain becomes more active.

Lucid dreams can occur in the early stages of Short Wave sleep or in REM sleep. They don’t happen in deep sleep. To cause a lucid dream, you wake yourself up right before either Stage 1 Short Wave Sleep or REM sleep. Then you consciously think about dreaming while you drift off again. It’s not a scientifically proven technique, but people say it works. And that it’s uncanny.

CONNOR: Every time I went to sleep, I was just like aware that I was asleep. And it definitely was a little weird.

Normally when you sleep your brain shuts down the prefrontal cortex. That’s the part responsible for logic and reasoning. So it makes perfect sense to you that your best friend is a hyena.

SFX: hyena howl

Made of marshmallows.

Dreams are normally ruled by your amygdala—the part of your brain in charge of fear and emotions. Suppose in your dream your marshmallow hyena best friend starts chasing you. It’s kind of scary. Normally you’d just wake up.

But in lucid dreaming, the prefrontal cortex is activated again.

You start reasoning in your sleep and become conscious that you’re in a dream.

Suddenly your marshmallow hyena isn’t quite so scary. You realize that he’s just part of your dream.

So maybe you stay sleeping.

MUSIC: Atomica Change

Stay in the dream. And from there, who knows? I mean, it’s a dream.

A popular feature of lucid dreams is the ability to have experiences we can’t have in waking life. It’s like a daydream on steroids. For one divorcee, it means “visiting” with his children and taking them to the playground in his sleep. For others—like Connor—it’s just good clean fun.

CONNOR: I learned to fly. I was at a summer camp that I used to go to when I was a kid, and I was on top of one of the buildings and I realized I was dreaming. And so I jumped off and I flew above the camp and just sort of looked at it and then dove into the lake.

He dreamed of the cross country road trips he’d always wanted to go on. Of visiting Disney World and other adventures.

CONNOR: I had one dream that I was in Paris, actually. I was on the Eiffel Tower. The wind was really cool. Like, you could feel—like it feels so real and it’s so like—people don’t talk about that enough. It’s like yes, you are aware that you’re dreaming. You’re aware that it’s not real, but everything feels so real. Like it is real life.

Connor actually started to lucid dream about lucid dreaming. In one, he walked into a busy lobby.

SFX: elevator doors

People were hurrying in and out of the elevators on both walls. Late for work, he thought. But he was confused.

CONNOR: I was like, “What is happening?” and so one guy came up to me. He’s like, “You know we’re dreaming right now, right?” And it was like the hub for everyone that was dreaming and everyone was conscious.

Connor knew he was dreaming. He’d built this dream hub for himself. Each elevator corresponded to a different dream he’d had. But this lobby existed only in his mind. He’d never seen anybody else in it. He certainly hadn’t let them in.

CONNOR: It was like the first time that I’d told someone I was dreaming and they didn’t look at me weird. They’re like, “Yeah, we know. We all are.” And then they just went off to their other dreams.

Still, after a while, that nagging little bit of awareness that the dream wasn’t real took its toll.

MUSIC: A Solemn Oath

CONNOR: It was really cool at first. And then it definitely—it was just like ‘this is almost boring.’ …

He realized that reality matters.

CONNOR: At the end of the day, it’s still just a dream, you know. It’s not real.

Dreams aren’t real. Obviously. But somehow we still experience them. And dreams can affect our waking lives. Sometimes in surprising and beneficial ways. Studies have linked lucid dreaming to increased creativity, confidence, mental health, and problem-solving. Research suggests that it may improve dreamers’ management of their waking cognition and emotions. Some people—like LaBerge—recommend people with nightmares learn to lucid dream. So they can change the endings of their dreams.

While most adults have nightmares once in a while, only three to seven percent have them frequently. Unless you have PTSD, in which case the number jumps to 80 percent. Some people hope that lucid dreaming will help with that.

Jessica Roberts was in her early teens when she started having frequent nightmares.

JESSICA: [1:20] I started having these dreams of monsters chasing me in my dreams and it would wake me up—nightmares.

She had the same one. Again. And again. And again. That’s when she had an idea—a spin off of the Wake Back to Bed technique, if you will.

JESSICA: [1:44] I went to sleep thinking, “God, please help me with these nightmares. Please help me to make them go away.”

And so I would be in the midst of the nightmare and then I would suddenly become aware that “Wait! I prayed and asked God to help me.” So then I said, “In the name of Jesus, monster, go away!”

