When discussing astral projection, a very important question comes up very often: is astral projection and lucid dreaming the same thing? The reason why people ask this question is due to the similarities between these two practices. If astral projection and lucid dreaming are the same things, then astral projection is an illusion that exists purely within the mind. To discuss this question, we will take a look at the scientific arguments as well as the ideas of shamanic and dream yoga practitioners.
Scientific studies on the differences between astral projection and lucid dreaming
Lucid dreaming, in a nutshell, is when a dreamer realizes they are dreaming and can directly influence the dream. Before we address the scientific literature, we need to distinguish between two types of lucid dreams: dream induced lucid dreams (DILDs), and wake induced lucid dreams (WILDs).
Dream induced lucid dreaming involves training your mind to realize when you’re dreaming. One famous method involves checking to see whether you are dreaming several times during the day. You might read pieces of text to see whether they change or become illegible, or see whether anything unusual is happening to you or in your environment. By making this practice a habit it carries over into the dream state and you will realize that you’re dreaming.
Another famous method, created by Dr. Stephen LaBerge, is called Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreaming (MILD). When you wake up from a dream, you mentally rehearse it. During this rehearsal, you say the following over and over in your mind “When I’m dreaming, I will remember to recognize that I’m dreaming.” This technique trains your intent to recognize the dream state when asleep, and in this way initiate a lucid dream.
Wake induced lucid dreaming involves falling asleep consciously. The practitioner uses tricks, like focusing on hypnagogic imagery, mental counting, and visualization, to maintain their awareness. By using these methods, you fall asleep, but your mind remains awake enough to recognize the dream state when it occurs.
The study we will discuss shortly looked specifically at WILDs. The reason WILDs were studied is that they show symptoms very similar to those found in OBEs.
From a scientific standpoint, OBEs and lucid dreams are related, but neurologically they are very different. In and an important scientific article titled “Out of Body Experiences”, dreams, and REM Sleep, Dr. Stephen LaBerge and his colleagues discuss the similarities between WILDs and OBEs. Their conclusion is that although there are marked similarities between the two practices, they are not the same thing.
Their studies found the following:
- 85% of OBE’s occur while sleeping or resting.
- The vibratory state just prior to an OBE shows similarities to light sleep paralysis.
- OBE’s practitioners have increased lucid dreams compared to the general population, while practitioners of WILDs have more OBE’s
- Most OBE’s make use of REM sleep, the same brain state as someone that is dreaming.
These three similarities seem to indicate that astral projection and lucid dreaming are in fact the same thing. However, the researchers are aware that there are enough differences to distinguish them from each other: Firstly
- OBE’s are much rarer than lucid dreams; 85% of their participants have had lucid dreams, while 34.2% had at least one OBE.
- OBE’s can occur without REM sleep, but more rarely. These OBE triggers include drug, trance, and meditative states, sensory deprivation, hypnopompic and hypnogogic states, extreme stress conditions, and fainting.
- People who report an OBE argue tenaciously that the experience is real and not just a dream. They can clearly distinguish between the two states.
LaBerge and his colleagues concluded that OBE’s are a form of dreaming, but there are enough differences to draw a distinction between these two phenomena. LaBerge, however, doesn’t simply dismiss astral projection but tries to contextualize it better.
What is interesting to note is that contemporary studies on dreams and REM sleep show that the brain becomes more active in certain regions (like the brain stem), but other parts are almost shut down. One particular area of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex, play virtually no role in normal dreams, but seems to become active during lucid dreams. The prefrontal cortex is where our identity and critical thinking ability resides.
During normal dreams, this part is inactive, which inhibits our ability to see dreams for what they are. However, lucid dreamers have greater density in their prefrontal cortex enabling them to recognize the dream state. This means that when the prefrontal cortex becomes active during REM sleep, the result is a lucid dream.
The neurological basis for OBEs
In 2002 Dr. Olaf Blanke at the University of Geneva discovered that an entirely different region of the brain triggers OBEs. He discovered this while he was performing experimental treatments on an epilepsy patient. When he electrically stimulated her right angular gyrus in the temporoparietal junction, she showed symptoms of an OBE while wide awake. This region of the brain stitches together our senses and location in space to create a mental model of the physical body. He presented his findings in journals on neurology, some of which are available online.
From these two studies, we can reach the following conclusion: when the prefrontal cortex is active during REM sleep, the result is a lucid dream. However, when the altering the temporoparietal junction’s activity leads to an OBE. This means that from a scientific perspective, lucid dreams and OBE’s share a strong relationship, but are neurologically not the same thing.
