There are only two rules for the “idea dinners” held by New York early-stage investment firm ff Venture Capital. No side conversations and a strict 8 p.m. end time. Every month, the company invites financiers, founders and other “influencers” to its Midtown headquarters for a catered get-together. The meal is served in a glass-walled conference room, situated just past the rows of adjustable standing desks, where it’s not unusual to see startup employees cranking out code well past dessert.
The conversation often focuses on tech-oriented subjects, but this February, as the group fired questions at veteran investor Esther Dyson, the discussion turned to the subconscious.
Josh Weinstein, the 25-year-old founder of YouAre.TV, brought up his experience using lucid dreaming to get over his fear of heights, noting that he first toyed with the idea while trying to memorize Chinese characters during an immersion program in Beijing—using his nonwaking hours to cram for tests. Later, when he found himself flying above the jogging path along the FDR in a dream, “I just let myself drop onto the concrete,” Mr. Weinstein said. “I would hit the ground, but I wouldn’t feel impact. I kept experiencing that sense of falling without actually feeling the pain of impact.” Above him, the sky morphed into psychedelic swirls. “I don’t do any drugs or drink, so when people talk about their experience being high, this is analogous.”
Lucid dreaming refers to the act of being conscious while in a dream state—you’re in the dream, but you know it. With practice, proponents say, you can harness that awareness to manipulate your surroundings. Think Inception without the corporate espionage, or Neo’s trips to the Matrix after he downed the blue pill. (Tom Cruise’s cryogenically induced affair with Penelope Cruz in Vanilla Sky doesn’t quite fit because, for a good two hours, the poor sap thought it was the real deal.)
A century after the term “lucid dreaming” was coined by Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden in 1913, the practice is experiencing a major resurgence. For New York techies, already dutifully maximizing their waking hours, it seems sleep has become the last efficiency frontier. “We need to maximize the output that we get from our time, so if I’m not sitting in front of Codecademy or eating, I should be doing something cool, learning something, analyzing things, having cool experiences,” Mr. Weinstein said later.
After two hours that included watching investors whip out their calorie-tracking FitBits (Ms. Dyson’s was affixed to her bra strap) and blood-pressure monitoring iPhone apps, the takeaway from dinner seemed to be that truly self-optimized life-hackers should be quantifying their bodies’ every input and output, standing while they work, learning to code or speak Mandarin in their free time and using their dreams to overcome personal weaknesses or conjure up the next billion-dollar app. Or at least indulge in some mind-blowing virtual sex—often the first stop on a Lucid Dreaming Experience Tour. “It’s rewarding,” suggested psychologist Stephen LaBerge, who spent decades researching the science of dreams at Stanford and then at the Lucidity Institute and has been credited with proving the existence of lucid dreaming, “and people who don’t have the opportunities for getting sex elsewhere in their lives, then why not?!”
Then again, who wants to be conscious all the time? Weren’t bars invented expressly to avoid the burden of 24-hour lucidity?
At the dinner, Rob Cromer, the 26-year-old founder of a stealth startup called Adcade, chimed in with advice about “reality checks” that he picked up from a lucid dreaming coach at a cocktail party. One of the trickiest parts of lucid dreaming is recognizing that you’re in a dream. Thus practitioners train themselves during their waking hours by, say, drawing a dot on their hand as a signal to look at a clock.
New apps are coming on the market to solve the same problem. In less than a month, the Brooklyn-based duo behind Bitbanger Labs has managed to raise more than $330,000 from more than 3,800 backers on Kickstarter, including Mr. Weinstein and Mr. Cromer, to build a sleep mask called Remee that uses flashing LED lights as a “reality check.” Their initial goal was just $35,000. Kickstarter also hosted campaigns for the book Oneironautics: A Field Guide to Lucid Dreaming, funded three times over; and The Lucid Dream Tour, a “multimedia, multidimensional road trip event” that promises to showcase the “entrepreneurial possibilities of today’s consciousness movement.” Soon that will include a video game designed to elicit lucid dreams currently being developed by a grad student in Copenhagen.
Since Remee first appeared on Kickstarter on April 3, the number of people who subscribe to the lucid dreaming forum on Reddit has grown more than 30 percent, up to 33,300 “oneironauts,” as practitioners like to call themselves. The influx of new users got be such an issue that the moderator was moved to create a separate forum for lucid dreaming memes so as not to interrupt discussion topics like “I can’t feel emotions in my dreams” or “Loosing [sic] track of reality quickly, help!”
The fantasy of controlling one’s dreams goes way back—Aristotle and Tibetan Buddhists were proponents—but for the new wave of technologically-savvy acolytes, dreams are seen more as a form of virtual reality. “The brain works so well it’s like the operating system on a Mac,” said Dr. LaBerge. By exploring your subconscious, “You find out how the system works.”
The last lucid dreaming boom had a more spiritual cast. “I think that was the ’80s,” noted Bitbanger Labs cofounder Duncan Frazier. “It kind of got new-aged a little bit. It went away and now it’s coming back and people are trying to make sure it doesn’t go down that weird road of pseudo-science.”
According to psychologist and dream researcher Jayne Gackenbach, hard-core gamers are more likely to both have lucid dreams and be able to control them. She’s releasing three books on the subject this year, including a self-published e-book called “Play Reality” told from the perspective of her 27-year-old son, a harcore gamer.
Still, both Dr. Gackenbach and Dr. LaBerge cautioned against getting too goal-oriented with one’s REM cycle. “Dreaming is specifically designed for information processing,” Dr. Gackenbach explained. “It’s when we store new emotions and process negative emotions and try to make sense of them. If you’re trying to optimize it, what does that mean? Do you want to get rid of your negative emotions in an efficient way? It’s a system that’s doing pretty well on its own.” She expressed some skepticism about the idea of maximizing the use of this supposed downtime. “If it’s just about being able to control this alternative reality and go to a Rolling Stones concert,” she noted, referring to a goal articulated by one of her students, “then I have some concerns.”
Mr. Frazier and Steve McGuigan, the 30-year-olds behind Bitbanger Labs, makers of the Remee sleep mask, don’t seem too worried about it. During a late-night visit to Mr. Frazier’s apartment in Windsor Terrace, he talked about flying over the Grand Canyon and being able to push and pull the mountains below him at will, like he was “conducting music.” On the desk next to his left, a handful of Remee prototypes with their circuitry exposed lay in front of a 3D printer Mr. Frazier built from scratch.
Mr. McGuigan plays around with dimension. “I’ve always been into increasing or decreasing my size,” he said. “Shrink down to the size of an atom. Get microscopic and go hang out with subatomic particles.”
Teaching oneself to fly is another favorite pastime of lucid dreamers. “People on Reddit like to ride dragons,” added Mr. Frazier. At the dinner, Ms. Dyson, a trained cosmonaut, said she dreams of weightlessness.
In the late ’80s, Dr. LaBerge actually put out two versions of a mask similar to the Remee, among other “lucid dreaming induction devices,” called the DreamLight and NovaDreamer. But at around $1,000 a pop, he sold only 10,000 or 20,000 in the five or six years they were on the market, though he noted that they “had a disproportionate influence on technical types.”
A standard-issue Remee will retail for $80. The device is simple, using flashing LED lights on a timer—“like the front of Knight Rider,” as Mr. Frazier put it—to prod the dreamer into lucidity without waking him up.
“We’ve had to explain it to most of our friends, and it takes awhile,” Mr. Frazier admitted. “Over beers.”
A version of this story appeared in the May 2, 2012 issue of the New York Observer.