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It’s midnight in a warehouse space in downtown Los Angeles. Instead of bouncing to a DJ, a couple dozen strangers snuggle down into sleeping bags piled and prepare to listen to a different sort of music. Somnium is a seven-and-a-half-hour composition by Robert Rich, specifically designed to optimize the dream experience. I hit play and climb into my own cozy nest.

At the same moment, people around the world do the same, preparing to listen to the track in their own bedrooms. Tonight, we’re an intimately connected community of dreamers.

We’re participating in the Oneironauticum, a worldwide slumber party I launched in 2008. It’s dedicated to the exploration of oneirogens — substances, sounds, scents and practices that intensify dreams. The word comes from the Greek oneiro, dream, and gen, to create. They work.

It is in our DNA to experiment with substances, and the urge to experiment with consciousness is an inherent part of our makeup. As kids, we roll down hills and press the heels of our hands against our eyes; as adults, we take drugs and have sex, dance ourselves into trance states or seek out the runner’s high. Dreaming is the original altered mind state. It’s also the most universally experienced one. We all visit bizarre, visionary worlds during the third of our lives we spend asleep.

It’s not surprising, then, that humans have been using oneirogens to hack dreams for pretty much as long as we’ve been doing anything. In ancient Greece, pilgrims flocked to temples of Asclepius to seek healing through consultation with early doctors; working with dreams was understood as being integral to healing. References to lucid dreaming appear in the Upanishads, the sacred Hindu texts that date back to at least 600 BCE. The Vigyan Bhairav Tantra describes ways to direct consciousness within the dream.

For many, consciousness experimentation motivates their experiments with oneirogens, but they’re used for a wide range of other reasons, too. Some traditional cultures, including the Chontal and Xhosa, used oneirogens to contact ancestors and bring back teachings from the dream world. In Tibetan Buddhism, lucid dream practices underscore the unreality of the world and help practitioners prepare for the Bardo. Siberian shamans used wild asparagus to induce flying dreams; today, an herbalist might suggest rose, rosemary or sage to prompt healing dreams.

Oneirogens themselves are consumed or practiced in a wide variety of ways. Some are teas and ingestibles that need to be taken or practiced at specific times during the night, as they are tied to specific sleep phases. For example, those that target the hypnagogic first state must be taken at the beginning of sleep or during naps. Particularly fast-acting oneirogens that target REM, such as galantamine (see below), are best taken after you’ve been asleep for five hours, when periods of REM sleep start to grow longer.

Sound and scent make excellent oneirogens, too, as hearing and olfaction are the only senses that aren’t completely muted during sleep. With scents, your brain probably won’t recognize what you’re smelling — and they won’t necessarily wake you up — butstudies have shown that different odors have specific effects on dreams. And in dreams, you can smell things wafting in from the waking world just fine.

Similarly, when you’re asleep, you can still hear, although it’s hard to know how your dreaming mind will translate what your ears perceive. Many apps provide audible oneirogens, including Dream:ON, iDoser and Yumemiru, and long soundscapes have been composed to stimulate the dreaming mind. The latter include Robert Rich’s Somnium and Max Richter’sSleep, which was broadcast live on the BBC in September. As an oneirogen, music also has the advantage of being easily accessible.

In my case, I’ve spent eight years experimenting with oneirogens, resulting in this catalog of their usages and effects. If you decide to try any of them, keep in mind that not everything works for everyone. Many factors contribute to how well an oneirogen will work for any individual. And while these substances are legal and considered harmless, it’s wise to check with your doctor beforehand, just in case.

Calea Zacatechichi

Calea Zacatechichi

What is it?

This flowering plant is used by the Chontal natives indigenous to the Mexican state of Oaxaca, where there is a strong tradition of visionary plants. Traditionally, calea is used for oneiromancy, a form of divination based on dreams. The Chontal believe that dreams happen in realms beyond those we consciously perceive, and that the contents of dreams can convey meaningful messages or prophecy. They further maintain that calea clarifies the senses so the dreamer can more clearly perceive insights and bring them back into waking memory.

