In a previous post here I tried to explain what the method of loci is and how one can use it. To summarize, the method of loci is an imagination-based memory technique that involves creating images that correspond to information one wants to remember, placing those images in real or imagined settings, and then returning to these settings when one wishes to recall the information represented by the various images. It is something of a party trick, to be sure, but it is also quite handy for everything from remembering faces to learning medicine.
It is also a key––a key rather than the key, since there are perhaps others––to unlocking one’s ability to study while asleep. At least, that’s my hypothesis. Yes, on a scale of 1 to kooky, this is surely a kooky hypothesis. It is a massively kooky hypothesis. But I am quite serious in proposing it.
Just to be clear, when I say “study while asleep,” I do not mean “study in the middle of the night, while others are asleep,” or “study with the lights out and one’s head on a downy pillow,” or some such variant of these claims. I mean study while one’s consciousness is in a state of sleep. This would mean––if it were possible––that while one has lost control of their body during sleep, one’s mind can review and perhaps encode new information about geography, physics, or whatever. So, massively kooky indeed.
The story of how I arrived at this hypothesis is, sadly, neither massively kooky nor very exciting. It involves no enchanted castles, epic battles, moving romance, or surprising Penicillium molds; just my mundane self, my ever-balding head, and a not-so-mundane book that I read towards the end of last year’s summer. This would be Evan Thompson’s Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy. Thompson is a philosopher with considerable knowledge of cognitive science, philosophy of mind, and Buddhist philosophy, and in Waking, Dreaming, Being he offers some thoroughly defended and scientifically informed thoughts on what the mind is and what is happening to it at the limits of everyday life, for example, at the time of death, or during deep sleep.
He also has a lot to say about dreaming, as you may have guessed from the book’s title. One of the questions he addresses has to do with the nature of dreams, and it is this: What exactly is a dream? You might think, as many philosophers and psychologists have, that dreams are more like hallucinations than anything else. We enter the sleeping state, our brain swaps out one group of neurotransmitters for another, and the new group of neurotransmitters then tampers with our senses so that we feel as though we’re, say, falling down a cliff made of gumballs while having a lunch of fried Persian tapestries with someone who feels like our friend but looks like Al Gore, when in reality we’re doing no such thing. Certainly, there is some truth to this theoretical model of dreams: we really aren’t doing whatever it is we think we’re doing in our dreams, at least not usually, and in this sense dreams are hallucinatory.
But, intriguingly, Thompson would have us consider dreams in a different way, namely, more as products of the imagination than as hallucinations. Thompson, in other words, wants us to think that dreams are more akin to imaginative simulations of actions than to misleading perceptions of things that are not really there. He has multiple reasons for thinking this way, and I believe it’s worth briefly reproducing a couple of them here. (I promise this little detour through Thompson’s book is going somewhere.) First, when we both dream and imagine, there is a sense in which what we see is dependent on us for its existence, so that what we attend to would not exist without our attention. For example, if one dreams or imagines they’re underwater, whatever water the dreamer “feels” will have to be either touching the individual or within their field of view; it makes little sense to suppose that a whole mass of water exists beyond the individual’s perceptual range within the dream or imagined setting, as though it existed independently of the individual’s perceptions. This is in contrast to hallucinations, which seem to, as it were, force themselves on our consciousness without our attending to anything in particular. Second, when we hallucinate, we do not choose what to see or experience, whereas when we imagine and very often when we lucid dream––that is, when we have a dream in which we’re aware that we’re dreaming––we do choose what to see or experience.
Those are mostly philosophical reasons for thinking that dreams are more like products of the imagination than hallucinations. Thompson also has a number of psychological and neuroscientific arguments for this claim, but I won’t go into them here. (They can be found in the middle of Chapter 6 of WDB, if you’re interested.) The takeaway, if we are to trust Thompson, is that dreaming––lucid dreaming more so than normal dreaming––and imagining are closely linked.
Neat, huh? I’m not completely convinced by all of Thompson’s arguments, but upon encountering said arguments I became much more sympathetic to Thompson’s theory of dreaming than I would have been otherwise. And, for several months, I left it at that.
A couple of things then happened. The first thing is that, around the start of this year, I began to use the method of loci as my primary study method. Basically, I started spending a lot less time reading books and reviewing flashcards, and a lot more time imagining goofy images that would help me remember everything I was supposed to learn. It sounds silly, I know, and it is silly, but I enjoy the method of loci and find it useful. It is a sort of productive daydreaming, after all, and who doesn’t like daydreaming?
In any case, the second thing happened a couple of months after the first. It’s quite simple: I had a lucid dream. Before this year I rarely had lucid dreams; maybe one or two a year, max. But this was about to change. Maybe because I had started to rely on the method of loci as my primary study method, this lucid dream––I don’t remember what it was about––closed a certain circuit in my head, and soon after waking up from it I recalled Thompson’s arguments for the claim that dreaming and imagining are closely related. (Truly, the mind is, if nothing else, unpredictable.) Supposing, I thought, that lucid dreaming and imagining are closely related––supposing that they are so closely related that lucid dreaming just is a sort of imagining, doesn’t it follow that the imagined images and settings I use for the method of loci occupy the same “cognitive space” as any lucid dreams I have, meaning that I could, in theory, access my images and settings (my “mind palaces”) from within my lucid dreams?