Shamanic perspectives on dreaming
In shamanic cultures, there is no clear distinction between astral projection and lucid dreaming. Both are ways to access the world of the spirit. In indigenous Australian practices, the name for this spiritual world is called the Dreaming or Dreamtime and is seen as the origin of the physical world. During the Dreamtime, the spirit ancestors created our world through the act of dreaming.
The Australian karadji or ‘clever man’ can access these dreams of gods and spirits for the betterment of their community. All practices aimed at accessing the spiritual domain are collectively called dreaming. Dreams form the foundation of their culture and were central to communal life. The spirits teach the karadji see with an inner eye through conscious dreaming. In Malcolm Godwin’s The Lucid Dreamer A Yaralde tribesman tells :
“When you see an old man sitting by himself over there in the camp, do not disturb him, for if you do, he will ‘growl’ at you. Do not play near him, because he is sitting down by himself with his thoughts in order to see. He is gathering those thoughts so that he can feel and hear. Perhaps he then lies down, getting into a special posture, so that he can see through sleeping.”
The Native American tribes also held dreaming as central to their culture. Among Native Americans entering the dream realm could bestow great spiritual gifts for the community. To access this realm, they used not only nightly dreams but waking dreams as well. These waking dreams were similar in principle to astral projection; the ability to enter the world of spirits. To induce these states, drumming and chanting were almost universal, and in certain cases, they used psychedelics, such as peyote.
The following quote taken from Black Elk Speaks describes the practice of dreaming for reaching the world of spirits.
“Crazy Horse dreamed and went into the world where there is nothing but the spirits of all things. That is the real world that is behind this one, and everything we see here is something like a shadow from that one.”
Passage into adulthood was marked by the vision quests of adolescents. These involved fasting, isolation, and perilous circumstances. This time of extreme stress would induce the vision, and mark the recipient as an adult.
Differences between astral projection and lucid dreaming in dream yoga
The Buddhists would inherit similar practices from the shamanic natives in Tibet. This intermingling of dreams and Buddhist philosophy would lead to the practice of dream yoga. Tibetan Buddhism took the concept of dreaming to its conclusion. They saw the illusory nature of dreams everywhere, not just in nightly dreams, but during the waking state as well. To the dream yogi, all of reality is a dream, because it’s created by the mind.
Tibetan dream yoga seems to show an intuitive awareness of the areas of the brain involved dreaming. In The Yoga of the Dream State, one lucid dreaming technique involved meditating on the throat while falling asleep. The throat just so happens to be located near the brain stem that becomes active during dreaming. In another technique, the practitioner meditates on a spot in the center of the forehead. This happens to be the location of the prefrontal cortex which becomes active during lucid dreams.
However, in the highest stages of dream yoga, they used other techniques . They involve stimulating the flow of the vital energy in the body called prana. From prana, the yogi constructs a special dream body. This can then leave the physical body behind and enter the various heavens of Buddhism.
In Andrew Holecek’s Dream Yoga, the Dalai Lama made an observation about this practice. “There is such a thing as a ‘special dream state’. In that state, the ‘special dream body’ is created from the mind and from the vital energies (known in Sanskrit as prana) within the body. This special dream body is able to disassociate from the gross physical body and travel elsewhere . . . This is not just imagination; the subtle self actually departs from the gross body.”
As you can see there is a strong relationship between lucid dreaming and astral projection. Shamanic cultures use the practices interchangeably, but some require sleeping, while others require extreme stress, drugs, or chanting and drumming. The Tibetan dream yogi not only uses the dreaming arts but realizes everything is a dream These ideas complement scientific findings. that assert that lucid dreams, astral projection, as well as the waking state is a product of the brain and thus are all dreams. These dreams might all be different, but scientific findings seem to point out that the Buddhists are ultimately right about their assertions: reality is a dream.
Dr. Stephen LaBerge and his colleagues concluded the following in their studies of out-of-body experiences:
“In a final note, we would like to address the concerns of those for whom OBEs have provided a revelation of existence beyond the limits of the physical body. Declaring OBEs dreams does not diminish their reality if, by the same argument, we declare that waking reality is a dream as well! The realms we create in dreams and OBEs are as real as this one, and, further, they are unfettered by the constraints of the physical universe.
In dreams, we have the potential to explore the true powers of the mind without the limitations imposed in the “real world” by the need to survive in a hostile environment. How much more exhilarating it must be to be “out-of-body” in a world where the only limit is the imagination, than to be loose in the physical world in a powerless body of ether! Freed of the constraints imposed by the physical, expanded by the knowledge that we can transcend all previously known limitations, who knows what we could be, or become?”