And then the monster went away, my dream ended, and I woke up. So that was the beginning of understanding that, “Oh! I can change these dreams.” And after that, probably, I don’t know, about a month of doing that regularly, the nightmares quit. They’re like “Alright, fine!”

Jessica believes that dreams are part of spiritual warfare. We’ll talk more about the spiritual implications of dreams a bit later.

For now, though, we’ll just note that there’s another side to lucid dreaming. Although proponents believe that it can help you in certain ways, other research says that it carries risks of real harm.

MUSIC: Playing Mind Games

The research isn’t conclusive, but some scientists believe that the increased brain waves in lucid dreaming lowers your sleep quality. And waking yourself up regularly throughout the night messes with your sleep cycle. The effects of this can go way beyond feeling a little tired.

Techniques like the Wake Back To Bed Technique or LaBerge’s constant questioning require dreamers to disrupt their sleep. They deliberately confuse their sleeping and waking states. This blurs the line between reality and dreaming. Numerous studies suggest that lucid dreaming is connected to out-of-body experiences, mild schizophrenia, and psychosis.

That started happening to Connor. His lucid dreams became more and more unnerving. Less and less fun. He actually started sleeping less to avoid the dreams.

CONNOR: If I’m absolutely exhausted, I don’t really lucid dream. So I would force myself to stay up until like 4 a.m. And I worked full-time, so I would have to wake up at 6 a.m. for work, but I would only have gotten like 3 hours of sleep.

Worse, he started to experience some of the early signs of psychosis—the loss of contact with reality.

CONNOR: When I was younger, I would not know if I was dreaming. For like probably like two months, I was so freaked out by it that,like, I would just go about my day and I would constantly do the little tests. I just, I had no clue what was real and what wasn’t real. It was weird.

It got really bad.

CONNOR: One time I fell asleep on the couch in my house and I woke up, and then I had literally spent like an hour doing things and then woke up again freaking out. And then I went to turn on the light and the light didn’t work. And then I woke up again. It was like four different times that I woke up before I actually woke up. So for a while, like when I was 17, it was really hard to tell when I had actually woken up. Because more often than not, I would have to wake up twice every time I woke up. Which was a little … a little weird.

It’s eerily similar to the layers of dreams in Christopher Nolan’s mind-twisting film Inception. The movie is loosely based on Nolan’s own experiences with lucid dreams.

COBB: Now in a dream, our mind continuously does this: We create and perceive our world simultaneously. And our mind does this so well that we don’t even know it’s happening.

Google searches for “lucid dreaming” shot up after Inception came out in 20-10. Lucid dreaming has become increasingly mainstream in recent years. It’s taken off in science fiction. The New York Times published a how-to guide in 20-21. The internet is home to forums and testimonies and tips for lucid dreamers. New apps and technologies are centered around inducing lucid dreams. Some people even recommended certain drugs to enhance their frequency and quality.

Some lucid dreamers claim they can actually manipulate their dreams and choose their surroundings or who they’re with. But for others, like Connor, their dreams are less controllable. Sometimes he tries to take control of his dreams. But he can’t.

CONNOR: Everything will go black and, like, I can see my eyelids. And then, it’s like I’ll stop trying to control it and they’ll just, like, pop back into the actual dream.

It’s as if the dream has a mind of its own. A plot outline that he can’t mess with. He can make some decisions, but only some.

CONNOR: Yes, you can make things happen and you can control your environment, but only in the sense that you can in real life. Like you can’t just make things appear all the time or like snap and there’s a feast in front of you.

It’s not magic, but you have the choice to take action. Well, some action. One thing that seems basic is really hard to do in a lucid dream: wake up.

MUSIC: Cold as Ice

Sometimes Connor can tell when a dream is going bad, so he’ll try to force himself awake.

CONNOR: It’s really hard to do that because it feels like something is pulling you up or like, out of yourself almost, which is really weird. You know when you’re going to sleep and you have, like, the falling feeling? It’s like the opposite of that.

He’s still moving around in the dream while he tries to wake himself up.

CONNOR: It’s almost like third person. Like, I can sort of see myself sleeping and then also see myself doing these things and then I’m trying to sort of connect the two and, like, wake up.

He’s managed to force himself awake only a handful of times. Normally he can’t wake up until he dies in the dream. He’s been shot, burned, and fallen off buildings more times than he can count.

