Skip to ContentSkip to Navigation
Research Centre for Religious Studies Research Centres Centre for Religion, Conflict and Globalization
Header image The Religion Factor

Manifesting Our Dreams: Religion, Science, and Dream Culture

Date:30 September 2022
Author:Laura J. Vollmer
Photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash
Photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash

Science-based spiritualities and religiously inspired science break down so many of the dichotomies we use to compartmentalize our world: science vs. religion, religious vs. secular, fact vs. value, and, when we throw dreams in the mix, fantasy vs. reality. Yet, the states of dream science, dream culture, and ‘New Age’ religion simply would not be what they are today without this mutual influence from religion and science.

A lot of these developments began in the 1970s when lucid dream research took off, oftentimes attributed to the pioneer Stephen LaBerge. This was also a time when Eastern religions were enjoying unprecedented acceptance in the West, including within the sciences. Psychologists, biologists, physicists, and many other scientists drew from Eastern philosophy, developing important innovations in scientific thought. This can still be seen today, such as in the case of mindfulness research at Harvard Medical School. And dream science was no exception to these intellectual transformations.

For instance, Buddhism played a significant role in the development of LaBerge’s work. LaBerge credits his experiences at a Buddhist workshop as what ultimately led him to his research. Furthermore, as a sort of proof of concept, LaBerge refers to Tibetan Buddhist ideas to explain dream control, and his early books parallel aspects of lucid dreaming to dream yoga (a complex series of practices, involving, in part, meditation and lucid dreaming). His innovative work at the Lucidity Institute, which he founded in 1987, even drew from dream yoga to set the parameters for studies of certain lucid-dream-induction techniques, such as determining the best sleep posture. Dream yoga influenced other dream scientists as well, such as George Gillespie, who drew from Tibetan Buddhist teachings to set the context for investigating the role of light often associated with religious experiences during lucid dreaming.

LaBerge’s work spawned acceptance of the reality of lucid dreaming among a once-skeptical scientific community. And today, researchers are looking at a range of uses for lucid dreaming, including improving athletic performance, treating PTSD-related nightmares, and improving insomnia, anxiety, and depression. Without Buddhism, the science of dreaming would have been, at the very least, stunted by the absence of LaBerge’s contributions.

And without LaBerge’s work, the place of dreams in culture would be greatly diminished. This is because, in the late 1980s, LaBerge helped popularize mainstream interest in the topic. For example, the themes of dreaming and lucidity began to appear in numerous Hollywood films, playing with the boundaries between fantasy/illusion and reality and questioning our awareness and the truth of our experiences (in a very Buddhist-like way). These include Total Recall (1990), Eyes Wide Shut (1999), The Matrix (1999), Waking Life (2001), Vanilla Sky (2001), and Inception (2010), to name a few. Discussions of lucid dreaming and references to LaBerge also frequently appear in the media, from within pop culture to high-profile publications, such as the MIT Technology Review.

Coming full circle, religion-inspired science-inspired religion. Numerous so-called ‘New Age’ publications refer to LaBerge’s work and draw upon the techniques therein, framing lucid dreaming as a means of spiritual attainment and personal growth. And LaBerge himself has become a New Age icon, solidified by his later explorations into out-of-body experiences, telepathy, and other popular New Age topics. Years after his groundbreaking work on dreams, LaBerge could be found leading classes on dream yoga, drawing upon both religion and science—an exceedingly common thing in new religious movements in the contemporary West. This is evident in the work of his colleague: Andrew Holecek’s Dream Yoga (2016) depicts a sort of New Age conglomeration of Buddhism, science, and spirituality.

From the dawn of humankind, religions have greatly contributed to how we view dreams. Dreams, in turn, have shaped history—of culture and society and of religion. Transubstantiating fantasy into reality, the ethereal dreams of the night concretize in the day, becoming the object of our scientific inquiry, the subject of our religious studies, the treatment of our heartaches and pain, the theme of our pop-cultural products, and the inspiration of our spiritualities. In this and so many other ways, dreams do come true.

About the author

Laura J. Vollmer

Laura J. Vollmer is an independent scholar and a prolific writer, with contributions on a variety of topics related to religion, science, history, culture, health, and society. She wrote a monograph on theory and method in the study of religion, The Relationality of Religion and Science: Toward a New Discourse-analytical Framework (forthcoming). Currently, she is writing a book with the working title A Dream Come True: How Dreams Have Shaped the History of Religion and Society to explore how religious conceptions of dreams have impacted nightime rituals, cultural products, and social structures.