Some Preliminary Ideas for Research into Attention

From Yoga Research Publication: Volume One, Swami Yogabhakti Saraswati (Micheline Flak) PhD (Sorbonne), Founder and President of RYE (Part 2, continued from Yoga – January 2016)

The lucid dream – research into double attention

Lucid dreaming is one type of inner state double attention that is well researched and for which people can be trained. The term lucid dream was first used by Van Eeden in 1913.*7 Since then a variety of researchers, such as Garfield*8, La Berge*9, and Tart*10 have observed that while paying attention to the content of dreams, certain subjects have faculties of attention normally characteristic of waking consciousness. These faculties are correct orientation in time and space (the middle of the night at home in bed), memory of waking life plans and intentions (recall of experiments planned for the night’s dreams), perceptual vividness in any or all of the sensory modalities, and the ability to think logically and to choose consciously one’s course of action as the dream story unfolds.

Prior to the availability of empirical evidence in the 1980s, research speculation favoured either ‘micro-awakenings’ or transition from Stage 1 REM to Stage 4 sleep as the psychophysiological basis of lucid dreams.*11 However, in 1980 La Berge and his colleagues at Stanford University arranged for alleged lucid dreamers to signal their realization of dreaming by means of dream actions with polygraphically observable correlates (i.e. eye movements and fist clenches). Thirty-five lucid dreams from 5 subjects were reported subsequent to spontaneous awakening from REM sleep (32 times), NREM Stage 1 (twice), and the transition from NREM Stage 2 to REM (once). All 30 signaled lucid dreams were found to occur during periods of unambiguous REM sleep, and scored according to the conventional criteria.*12 A replication of the study with two additional subjects and twenty more lucid dreams produced identical results.*13

As recorded by Evans-Wentz in his classic work on Tibetan yoga*14, training in this form of inner double attention has been a traditional part of many meditative systems. The method of the contemporary Rajneesh requires trainee lucid dreamers to ask themselves during the day, “Is this a dream?” for three weeks continuously.*15 This idea of carrying a question habituated in the waking state into the dreaming state has also been used in the research of Tholey.*16 Other techniques for training dream/waking attention include meditation*17, autosuggestion – where from only four lucid dreams experienced in the first nine months, the number goes up to four or five per month after 5 years*18 – and tactile or auditory stimuli to remind a subject that he or she is dreaming.*19 Lastly, a tape recording of the phrase ‘this is a dream’ is played at gradually increasing volume 5 to 10 minutes after the beginning of each REM period. When the tape is heard or the subjects realize they are dreaming, they signal by means of a pair of left and right eye movements.*20

La Berge, noting the positive correlation between lucid dreaming and high overall dream recall, educates subjects to classify the anomalies occurring in the content of their dreams to develop the skill of recognizing them as dreams.*21 Castaneda, in like fashion, details the method of resolving to carry out a particular activity in a dream in Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan.*22 Malamud recommends the keeping of a dream diary and underlining all the unrealistic or dreamlike happenings as a means for a subject to increase the realization that he or she is dreaming, through the recognition of bizarre occurrences.*23 Pre-sleep negative emotions (for women only) and high level activity (for men only)*24, as well as sexual intercourse in the middle of the night25, have all been proposed as stimulants to lucid dreams. This leads La Berge to comment, “The diversity of the proposed activities suggests that it is not the particular activity, but the alert wakefulness that facilitates lucid dreaming during subsequent sleep.”*26

The yogic concept of attention

The yogic training for meditation bears many similarities to the subjects described above preparing themselves for lucid dreaming. The philosophy of yoga may thus provide a rich source of hypotheses about and techniques for the education of double attention. The terms customarily distinguished from attention are vigilance (the level of consciousness manifested as neural activity in the reticular activating system of the brainstem and measurable in clinical medicine by tests such as pupil size and cold calories) and awareness, the subjective sense of witnessing, the totality of attention at any particular moment.

In yoga philosophy, however, more detail is given. According to Samkhya philosophy, the mind is heterogeneous, made up of twenty-five, some say twenty-four parts amongst which are the senses. The common yogic analogy of the mind as a charioteer holding the reins of five wild horses, the senses, should not be seen as endorsing a mind-body duality. The act of training the attention in relation to the sense of hearing, for example, is not so much a process of educating the ears as of disciplining the subtle components of mind, tattwas, which utilize the ears primarily, but can use other channels as well. These tattwas may explain the anecdotal reports of highly trained musicians or deaf people learning to use their head or their whole body to receive sound. Likewise I am aware of an experiment currently being carried out in France on a subject who claims to ‘see’ colours through her hand. She has published a book entitled Non-Visible Colours.

Yoga philosophy goes even further and defines that quality of mind which is able to collect information from the senses as manas. The faculty of mind which then makes sense of the data, comparing it with previous stores and evaluating it, is termed buddhi. The aspect of mind that relates data and evaluates their impact on a proposed self is called ahamkara. Without buddhi, attention would accumulate information in the mind in telephone book form, that is, uncritically. Without ahamkara we would be innocent and naive and, indeed, the lessening of ahamkara is a major part of many religious systems. Chitta is all mental contents: senses, manas, buddhi and ahamkara, except for the atma, the soul or sense of spiritual being. With ahamkara operating but not atma, we would strive to avoid being run down by a bus but would have no aspiration towards discovering or experiencing any higher purpose to life or exalted state of existence.