CONNOR: It’s terrifying. You feel the ground. And then … you wake up.

It’s Groundhog Day … all over again.

PHIL: I have been stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted, and burned. And every morning I wake up without a scratch on me, not a dent in the fender. I am an immortal.

Of course, we’re all immortals in one sense. But Connor was having a lot less fun than Bill Murray’s character. Still, it was a comfort to know that it was just a d ream. Like when someone runs up to you and puts a gun to your head.

CONNOR: I’m just like “Okay.” Like, nothing I can do about it. I’m just going to wake up and then have another dream.

You’re about to die, but you know that you’ll wake up again in the same old bed.

MUSIC: Hope for the Heart

Sure it’s a little scary, but none of it really matters. None of it means anything.

Or does it?

Here’s Chesterton again.

CHESTERTON: In this sudden and astonishing trance which we call sleep we are carried away without our choice or will and shown prodigious landscapes, sensational incidents, and the fragments of half-decipherable stories.

Men have in all ages based a great many creeds and speculations upon this fact. With considerable confidence it may be said that they would have been great fools if they had not.

Chesterton’s point is that of course dreams open up the transcendent to our sleeping minds. Dreams might seem incoherent. But there’s a supernatural reality underlying dreams that truly religious people throughout history have recognized.

Many in our culture are skeptical. They look to materialistic explanations for dreams. But sometimes the coincidences are hard to explain.

Connor dreamed one night that he was ice skating down a river in his hometown. When he looked down into the lake below him …

CONNOR: There were, like, a bunch of bodies in the river. Right. And then it sort of like panned up, and it was like an aerial shot of the river. And I saw, like, the specific bend of the river.

When he got up he started scrolling Facebook.

CONNOR: In my hometown there was a boy who had gone missing, and there were police looking for him in the river. And it showed like the picture of the river and like the police searching for him. And it was like the same, like, twist of that.

He says they found the boy. In the river.

Another time Connor dreamed that he was in a car accident. He didn’t drive the next day. But a friend did—and crashed into a tree next to an 80-foot drop off into a river.

CONNOR: The thing that got me was in my dream, like, I survived the car crash and then the paramedics were like, “Oh, it’s a miracle that you’re alive.” And then when my friend got into the car accident, he was going like 75 around this corner, hit ice and hit the tree. And it was like the paramedics literally told him that it was a miracle that he survived.

Connor figured that maybe the dreams weren’t entirely accurate to real life, but they could still be warning him about something.

MUSIC: A Clear Path of Time

God uses dreams throughout the Bible. So it seems possible He uses dreams today.

This is not a complicated question for Jessica Roberts.

JESSICA: I know that God speaks to me—has spoken to me—very clearly and very significantly through dreams.

Some of her dreams are admittedly of the “too much pizza for dinner last night” variety. There was a reason she wasn’t sleeping well and so she had a weird dream.

But she believes other dreams are messages from God. In 2003 she was teaching in Colorado. For months, she’d been having strange neurological symptoms.

JESSICA: My hands would start tingling and then losing feeling. Then I started also having dizzy spells and mental fog.

She went to the doctor and talked to her dad, a family physician. He told her to go see a neurologist.

JESSICA: They said, “We don’t find anything wrong with you.” And I broke down in tears, like, “Clearly there is something wrong with me! This has been going on for six months!”

She prayed about it and asked her Bible study group and her students and her students’ parents to pray about it. When the school year ended, her symptoms had gotten so bad that she wasn’t sure she’d be able to keep teaching.

JESSICA: Then I had a dream.

MUSIC: The Last Minute

She was in her hometown, heading to a movie with her family. On the way she saw wanted posters plastered all over light poles and walls.

JESSICA: And then I noticed these wanted posters had my face on them.

Wanted for murder, they said. Of a young man Jessica knew well. Jessica and her family went into the theater and the posters were up on the screen. Her face. Larger than life. Jessica wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

JESSICA: And I woke up feeling very disturbed. It was very clear to me that this was about something that I had done.

Let’s back up. This friend—we’ll call him Gilbert—had gone to high school with Jessica. They competed in math class together, went to Bible study at his house together, and hung out with their mutual friends together. At one point Jessica got clear signals he wanted to be more than just friends.

