Alternative Laws of Nature

I’ve just got back from seeing the movie Inception. A film about dreaming. Overall I really enjoyed the film, but I thought the dream worlds were all together too… well real. It got me thinking about my dream life.

Since at least my teenage years I’ve been a lucid dreamer. Not all the time. About 50% of the dreams I remember I am a passenger, and typically all I can remember is the broad feeling of the dream (e.g. last night I dreamt I was late, there was a train involved, and that’s all I can remember). The other 50% I am, to all intents and purposes, conscious in the dream. More than that, I have some control. And over the years I’ve come to notice certain laws that always hold. Now laws is a funny word because in some cases I suspect I’ve created them, in others they seem to be features of the dream world. Either way they are laws. There may be more, but here are a few I can identify.

1. I cannot die. Unlike inception, I don’t wake up when I die (more on that later) I simply cannot die. Similarly, events in the dream do not cause me to feel pain, unless I’m already in real pain (again, we’ll come back to that).

2. I cannot kill. This isn’t a moral thing: if I try to destroy something I am utterly unable to do so. This may not apply to things I accidentally kill (I don’t remember if that’s ever happened), but is absolutely true of things I want to destroy.

3. I cannot read. I can quote text, I am highly literate, but I cannot read. Texts exist in my dream, but I cannot read them. I cannot create texts that I can read either.

4. I can fly. My flying action is rather like swimming, but still. This is always there, and I often merrily float around my dreams. I am the only person in my dream with this ability. I’ve never met anyone else in my dream who can fly.

5. I can breathe fine underwater. I swim a lot in my dreams, and I don’t need to worry about air. As for number 4, other folks in my dream don’t seem to be able to do this, so have the normal concerns about breathing.

6. I am impervious to the damage of extreme environments. I can walk through fire, sub-zero temperatures, etc.

7. I cannot travel faster than around 30mph. Regardless if I give myself a Ferrari, or a supersonic jet. I’ll still travel only just faster than running pace. In some dreams it is slower still, and I would be faster running. I think this is linked to dreams where you need to be somewhere and can’t get there fast enough, or you can’t out-run a chasing evil. But if it started in those dreams, it has now become a law and is the same always. Fortunately law number 8 means I can usually change where I am instantly to be somewhere else, so longer distance travel is often easier for me than shorter distance.

8. I can change the world at will (within some largely mysterious bounds, I can’t be specific about). In Inception the characters use totems to detect if they are dreaming. My equivalent is this ability. When I realise I am dreaming (which is the point I first become conscious in the dream), I try to change something trivial. The color of a street lamp from orange to green, for example, or a person’s gender. If I can do this, I am dreaming. I’ve never been conscious in a dream when this has failed, even when surfacing out of one dream into another. I don’t change the world in an Inception style, raising buildings, or demolishing cliffs. Instead I change things instantly and completely. I can fairly reliably change people’s gender (including my own – at least until anything sexual happens, then I’m always male [unfortunately :)]), add and remove people from the scene, change location (although not all locations are always available to me), and change my identity (name, job, whether people know me or not, etc). It is rare for such a change not to work, but often they don’t stick. I might change the location to NYC, for example, only to find myself back in my garden a couple of minutes later.

9. Anyone I have sex with in my dream will transform to be my wife. This, I think, was a decision, made by virtue of being able to change the world. This has been true since before we were married, and I have a vague memory of making the decision way back in a dream (but this could be a fake memory, the memory is so insubstantial). I don’t remember why I made this choice – it isn’t like I’d have a moral objection to dream-infidelity. But it is now a law.

10. I can wake at any time I want. This, again, is something learned. I remember having nightmares as a young teen. I taught myself to wake at will, so now it is a law of the dream.

These two things are not laws of the dream-world, but are things I know about my dreams.

11. Any physical sensation in the dream is real. If I feel like I’m going to be sick, time to wake and get to the bathroom. If I feel my arm is painful, I’m probably sleeping on it. – A corrolary to that: Never pee in the dream. Most of my muscles seem nicely shut off in my dream state, my plumbing not so much. Fortunately, I learned this quite young, and so, by law 10, it is no longer a problem.

12. After having one lucid dream, I can usually go under again for another. At this point I have a good degree of choice of what I dream of next. If I get the opportunity for a couple of hours of lie-in, I can repeat several times. This, I have to say, is bliss.

So why this post? Well aside from the fact that lucid dreaming is very interesting (and pretty damn cool if you can do it), something significant occurs to me. In my dreams I have made my own reality. So those laws are laws that are purely about me. Some I know I’ve chosen, others are limitations of my experience or psychology. But none of them are real laws, none of them are necessary. If I had a different psychology they would be different. But I know these are laws, in the same way I know my coffee cup will fall if I drop it in the waking world. I have tried hard to subvert many of them, but they always hold.

That is odd, I think. And seems to me to say something interesting about the human mind. Something I’m not sure how to articulate.

