A dream-traveller’s guide to the sleeping mind #Beekhaybee

Almost a century ago, an eccentric English lady
found the secrets of dream control. Her
subsequent adventures explored the limits of
consciousness – and modern scientists are only
just catching up.

By David Robson
13 August 2015
As with many nightmares, Mary Arnold-Forster
was being chased. She seemed to be in London
around the First World War, and she had
somehow become embroiled in dangerous
“I had succeeded in tracing the existence of a
complicated and dangerous plot against our
country,” she noted in her diary. “The
conspirators had turned upon me on discovering
how much I knew.” Eventually she found shelter,
but they were closing in. “The arch-conspirator,
a white-faced man in a bowler hat, had tracked
me down to the building where I was concealed,
and which by this time was surrounded.”
At which point, many of us might have woken up
in a cold sweat. But Arnold-Forster was made of
steelier stuff. She had discovered a method of
“dream control”, meaning that she was perfectly
aware that she was asleep, and that everything
around her – the pursuer, his bowler hat, the
very ground she was standing on – was simply
a figment of her mind.
So rather than flee, she decided to immerse
herself in the thrill of the chase. “All fear had
departed; the comfortable feeling of great
heroism, only fully enjoyed by those who feel
themselves to be safe, was mine.” The night
terror had morphed into “a delightful dream of
adventure” – allowing her to fulfil her fantasies of
subterfuge and espionage from the comfort of her
Inspired by her success, she soon used
her nocturnal adventures to touch on
some of the greatest mysteries of our
Lucid dreaming is now well known, but at the
turn of the last century, few had explored its
potential. Inspired by her success, Arnold-Forster
soon used her nocturnal adventures to touch on
some of the greatest mysteries of our slumbers.
What happens to the mind in the strange “twilight
zone” between waking and sleep? Where do the
images of our dreams come from? And why do
memories of dreams evaporate like the morning
The result is a detailed “traveller’s guide” to the
dreamscape – charting the outer boundaries of
consciousness as they had never been explored
before. Her findings were at odds with almost
everything written at the time – yet history has
proven that many her theories were spot on.
Even 100 years later, scientists are still finding
themselves inspired by this unknown pioneer.
You too may find some useful tips for ways to
spice up your own dreams.
Arnold-Forster was born in 1861 into the English
aristocracy. Her husband was the politician Hugh
Oakeley Arnold-Forster, the nephew of the
celebrated author EM Forster of A Room with a
View and A Passage to India fame. She may have
remained a mere footnote in the lives of these
powerful men, had she not, at the age of 60,
published a little-known book named Studies in
Dreams .
She does not say exactly when explorations
began, but her interest seems to have taken a
more serious turn during World War I, when she
was haunted by dreams about the deaths of her
sons on the front.
The solution, she found, was to repeat a kind of
mantra through the day and just before sleep:
“This is only a dream; if you wake, it will be
over, and all will be well again.” As she had
hoped, the incantation made its way into the
dreams – so that she would realise she was in
the middle of a fantasy. Soon, visions of the
dreaded telegrams no longer haunted her nights.
“It would be difficult to express how great was
the relief when I knew that I could lie down to
sleep free from this particular dread,” she wrote.
Once she was aware of her dreams’ true
nature, she could instead immerse herself
in the fantasy and revel in the daredevil
In gaining this consciousness while asleep, she
had discovered a method: lucid dreaming.
(Indeed, a repetitive mantra, also known as
“auto-suggestion”, before sleep is now
considered one of the best ways of achieving a
lucid dream.) And like many lucid dreamers after
her, Arnold-Forster soon realised that she didn’t
have to wake up from a bad dream to avoid the
terrors; once she was aware of her dreams’ true
nature, she could instead immerse herself in the
fantasy and revel in the daredevil adventures.
She was particularly keen to test out the limits of
the body in the dreamscape – and her abilities to
fly. “By giving a slight push or spring with my
feet I leave the ground,” she wrote. “A slight
paddling motion by my hands increases the pace
of the flight, and is used either to enable me to
reach a greater height, or else for the purpose of
steering, especially through any narrow place,
such as through a doorway or window.” In her
dreams, she would even clothe herself in a
“flying skirt” that modestly covered her feet as
she hovered over the ground.
After I had thought long about flying over
trees and buildings, I found that I was
getting the power to rise to these heights
with ever-lessening difficulty
Surprisingly, the skill required dedicated practice;
apparently, even in dreams, we cannot achieve
great feats without a little effort. “It was a long
time before I could fly higher than five or six feet
from the ground, and it was only after watching
and thinking about the flight of birds, the soaring
of the larks above the Wiltshire Downs, the
hovering of a kestrel, the action of the rooks’
strong wings, and the glancing flights of
swallows, that I began to achieve in my dreams
some of the same bird-like flights. After I had
thought long and often about flying over high
trees and buildings, I found that I was getting the
power to rise to these heights with ever-
lessening difficulty and effort.” Eventually, she
tested her dream skills by attempting a long
dream flight across the Atlantic.
Decades later, such colourful accounts would
catch the attention of Allan Hobson, now a
professor at Harvard Medical School, who was
told about the book at a party. In between stints
at his hospital’s schizophrenia unit, he tried to
put her tips into practice.
I could fly. I could make love to
whomever I pleased. I could even wake
myself up, the better to recall my exotic
dream adventures
“Sure enough, I was soon dreaming and aware
that I was dreaming; I was lucid. I could observe
and even direct my dreams,” he recently wrote of
the experience. “Also, like Mary Arnold-Forster, I
could fly. I could make love to whomever I
pleased… I could even wake myself up, the better
to recall my exotic dream adventures, and then
go right back to the same or some more
preferable dream behaviour. This experience
helped to convince me that dream science was
not only possible but extremely promising.”