After high school Gilbert left for the Naval Academy. For two years Jessica wrote him letters even though he never wrote back. At one point he came back for break and they went to Pizza Hut.

JESSICA: And because of some things that he had said—“I love you”—I thought that he was more than just a friend.

But the next time they met up was at a missions conference in Illinois. He showed up late. He gave her five minutes and a casual life update.

JESSICA: “Oh, by the way, I’ve got this this girlfriend that I met when I was at school. I’m really glad to see you. Thanks for those letters. See ya later.” So that was the end of that.

Jessica was angry and hurt. The more she thought about it, the more resentful she became.

JESSICA: I couldn’t let it go.

For 12 years she couldn’t let it go. She even had dreams about him—dreams where she was angry at him. And then the wanted posters appeared.

JESSICA: It was clear to me, like, “Oh, God, you’re calling me out on my unforgiveness and my hatred.” I went for a walk that day and asked God, “Okay, you’ve got to tell me, what am I—what am I supposed to do with this dream? Because I feel like it’s clearly from you.”

She felt like God told her to make a list of her own offenses against Gilbert. Jessica was surprised–wasn’t it the other way around? But she did. And then she made a list of his offenses against her. And somehow, the list of her offenses came out even longer than his.

JESSICA: “Okay, God, what do you want me to do with this?” And he said, “I want you to call him.” “I can’t do that! I haven’t talked to him for 12 years—this is awkward!”

She compromised and called his mom. After catching up, she told his mom about the dream and asked for Gilbert’s number. Jessica called him up and apologized for holding his offenses against him. His response was quick.

JESSICA: “Oh, oh, that’s okay! No big deal. Oh, it’s okay. I forgive you.” And he didn’t say anything about, you know, asking me to forgive him. And that’s—and I had to let that go. I had to let that go. But it was important for me to say my part that I had done wrong.

Jessica made the call three days after she first dreamed about the wanted posters.

JESSICA: I woke up the next morning and I had no other neurological symptoms.

MUSIC: Blue Sanctuary

JESSICA: All of my, my tingling, the coldness of my hands, the brain fog—everything disappeared and didn’t ever come back. And that was 20 years ago.

Jessica has a few standards she measures her dreams against.

JESSICA: We don’t just take dreams and go with them without weighing them against Scripture and with other people whom we trust.

She believes some of her dreams are demonic. Sometimes she sees evil faces from her dreams reflected in her windows while she’s awake.

JESSICA: I went back and told my husband about them. And he said, he said let’s pray. Let’s recite Scripture. And upon doing that, then the fear was dissipated.

But what exactly is the point of dreams? Why would God use them? And are we missing out on something if we don’t take them seriously?

JESSICA: I think we miss a lot of understanding of things that cannot be understood in materialistic ways, because we are body and soul. We are an eternal soul housed in a temporal physical body and we cannot discern spiritual things by physical means.

Daniel’s dreams and Ezekiel’s vision are bizarre beyond reasonable explanation, she says.

JESSICA: But they are expressing supernatural truths that may even be more real than this physical world, that we can sense with our five senses.

Jessica thinks dreams can be a window into the spiritual or transcendent realm. One that we shut when we wake up.

JESSICA: God can speak to us in ways that he would not necessarily be able to get our attention if we were awake, because we’re just paying attention to so many things.

To be clear, the dreams in the Bible are in a different category from most of the dreams we have every night. Dreams in the Bible are part of supernatural revelation. They’re special. They’re authoritative. Our nightly trips into dreamland are not authoritative.

MUSIC: Blue Sanctuary

So the question is not exactly, “Does God speak to us in dreams like He spoke to Abraham or Joseph?” Rather, it’s about whether God leads us through dreams. Whether He guides us.

MUSIC: Blue Sanctuary

Jessica’s husband, Dr. Matthew Roberts, is professor of philosophy at Patrick Henry College. He believes that we should evaluate our dreams the same way we evaluate ourselves.

DR. ROBERTS: It’s part of what God commands us to do when he says to examine ourselves. … [52:21] And so not only is it interesting that we can do that, but it seems necessary to actually be godly and to do that. Regularly test yourselves, Paul says.

It's tricky to discern if God is speaking through a particular dream. But Matt Roberts points back to 1 Thessalonians 5: “Do not extinguish the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt, but test all things. Hold on to what is good.”

Christians like Jessica have a long history of trying to make sense of dreams.

