“Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.”
― Henry David Thoreau
“And you’re certain that there’s no danger in any of this?” asked Connor again. It was the second time he had put the question to the conservatively dressed middle aged man seated opposite him. He wanted to be sure. Better careful than sorry after all he had been through in the past few months.
As Connor waited for the professor’s response, he grew restless. His hands clasped and unclasped as though with a will of their own. To distract himself, he glanced through the open window beside him. It was a weekday, and far below he could see students hurrying across campus to get to their classes on time. The New York City skies overhead were a dazzling bright blue without a single cloud visible on the horizon.
As Connor looked down, he wondered if he would die right away if he were to throw himself out a window from such a height. “Why am I here?” he asked himself.
“Danger?” Casper Elicott, the faculty member in charge of the project to which Connor was seeking admission, seemed genuinely puzzled. He stroked his goatee thoughtfully as he looked about the room, hoping perhaps to find some answer in the files that lay everywhere strewn about. “I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about,” he said at last. “It’s a simple study in which we monitor a subject’s ability to direct his dreams as he or she progresses toward a set goal. What danger do you imagine there could possibly be in so straightforward an experiment? You’ll be in a carefully monitored environment the entire time you’re working with us.” He explained all this in the same patient tone he might have used with a particularly slow student.
“You’re not going to be trying out any new wonder drugs on me or the others while you’re conducting this experiment, are you?” Connor persisted. As soon as he had said the words, Connor knew that really wasn’t it and winced. He wasn’t usually one for dissimulation, not even with himself.
“Drugs?” Elicott appeared shocked at the very idea. “I should hope not. The use of pharmaceuticals would only complicate our procedures and cast doubt on the accuracy of our findings. For that very reason, if accepted, you will have to agree to abstain from any intoxicants or stimulants, even coffee, for the entire length of the study. We cannot allow you or the others to partake of any substance that might, however subtly, affect the proper functioning of your mind.”
The two men remained seated. They stared silently at one another across the width of Elicott’s office, though that may have been too grand a term, Connor decided, for the tiny room in which he found himself. It was really little more than a cubicle. Were all the work areas assigned by the university to faculty members so small, he asked himself, or was Elicott’s position more junior than he had at first imagined? The space, painted a drab battleship gray, was sparsely furnished and contained little more than the professor’s desk and chair and the imitation leather sofa on which Connor now sat. On the wall in back of the desk was hung an impressive array of elaborately engraved diplomas, every one of them in Latin. There were no personal items in evidence, only a poorly executed reproduction of a Braque cubist painting that hung forlornly on a far wall and that had probably been there long before Elicott had arrived on the scene. As he studied it, Connor noticed that the glass in the picture frame was badly cracked; he wondered why the professor hadn’t taken the time to have it repaired.
“Listen, I understand quite well what lucid dreaming is. And I wasn’t really worried about any drugs.” Connor had decided it would be best to be candid. He paused as he struggled to express his real fear. “To be honest, I was thinking more about the electricity.”
“The electricity?” Elicott appeared more perplexed than ever. He resumed stroking his goatee but more vigorously now.
“Yes, that’s what I said,” Connor insisted. “I don’t want any shock treatments given me. I want to make that clear right now.”
“Whatever are you talking about? You’ve completely lost me, I’m afraid.” The professor gazed intensely at his visitor as if suddenly uncertain if he were completely rational.
“Please don’t lie to me,” said Connor. He directed a searching look toward the other. “I recently read a description of experiments similar to yours that were conducted somewhere in East Europe, in Moldova I think. The article I saw claimed that researchers there shot an electrical current through the subjects’ brains while they were still asleep in order to better induce the type of dream they wanted. Is that really true? If it is, it sounds more like a human rights violation than a medical experiment.”
Once Elicott saw what Connor was driving at, he finally relaxed, gave a short bark of amusement and then sat back in his chair. “Oh, you’re thinking of the article that appeared last month in that silly parapsychology webzine Mind Over Matter. I saw it also and had a good laugh over it with my colleagues. Talk about shoddy reporting. There were so many inaccuracies in that piece I couldn’t even begin to count them.” His tone was so dismissive it bordered on contempt.
“So you’re saying there’s nothing in what was written there?” Connor was still suspicious and not ready to let go. “I can’t believe the writers there made the whole thing up. There has to be something to it.”
“Not really.” Elicott waved his hand airily and permitted himself a brief chuckle. “While it’s true we do employ a mild electrical charge as a stimulant to a subject’s mental processes while in various sleep stages, the actual amount of voltage is so minimal as to be imperceptible. In fact, it’s less than that of a flashlight battery.”
“So how safe can that be?” Connor demanded. He grimaced. “I’m not looking to become mentally impaired. I’ve got enough problems as it is.”
“We’re certainly not attempting to electrocute anyone if that’s what you’re worried about.” Elicott adopted a reassuring tone so natural that Connor suspected at once that it must be an act. “What we’re actually trying to do is to build on the recent findings of that group of scientists you were reading about. Those researchers in Moldova were indeed conducting a series of experiments similar to our own. Unfortunately, they lacked our resources and were not able to continue far enough to bring the experiment to a successful conclusion. They also encountered unanticipated… technical problems.” Here Elicott grew visibly uncomfortable and faltered in his explanation. “In the end, they were able to accomplish little more than to chart the electrical impulses – the brain waves – that accompany the REM stage of sleep.”