Along with Ursula Voss at the Goethe University
in Frankfurt, Hobson has now scanned the brains
of lucid dreamers to try to understand how the
dreaming brain – normally passive – wakes up
with the heightened self-awareness and agency
that characterises lucidity. It is akin, they say, to
the moment in human history when we rose from
the basic perceptions of animals to the thinking,
feeling, self-aware creatures we are today. So far,
they think it can be pinned down to a few
correlates – high activity in the frontal lobes and
a certain breed of “gamma” brain waves . If so,
that may be the signature of our higher state of
Others are reinvestigating lucid dreaming as a
cure for nightmares – just as Arnold-Forster had
suggested – particularly in children.
Looking carefully at Arnold-Forster’s accounts, it
is not hard to find many other ways in which she
pre-empted modern theories of dreaming. For all
the whimsy of her stories, she was entirely
serious about her attempts to chart the
unexplored corners of the sleeping mind. “Our
task as students of dreams should therefore be
to find out by experiment and careful observation
all that we can learn about the working of the
various mental faculties in the dream state,” she
The awakening of lucidity is akin to the
moment in human history, when we rose
from the basic perceptions of animals to
the thinking, feeling, self-aware creatures
we are today
Consider dream symbolism. Sigmund Freud’s
The Interpretation of Dreams had been published
two decades before Arnold-Forster’s Studies in
Dreams, and his theories of psychoanalysis were
already shocking and fascinating Europe’s
fashionable intelligentsia. Yet Arnold-Forster
mostly rejected his theories that dreams were
allegories of our basest impulses. “My
experience convinces me that it is not true that
all dreams are symbolic,” she said. “Happily
there is no need for us to believe that the nature
of the dreams, which for so many of us make up
so great an element of pleasure in life, has any
close relationship with the morbid obsessions of
Instead, she pointed out that our dreams are built
from a far more mundane substance: our
memories. “It happens constantly that some idea
that fills our thoughts on one day will determine
the course of our dreams either on the following
night or after an interval, a few nights later.”
As we sleep, the brain rifles through our
experience to index them and pass them
over to long-term storage
Today, all of this can be explained by our
knowledge of memory consolidation. As we
sleep, the brain rifles through our experience to
index them and pass them over to long-term
storage. In doing so, it may reactivate the circuits
involved in the memory, so they enter our
dreams in surprising and sometimes surreal
ways. Crucially, Arnold-Forster’s estimate of the
timings were impressively accurate – memories
first enter our dreams around one to two days
after an event, and then a week later, leading to a
so-called “ dream-lag effect ”. This could reflect
the fact that the brain cements its memories in
two distinct stages.
Unlike her contemporaries, Arnold also saw the
close parallels to the free association we might
enjoy when our mind wanders during the day.
“The elaborate process of dream building is very
much like the process that is carried on in the
mind by day when images pass quickly across it,
and one association calls up another,” she wrote.
“Only at night the imagination is not fettered by
the discipline which restrains our wandering
thoughts from following too eagerly in the
random track of every chance thought and
Scientists now believe that this reflects the
brain’s “default network” – an interconnected
web of brain regions that can walk through
different memories and ideas. This state of free
association is, in fact, thought to fuel our
waking creativity. The difference is that when we
sleep, our frontal cortices – which deal with logic
and attention – are even less active, leading one
paper conclude that “ dreaming can be
understood as an ‘intensified’ version of waking
mind wandering ”. In doing so, they perfectly
explain how the brain becomes “unfettered” from
the “discipline” of our waking logic, as Arnold-
Forster so elegantly described.
The diffuse brain activity may explain why
dreams often vanish when we wake, as
the morning mist vanishes in sunlight
The slow activation of the default network may
also lead to the strange “ hypnagogic images”
that flash before our eyes in the twilight zone
between waking and sleeping – an experience
that Arnold-Forster poetically details in her
chapters on the “borderland state”. Conversely,
when we wake, the diffuse brain activity may
explain why dreams often fail to stick in our
minds the following morning, why they “they
vanish when we wake as mist vanishes in
sunlight”, as Arnold Forster put it. Her solution
was to allow the dream “to unroll itself very
quietly backwards in a series of slowly moving
pictures” – until you have slowly pieced together
its whole story.
As more and more scientists continue the work
started by this eccentric, aristocratic pioneer, her
ideas may prove to be only the start of a much
greater understanding of the sleeping mind.
Arnold-Forster admitted there were many more
mysteries to explore, but she would no doubt
have been surprised by the new interest in her
“little book”, as she modestly called it. Her
primary aim, she said, was simply to help us all
appreciate the sleeping mind a little more – “to
remind us of the measure, too often overlooked,
that is added by our dreams to the sum of life’s
After all, we spend a third of our lives asleep –
yet few of us take much notice of those nightly
escapades. “It is only when dreams of terror,
dreams of grief, and dreams of evil have ceased
to have power over us that we are able
thoroughly to enjoy our dream life,” Arnold-
Forster wrote. “For it is only then that we are
able to embark with entire confidence on the
nightly adventure of our dreams, and to explore
the unknown and delightful country to which they
lend us the key.” If we follow her lead, that
delightful country may now be open to us all.
David Robson is BBC Future’s feature writer. He
is @d_a_robson on Twitter.