I’d be interested if any of you are lucid dreamers, and if you can enumerate the laws that always hold in your dreams – the physics of your mind…


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9 responses to “Alternative Laws of Nature

  1. Kay

    I’ve never had a lucid dream. I’m interested in finding out if I can train myself to do so.

    I’m intrigued by two of your laws as they are things that I experience in my non lucid dreams.

    1) The flying as swimming thing. My flying dreams are like that 90% of the time. It’s a struggle to get off the ground and it takes constant effort to remain there, like treading water.

    2) The 30 mph rule. I used to have dreams where I was trying to drive away from a killer, but no matter what, the car would not go any faster than the guy could run. Dang frustrating to say the least.

  2. Ian

    I think your number 2 started that way for me too. But now its gone beyond that. I’ve had dreams, for example, when I’ve bought myself a brand new car and decided to floor it and see what it can do, then been annoyed at only being able to go 30mph!

    So when you have these kind of vivid dreams, you are not aware you are dreaming? I don’t experience that, or at least I don’t tend to remember it. It seems odd that you could be flying yet not realise you are dreaming…

  3. Kay


    I do not remember ever knowing I was dreaming. In the dream it seems perfectly logical that I could fly. It’s something I just do (with difficulty). There have been dreams where the person with me could fly too, though that is rare. I’ve only had a couple of those that I can remember.

  4. Wow, two fun posts. I just got back from cubscout camp for a week. Love this one and the next. I will, when I find time, respond with some longer stuff on my site but keep adding stuff here.

    (1) Dreams have been HUGE in my life (who’d believe we’d share yet something else in common!)
    (2) I LOVE your “Physics of the [Dream] Mind”
    (3) Here are my experiences in general terms:
    I fly a lot and always was aware of speed limitations.
    I can not die.
    I can kill (I think).
    Never noticed reading.
    I do lots of lucid stuff but not nearly as much as you. But then, I don’t require medications either (at this point) 🙂
    I breathe underwater
    If hurt in the dream, I wake hurt.
    Sex: I am nondiscriminate, others, animals, and even men (worse than animals). And sex partners morph during the process into other sexes or animals or other people.
    I can re-enter dreams on will after waking and usually with lucidity if not the first time.
    Dream affect day time moods and attitudes toward folks that were in my dreams.
    Dreams restore vitality.
    Who I am changes in dreams, “Person” is unstable.
    I feel we dream when awake but rarely notice it.

  5. imarriedaxtian

    Last night I dreamt I was a butterfly flitting around and enjoying myself. When I woke up, I did not know if I was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi.


  6. Ian

    @imax – Love it, thanks. Zhuangzi definitely needs a totem.

    @kay – interesting. It is fascinating to hear other’s experiences. It is making me realise how wrong I am to generalise my dream experiences to others. I couldn’t imagine doing something like flying and not noticing I was dreaming 🙂 Human minds are amazing.


    “If hurt in the dream, I wake hurt.”

    Do you think you were hurt in the waking world, and this caused it to happen in the dream, or can you consciously hurt yourself in a predetermined way in the dream and wake up to that pain? Are you lucid enough to do that experiment (e.g. determine that next time you lucid dream you will chop your middle finger of your left hand off, and see if that pain is present when you wake)?

    “Sex: I am nondiscriminate, others, animals, and even men (worse than animals).”

    Really? I’ve no waking desire to do animals or men, but I’d prefer to be gay in a dream than a bestialist 🙂

    “Dream affect day time moods and attitudes toward folks that were in my dreams.”

    Interesting. I think there is some of this for me. But very minor. If I’ve had an argument with my wife in the dream, I might wake up a bit down, but it clears in minutes.

    “Dreams restore vitality.”

    Interesting. That is a difference. I tend to feel more rested if I’ve not dreamed.

    “I feel we dream when awake but rarely notice it.”

    Interesting again. What would constitute a dream in that case? Can you say more (here or in a post)?

  7. Ian

    @sabio – oh and I didn’t understand the comments about medications – it seemed like you were suggesting I was taking something related to dreaming?

  8. Of Dream Injuries
    I wager I injure myself in the dream, but why would I have such a strange injury like a bruised side in a dream. Unlike others, I have landed harshly in falls from the sky. But I stopped practicing lucidity to try the experiment you suggest. Messing with dreams was a bit harsh on me in my younger days.

    Of Animals
    In dreams, they are surprisingly human.

    Of Day Dreams
    I think many day dreams is simply the mind paying attention to the dreams already happening and there are many.

    Concerning the medications: I was joking that your degree of lucidity must surely be the result of great instability requiring medications to help you hold a job. Of course, spelling it out, it is not the least bit funny in that many are greatly benefited by psychiatric medications and all of us are always on the edge of instability.

  9. Ian

    I hate it when I do that – fail to get a joke and then get the joker to explain all the mirth away – sorry!

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