Augustine spent a lot of time wondering if he could sin in his dreams. After his conversion, he wrote, he stopped sinning in his conscious life but couldn’t seem to stop his dream-self. He worried that he was morally responsible for what went on while he was unconscious.

Thomas Aquinas argued in Summa Theologica that dreams could tell us about the future. Sometimes dreams foreshadow what’s to come because they shape our actions. We do things because of our dreams. Sometimes dreams tell us about ourselves. And sometimes dreams are prophetic because they’re divine.

Aquinas even wondered if it was more likely that God would speak to us in dreams. As he put it, “the more our soul is abstracted from corporeal things, the more it is capable of receiving abstract intelligible things.”

Martin Luther disagreed. He believed dreams were unnecessary because we have God’s Word. Luther argued the focus should be on a right understanding of the Bible, rather than potential communication through dreams.

Some Christian mystics believe that dreams are key to attaining one-ness with God. One lucid dreamer described dreams with light that were so full of awe and union that he called it “the fullness of light.” Light in lucid dreaming is important to Christian mystics. According to one psychotherapist, experiencing and eventually uniting with that light is the prime human purpose. It’s often linked to John 1:5, which says that God is light. But 2 Corinthians 11 also warns us that even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.

Chesterton believed that dreams have meaning, even if it’s far from clear what they mean.

CHESTERTON: A strange strand of eternal pathos runs through dreams which comes from the very loom of life itself. Dreams are, if I may so express it, like life only more so. Dreams, like life, are full of nobility and joy, but of a nobility and joy utterly arbitrary and incalculable. We have gratitude, but never certainty.

He thought that there’s a material world and a spiritual world. And that dreams connect the two.

But some people speculate that the dream world is the only world there is. They think life itself might be merely a dream.

In the 1600s, the philosopher Descartes asked if we can even know what reality is since we could always just be stuck in a dream. In 1999, the movie The Matrix asked the same question.

MORPHEUS: Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were sure so was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?

How do we know? What differentiates our random, wild, hazy dreams from the reality that we wake up to? Reality, life, truth itself—they’re all intertwined. So then what’s real? Here’s Matthew Roberts again.

DR. ROBERTS: How do I know, so goes the question, that I’m not actually a brain in a vat that’s having all of these experiences right now? And it’s a very difficult philosophical question to answer because nobody can step outside of their experience. It would seem we’re sort of stuck with it.

But Professor Roberts doesn’t think we’re really stuck. We can step outside our experience. Outside the vat, you might say. It’s called the God’s eye perspective: the ability to imagine a perspective of objectivity that sees the world as it really is.

DR. ROBERTS: We can still imagine what it might be like to go beyond our own experience. This might, in fact, be part of the imago Dei—our ability to at least begin to see reality as God sees it.

We have this sort of intuition, a philosophical intuition, that there is an objective reality and there is a way things really are. And that if God exists, he sees it as it really is.

Genesis gives us a thorough account of creation. God created the earth and everything in it. He set the sun in its course and the stars in their places. He created us in his image. And He created something else too—though it’s not as explicitly mentioned. He created beauty.

MUSIC: Magically Full

Professor Roberts explains that the philosophical argument boiled down to a simple assertion is this: We know reality exists in part because beauty exists.

DR. ROBERTS: Well part of the greatness of a real God is that it’s beautiful that God actually exists and it’s not just a nice idea. Right? So perhaps one element of beauty is simply that it’s real, that it’s objectively there, that it’s not merely dependent upon somebody’s dream or somebody’s imagination, but it’s actually there.

We’re not all just dreaming. For something to be truly beautiful, it has to be grounded in reality.

DR. ROBERTS: I mean, isn’t it a beautiful truth that Jesus rose from the dead? That’s a wonderful idea. A beautiful story. It’s even more beautiful because it’s a true story.

For some people, lucid dreaming might just be a pleasant escape. Getaways to a world that they believe is better than the one they were born into. More controllable. More exciting. More vibrant. Like a video game, but entirely self-made.

Maybe sometimes God speaks to us in dreams. Maybe sometimes He really does give us a hint of the future through dreams. Connor thought that might be the case.

Until a few years ago when he had a dream—the same dream—for a month.

CONNOR: I got shot in my dreams like every single night.