After being struck by this idea I did some research on whether it was possible, and managed to find a few interesting forum posts on the topic, but not much that specifically addressed the use of lucid dreaming to either review one’s mind palaces or create new ones. A suspicion that I was not able to confirm with a few searches––and one that I still harbor––was that if I could somehow change the setting of a lucid dream so that it resembled the settings I used for my mind palaces, I would find the images that I had placed there while awake relatively, or even perfectly, intact. So I’m hoping that, for instance, if I were to craft my lucid dream environment in such a way that it became essentially identical to the appearance of my university’s cafeteria, I would find many or all of the images I placed in there back when I was studying antibiotics, which includes my Vancomycin orc, my Aztreonam Aztecs, a massive QT gas station for Macrolide side effects, and many more.
I would have to experiment, then. The first step was to learn how to consistently lucid dream. There are all sorts of techniques out there for inducing lucid dreams, some being more popular and successful than others. The technique I started employing on a daily basis is known as reality checking, and it involves performing simple actions, such as trying to breathe through one’s nose while pinching it, with the purpose of verifying that one is awake. The idea is that if one can get so accustomed to doing reality checks during the day, once one enters a dream their dream self will instinctively do a reality check. Since it’s a dream, the reality check is supposed to “fail”––for example, trying to breathe while pinching one’s nostrils will result in one’s still managing to breathe––and it is at this point that the dreamer’s mind understands that the dreamer is in a dream, and the lucid dream thus begins.
So there I was around March of this year, doing reality checks practically nonstop throughout the day. Amazingly, I soon saw results. The first three or four lucid dreams I had around that time were bungled but insightful. I would initiate the lucid dream after beginning a normal dream, find myself in some unfamiliar and convoluted setting, and then––perhaps because I was so fixated on the idea of using lucid dreams to study my mind palaces––would frantically think, “I NEED TO GET TO MY PALACE!! WHERE IS MY PALACE!?” I would then run around and search for some way of getting to the settings I use for my mind palaces––mostly parts of my university’s campus, at the time––all while continuing to shriek to myself that I absolutely had to find my mind palaces. (If the reader hasn’t met me, I can assure them that this is not how I am accustomed to conducting myself.) Alas, I would not find them. Soon after these early lucid dreams began, they ended, and I would wake up disappointed.
My lucid dreaming skill began to improve during the summer, by which time I had had eight or so lucid dreams. This time around, when I initiated a lucid dream, I was able to keep my cool and think somewhat rationally and coherently about my situation as well as my goal of reaching my mind palaces. I would enter the lucid dream, think something along the lines of, “Okay David, you’re here, and you know what needs to be done. Find a door then, and before opening it, strain every fiber of your mind to alter what is beyond the door to the point that it looks like one of your mind palaces.” So I would take a look around whatever setting the lucid dream had foisted upon my consciousness, find a door, anxiously approach it, and then open it up. Unfortunately, though, I could never get this door-to-palace method to work: every time I opened up a door, it didn’t take me to my desired destination, if it even took me somewhere at all. In a relatively recent lucid dream, for instance, I found myself in an unfamiliar school hallway in which was some sort of janitor’s closet. Slowly and thoughtfully approaching the door, bracing for an entry into one of my mind palaces, I opened it to find . . . wait for it . . . a completely normal janitor’s closet. Bummer.
That’s roughly where I still am today. (The failed lucid dreams, that is, not the janitor’s closet.) I’ve been distracted on and off for the past few months, so I haven’t been entirely consistent in performing frequent reality checks while awake, but I’ve gotten back into it recently and have now had a total of about a dozen lucid dreams this year. A dozen isn’t much, especially to an experienced lucid dreamer, but it’s better than no or only a few. And I’m sure I’ll have more in the months to come.
Of course, just because I’m trying to use the method of loci to study while asleep doesn’t mean the plan will work. It is entirely possible, as far as I know, for me to shape a lucid dream into the exact setting of one of my mind palaces, and to nevertheless find that none of the images I had placed there while awake are present. I am also somewhat concerned that the dream world is too amorphous and fluid to shape into any of the settings someone might use for their mind palaces, with the intent of either placing new images or reviewing images that have already been placed––mind palace settings generally being pretty well-articulated and stable, in my experience.
If the imagination model of dreaming has some truth to it, however, I expect for there to be fascinating ways in which the method of loci can be put to use in lucid dreams, even if the particular way I’ve been discussing here isn’t viable. There is obviously much, much more to life for medical and other students than studying, but I think it would be pretty cool to study in my sleep, even if it’s for only a few minutes every other week or so.
Anyhow, if you have any experience with combining the method of loci and lucid dreaming, I’d love to hear about it.