How does it work?

Smoked or steeped into an astoundingly bitter tea, caleahelps induce lucid dreams. It also produces incredibly vivid sensory experiences in the dreamworld; hence, it’s sometimes referred to as “the dream herb.” It often leads to memorable tastes, vibrant colors and beautiful, unidentifiable scents in dreams. Once, in a calea dream, I read a long text — a notoriously difficult thing to do in dreams.

Somnium

What is it?

During the 1980s, electronic musician Robert Rich performed a series of live, all-night concerts for sleeping Bay Area audiences. To maximize dreaming, he composed pieces that alternate sound textures to match the phases of sleep. The key of the pieces was to keep the mind as close to consciousness as possible, without waking it out of the dream.

How does it work?

In deep sleep, when the mind dives far below the surface of consciousness, the music becomes more active. During dream-rich REM sleep, when brain waves vibrate at the same rate as they do in an alert waking mind, the sound becomes quieter and more peaceful

Interestingly, this particular oneirogen sometimes brings participants into each other’s dreams. People also tend to dream of the place in which they’re sleeping. Working with Somnium, remote participants have often felt that they met the main group in the dream world.

Mugwort

Mugwort

What is it?

Perhaps our most frequently used oneirogen, mugwort, actually refers to several species of plants in the Artemisia genus. The plant’s oil contains thujone, the active ingredient in absinthe, and can be made into a tea. Dried mugwort can be sprinkled with mugwort essential oil, if you really want to go for it.

How does it work?

Mugwort supports long, epic, detailed dreams and also seems to improve dream recall. People interested inastral travel also claim that mugwort can help with the sensation of actually leaving one’s body. In Korean tradition, mugwort hot baths or mugwort steams taken late at night are used to induce vivid dreams.

Galantine

Galantine

What is it?

In its organic form, galantamine is an alkaloid derived from the bulbs and flowers of various plants. The form we use comes from red spider lily. Used to treat Alzheimer’s and other memory impairments, galantamine temporarily increases the brain’s levels of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that plays a very active role in dreaming.

How does it work?

To use this substance, set your alarm for five hours after you go to sleep, a time in the sleep cycle when REM sleep phases begin to get longer. When you wake, take eight mg (capsules are best) and fall back asleep.

Galantamine is the best quick path to lucid dreaming. Besides increasing the duration of REM, it seems to stabilize the structural coherence of the dream world. I first tried this oneirogen during a workshop I took in Hawaii with dream researcher Stephen LaBerge, who conducted clinical trials that concluded galantamine produces an almost six times greater likelihood of having lucid dreams.

This oneirogen also produces a much greater quantity of dreams. You may wake in the morning with the feeling that you’ve been active all night.

Silene Capensis

What is it?

This flowering herb grows in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. The native Xhosa people traditionally use it for their form of oneiromancy. The Xhosa believe that silene capensis facilitates communication with the ancestors, who provide guidance or prophecy. They call the root “Undela Ziimhlophe,” which translates to “white paths” or “white ways.”

How does it work?

Traditionally, the powdered root is placed in water and then whipped into a foam, which is then eaten. Remarkably enough, in certain individuals this oneirogen does produce dreams that feature wise figures or teachers, as well as the color white. Even without these traditional characteristics, Silene Capensis dreams often seem particularly meaningful.

Binaural Beats

Binaural Beats

What is it?

Although they’ve been around since the 1970s, binaural beats are currently undergoing a resurgence of interest thanks to certain phone apps that can so easily produce them.

How does it work?

Tones or frequencies are used to entrain brainwaves. When two different frequencies enter the head through the right and left ears, the brain synthesizes the difference between them. This creates a rhythm that stimulates or triggers a brain state.

Today, the vendors of apps that produce binaural beats claim to be able to produce all sorts of mind states, from drug experiences to emotions such as confidence or love.

By Jennifer Dumpert / Van Winkle’s Alternet

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