“I’ve heard that term, but I’m not exactly sure what it means.”
“REM stands for ‘rapid eye movement.’ It’s one portion, about 25%, of a total night’s sleep and usually occurs near morning when an individual is close to waking.” Elicott had regained his composure as he warmed to his subject. “What’s fascinating is that, although the phenomenon was discovered back in the 1950’s, no one is sure even today what its purpose is.”
Connor thought it over. “So what you’re really saying is that it’s some sort of scientific mystery? Is that it?”
Elicott was clearly in his element now. “Pretty much, and that’s why scientists keep studying it. In this case, the Moldovans attached electrified metal discs to the subjects’ heads while they slept and then ran a simple electro-encephalogram that provided a printout of whatever variations occurred in the brain waves during REM. It was all pretty cut and dried, nothing more than a gathering of statistics for further research. No one expected any big surprises to turn up along the way.”
Connor picked up on that. “But from your tone I take it they did come across something unusual. What exactly was it they found? I’d really like to know.”
“When interviewing the subjects afterwards, the researchers discovered quite by accident that several had actually experienced lucid dreams while in the REM stage. They then went back to the EEG charts and found that at the time those dreams had occurred they had been accompanied by an electrical activity we term ‘gamma waves.’”
Connor shook his head. “I’m not even going to ask what those are.”
“Good idea. You could say they’re another scientific mystery.”
“So, let me guess. Your idea is that if you can fire up these gamma waves, whatever they are, in someone’s head while he’s asleep then you can get him to have lucid dreams of his own.”
“Precisely.” The professor beamed as brightly as if Connor had solved some abstruse mathematical problem. “That’s the whole project in a nutshell.”
Connor was not yet convinced. He had the distinct feeling Elicott was deliberately holding back something from him. He definitely hadn’t told everything he knew about the Moldovan experiment. “And could you tell me how you intend going about doing that?”
“We will indeed wire the metal discs placed on the subject’s skull with a slight electric charge, but one so mild it would be almost unnoticeable to him even if he were fully awake. It’s nothing at all like what you’ve read about online. Believe me, the university would never allow this project to go forward if there were even the slightest risk involved to any of the participants.” Elicott smiled reassuringly. “For one thing, the trustees have no intention of discovering the limits of their liability insurance in the event a lawsuit were to be brought against the school.”
Connor made up his mind. “Well, if there’s no danger, then I’m in.” He looked inquiringly at Elicott. “If you want me to join that is.”
“Oh, yes,” said the professor. “I’ve been all through your records and was very pleased by what I saw. You graduated from this very university with honors and scored well enough on the Wechsler and the Stanford-Binet intelligence scales to qualify for MENSA. Though you’re now unemployed, you have a steady work record and no drug or alcohol dependency. On the personality profiles, you showed a tendency to depression and proved something of an introvert, but there’s nothing that would rise to the level of neurosis. In other words, you’re a normal human being.” He once again smiled. “That’s what we look for in choosing our subjects.”
Connor had another question. “What about my age? Is that going to be a factor? I’m probably a lot older than most of the college kids you’ve signed up.”
“You’re 42, which is still a relatively young age in our society. While it’s true that the amount of REM sleep an individual experiences during his lifetime decreases with age, I don’t believe that will be any problem for a healthy individual still only at the threshold of middle age. Besides, we want some variety in our test subjects precisely so we can determine if age does in fact play a part in our findings.”
“Good enough then. What happens next?”
“It’s simplicity itself. All you have to do is spend your nights here at our facilities while we monitor your sleep patterns. As I’ve already told you, no drugs will be administered. That’s because sleeping pills actually inhibit REM sleep. Their use would be counterproductive.”
“I assume you’ll have me hooked up the whole time to that EEG machine you were telling me about.”
“We’ll actually be using a more sophisticated form of measurement. A polysomnogram records not only brain wave patterns but also eye movements, muscle activity and respiratory functions. It’s much more comprehensive than a simple EEG.”
“That’s it with the questions then.” Connor was eager to move on. “I’m ready to start whenever you want me to be here.”
“You can report to our laboratory downstairs in this building on Monday at 7 p.m.”
“Sure. I’ll be on time.” Connor rose from his seat and reached for the backpack he had placed on the floor beside him. “If there’s nothing else, I guess I’ll be on my way then.”
Elicott coughed discreetly. “There is one question I have that wasn’t covered in our initial screening interviews.”
Connor returned reluctantly to his seat. He seemed to retreat inside himself as he tapped his fingers nervously on the arm of his chair. “And what’s that?” he asked warily.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to better understand your reasons for wanting to participate in the experiment in the first place. The compensation we offer is only $15 per hour; that’s not a great deal for someone of your ability, especially considering the inconvenience of sleeping in a laboratory setting night after night. I’ve tried it myself and found it can be rather uncomfortable at times.”