In yogic terms, atma is awareness or the witness that utilizes the components of chitta (senses, manas, buddhi and ahamkara) to experience the material world. Lucid dreaming may therefore involve a lessening of the attachment of atma with particular components of chitta, possibly explaining why it customarily occurs in the early morning hours (4 to 6a.m.) traditionally specified for meditation.*27

Some yogic practices for training the attention

All yoga practices aim, in different ways, at training the attention. The need for variation arises primarily from the diversity of personality amongst practitioners. The following are illustrative examples.

In the tantric practice of kriya yoga, attention is initially allowed contact with the external environment in the form of open eyes. Then unmani mudra is incorporated – gazeless vision where the eyes go up and down without seeing anything. The eye is paying attention to everything, yet nothing in particular, like the eyes of Buddha, half in the void and half in the external world. Conjointly, the attention is brought to psychic pathways within the body and to visualization where each stage prepares the attention for the next, more subtle stage.

The attention is trained in a similar fashion in bhoochari mudra. The palm is brought level with the bridge of the nose and the practitioner stares at the little finger. The hand is then removed and attention brought to the space that the little finger used to occupy. Attention on the now vanished shape is gradually transformed to an objectless attention on the field.

A practice such as antar mouna is very beneficial in the training of external and internal double attention. First I teach students to pay attention to far away sounds, then sounds directly around, such as voices around the house, the rustling oak trees, the sizzling of crepe suzette from the kitchen. Then I make tiny sounds in the room itself: turning pages, rubbing clothing. Finally, they listen to the sound of the breath in the nose. Having listened to all the sounds in turn, the students are asked to listen to them all together, then in different ways, with one ear or the other, with both ears, or even with one side of the body.

Finally, the yogic master Swami Satyananda Saraswati taught that the development of attention in the outside world is of great assistance in the development of inner attention. He instructed his students not to be vague or empty-headed in their outward dealings. “When you are outside, count the stars!” he exhorted, and once at a yoga convention at Chamarande, south of Paris, I saw him merely glance at a passing goods train yet have total recall of its number of carriages.

Proposals for future research with the Yoga Research Foundation

RYE has recently become associated with Dr. Antonio Remond, Director of Research at the CNRS, Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientifique. My intention is to correlate the practices of yoga with the different categories of attention already examined by this neurophysiologist. The pathology of attention (dispersion, hypervigilance) will be studied, as well as ways to enhance attention with better learning. The Yoga Research Foundation can greatly assist us with this work and I look forward to the completion of plans for joint or parallel experimental protocols in this area.


*7 Van Eeden, F., 1913, “A study of dreams”, Proceedings of the Society for Psychial Research, Vol. 26, pp 431-461.
*8 Garfield, P.L., 1976, “Psychological concomitants of the lucid dream state”, Sleep Research, Vol. 5, p 184.
*9 La Berge, S.P., 1981, “Lucid dreaming: directing the action as it happens”, Psychology Today, Jan 1981, pp 48–57.
*10 Tart, C.T., 1984, “Terminology in lucid dream research”, Lucidity Letter, Vol. 3(1), pp 4–6.
*11 La Berge, S.P., Gackenbach, J., 1986, “Lucid dreaming”, in Wolman, B.B., Ullman, M., eds., Handbook of States of Consciousness, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York.
*12 La Berge, S.P., et al., 1981, “Lucid dreaming verified by volitional communication during REM sleep”, Perceptual and Motor Skills, Vol. 52, pp 727–732. Rechtschaffen, A., Kales, A., eds., 1968, “A manual of standardized terminology, techniques and scoring for sleep stages of human subjects”, National Institute of Health publication No. 204, United States Government Printing Office, Washington DC.
*13 La Berge, S.P., et. al., 1981, op cit.
*14 Evans-Wentz, W.Y., 1960, Tibetan yoga and secret doctrines, Oxford University Press, New York.
*15 Rajneesh, B.S., 1974, The book of secrets, Harper and Row, New York.
*16 Tholey, P., 1983, “Techniques for inducing and manipulating lucid dreams”, Perceptual and Motor Skills, Vol. 57, pp 79–80.
*17 Banquet, J.P.,1973, “Comparative study of the EEG spectral analysis during sleep and yoga meditation”, in Basel, S., Karger, eds, Sleep Physiology, Biochemistry, Psychology, Pharmacology Clinical Implications.
*18 Garfield, P., 1974, “Self conditioning of dream content”, Sleep Research, Vol. 3, p 118.
*19 Ogilvie, R., et. al., 1983, “Lucid dreams and the arousal continuum”, Sleep Research, Vol. 12, p 182. Hearne, K.M.T., 1983, “Lucid dream induction”, Journal of Mental Imagery, Vol. 7, pp 19–24.
*20 La Berge, S.P., et. al., 1981, “This is a dream”: induction of lucid dreams by verbal suggestion during REM sleep”, Sleep Research, Vol. 10, p 150.
*21 La Berge, S.P., 1985, Lucid Dreaming, J.P. Tarcher, Los Angeles.
*22 Castaneda, C., 1972, Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan, Simon and Schuster, New York.
*23 Malamud, J.R., 1986, “Becoming lucid in dreams and waking life”, in Wolman, B.B., Ullman, M., eds., Handbook of States of Consciousness, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, pp. 590–612.
*24 Gackenbach, J., et. al., 1983, “Presleep determinants and post sleep results of lucid versus vivid dreams”, Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Study of Mental Imagery, Vancouver, June 1983.
*25 Garfield, P., 1976, op cit.
*26 La Berge, S.P., 1980, “Lucid dreaming as a learnable skill: a case study”, Perceptual and Motor Skills, Vol. 51, pp 1039–1042.
*27 La Berge, S.P., Gackenbach, J., 1986, op cit.

(The author prepared this paper while visiting the Yoga Research Foundation as a Research Fellow in December 1989.)