MUSIC: Acoustic Faith

CONNOR: And every single night, I was aware that I was dreaming, and it was terrifying. It was just like there was this guy chasing me. And I would always—I’d just be, like, going through a dream like normal. And then I would see, like, this one guy, and I’d be like … and then I’d have to, like, run and hide. And then I always ended up getting shot and waking up.

The shooter wasn’t just terrifying Connor—he was challenging him. If lucid dreams could be a warning, the interpretation seemed obvious: he was going to be shot sometime soon.

CONNOR: And then I sort of was just like, “Nope, it’s just a dream. It’s not real. All the other things that, like, have happened in real life are just coincidences, and I’m just overthinking it.”

He admits that it’s partly a self-defense tactic. It wasn’t practical or healthy to live life in fear of a man from his dreams. Even so, if he dreams about a car crash he tends to drive a little more carefully for a few days.

After years of dealing with lucid dreams, he’s decided he doesn’t care anymore if he lucid dreams. In fact, he avoids it.

CONNOR: [42:02] I think definitely I freaked myself out a little too much when I was younger and I overanalyzed everything. And it sort of made me, like, paranoid about real life.

CONNOR: [8:11] If I’m typing something on my phone and the letters start to not make sense, I just put my phone away.

[30:31] I’m just at the point now where I’m just kind of numb to it.

CHESTERTON: In dreams is revealed the elemental truth that it is the spiritual essence behind a thing that is important, not its material form. …

Maybe, for most of us, the purpose of dreams is to remind us that there is a transcendent reality. To give us a glimpse of something outside the material world. That’s what Chesterton thought.

CHESTERTON: Spiritual forces, abroad in the world, simply disguise themselves under material forms. … The whole explanation is to be found in the conception that there is something mystical and undefined behind all things which we love and hate which makes us love and hate them.

Maybe the danger of lucid dreams is the illusion of control–of power. Getting yourself out of the sand tunnels. Creating your own worlds. Flying on your own power. Becoming one with the light.

I can’t help but think of what Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar before interpreting his dream: “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever … He reveals deep and hidden things; He knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells in Him.”

MUSIC: Acoustic Wandering

We can’t actually create or reveal or know anything through our own power. But that doesn’t mean God can’t. So if dreams are a window into another realm, the curtain is on God’s side. He’s the one who pulls it back. Not us.

Connor still doesn’t sleep all that well. And he still has lucid dreams. But he doesn’t see them as something to control. They just are.

CONNOR: I don’t even think about it. I don’t really write down my dreams anymore just ‘cause it’s happened so often.

I asked him if he regretted learning to lucid dream.

CONNOR: If I could go back and not know how to lucid dream, I would. But it’s been happening for so long that I don’t see it as a negative thing.

And maybe it isn’t. Connor’s nightly trips to dreamland have changed his view of the world he wakes up to.

CONNOR: It was cool to be able to, like, go there and, like, pretend to see it. But it still didn’t do it enough credit because it wasn’t the real thing. It’s, like, there’s so much beauty in, like, life in general.

Connor’s experience has taught him that dreams might be interesting and fun for a while, but what matters is reality. And that while our real world is fallen, it’s still beautiful. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in man’s heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

Connor has seen amazing skies in his dreams: stunning sunsets, starry nights, the northern lights—you name it. But reality has something that no dream can have.

CONNOR: I can only make something so beautiful, right? … I’m just repeating things that I’ve already seen, you know. I can’t like, create a whole new sky, necessarily. Whereas, like, when you’re actually in real life and reality, like, God can paint endless sunsets, you know, and like, they’re all different in their own way.

LES: This episode was reported and written by Abi Churchill. Produced by Emma Perley, me, and the creative team at WORLD Radio.

Next time on Doubletake

LAUREL MARR: … And one of the questions they asked me in my interview was, “How do you feel about cremated remains on your desk?” And I was like, “What?”

JAE RHIM LEE: . . . a burial suit infused with mushroom spores, the mushroom death suit.

BARBARA KARNES: In the weeks before he died, he ran around and he told everyone he was going to take a trip. He said, ‘I can’t live with you anymore. I’m gonna go live with my parents.’

MICHAEL WITTMER: In the past, and the Middle Ages, death was preparation to meet God. Now, death is just a matter of existential angst.

SARA WILLIAMS: I’m a cocktail party downer. “Here she comes! Go the other way! She’s gonna talk about death!”

LAUREL MARR: Well, we thought we were in control, but we’re not really in control.

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WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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