Connor let out a long breath. He’d been anticipating a different line of questioning. “Does it really make any difference?” he asked.
“I don’t want to be inquisitive,” Elicott apologized, “but you must understand that for the good of the project I need to know as much as I can about those who have chosen to participate in it. A given subject’s motivation can be vital to his success… or failure.”
Connor shrugged. “For someone who’s been out of work in this economy as long as I have, $15 an hour is nothing to sneeze at. It may not be much, but it will at least allow me to keep going. That’s important.”
Elicott frowned. “So your only incentive then is the money you’ll earn? That’s not a very idealistic cause.”
“I’m sorry, but I’d be lying to you if I told you that wasn’t the main reason I’m here. I have to eat and pay my rent. At the same time, though, there is one aspect of my dreams I’d like to explore more fully during the course of the experiment if it’s at all possible.”
Elicott regarded him curiously. “And what might that be?”
“It goes back to my love of books. I was an English lit major when I was a student here, you know, and reading has always been one of my great passions.”
“Yes, I saw that on your record.” Elicott pointed to a manila folder in front of him. “You excelled in that one subject above all others.”
“Yes, I guess that’s where my talent lay all right.” Connor gave a wry smile. “The problem is that I could never figure a way to make a living at it. I certainly was never cut out to be a teacher myself.”
“And what connection does your love of literature have with this project?” The professor showed no sign of impatience as he asked the question.
“For as long as I can remember I’ve had one particular dream about books that’s always bothered me and left me feeling frustrated when I woke up.”
“What’s the dream about?” asked Elicott. Now that the conversation had turned to dream content, he appeared much more involved. “You said it left you feeling frustrated. Did it have to do with a specific book?”
“No, that’s not it.” Connor shook his head. “It’s actually a very simple scenario. In my dream, I’ll be alone in a library or bookstore where I’m surrounded by shelves and shelves of books. Usually the books are all expensive looking leather-bound or cloth-bound volumes. Sometimes they’re covered in layers of dust, as though they haven’t been opened in years, and they’re so old that they might belong to another century. The problem is that while even in my dream I’m intensely curious which books they are, try as I might I’m never able to open a single one of them or even make out a title. Or at least none that I can remember when I eventually wake up.”
“And so what you want to do in a lucid dream is to will yourself to examine the books more closely so that you’re able to see their titles and the names of their authors and maybe even read a bit of what’s inside them?”
“Yes, exactly.” Connor was grateful to be so well understood.
Elicott clapped his hands. “That’s fascinating. I’ve often heard of such dreams but have never before met anyone who’d actually experienced them.”
“I worked in the university library when I was in college here and had part time jobs at bookstores afterwards. Maybe that’s where the idea comes from.”
“Possibly. To be honest, though, I don’t believe the source is all that important. It’s the concept that I find intriguing.”
“Is it something you’ll allow me to work on in this project then?”
“Oh, most definitely. My colleagues and I have been scratching our heads for months as we’ve attempted to come up with a list of logical tasks which we can instruct our subjects to perform in their dreams. It’s not as easy as you would think. What you’ve arrived at on your own is perfect for our purposes.”
“I’ve always wondered why I’ve had this dream so often. Is it just my love of books that’s involved here, or does the dream have some deeper meaning? I even went through Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams at one point, but it really wasn’t that much help.”
“I’m no psychologist, of course – though we do have an excellent psychiatrist, Dr. Reicha, on staff – but it might be that you are indeed aware on some level of the content of these books and that they have some relevance to your present life situation. Perhaps your unconscious is trying to bring something to your attention that it feels you need to know.”
Connor laughed. “My unconscious is doing a terrible job then. If I don’t know what’s in the books they can’t be of very much use to me.”
Elicott held up one hand. “Don’t take my remarks too literally. They were just conjecture. For that matter, it’s not very scientific of me to be taking guesses at matters outside my sphere of competence.”
“I don’t know about that. Your idea makes as much sense as any I’ve thought of myself. You might be on to something.”
“It’s a point you and Dr. Reicha can discuss when you eventually meet. He’s much better qualified to perform such analyses than I am. The man is a specialist on the subject. He’s already written one volume on dreams that’s considered so authoritative it’s used as a textbook in many universities, including our own.”
Once again Connor appeared ill at ease. “Psychoanalysis is part of the program then? I’ve never been that comfortable with the idea of anyone probing inside my head. It’s always seemed to me a terrible invasion of privacy.”
“You have nothing to worry about on that score,” Elicott assured him. “This is a research project we’re pursuing, and there’s no room in it for any form of therapy. No one has any desire to tinker with your psyche. On the other hand, it would be foolish to neglect the vast literature that psychiatrists, and not only Freud, have amassed regarding dream interpretation. A trained analyst is very likely to find significance in a dream, lucid or otherwise, that might completely escape the rest of us. For that reason, Dr. Reicha will interview each subject whenever that individual has had a dream and will attempt to analyze its content so that all involved will be better able to understand it scope and appreciate its full meaning.”
Connor relaxed. “I have no problem with that.”
“Good.” This time it was the professor who rose from his seat. “I think that covers just about everything then. I’ll look forward to seeing you on Monday.”