Sleep researchers say they have established that many of the visions of angels and other religious encounters described in the Bible were likely "the products of spontaneous lucid dreams."
In a sleep study by the Out-Of-Body Experience Research Center in Los Angeles, 30 volunteers were instructed to perform a series of mental steps upon waking up or becoming lucid during the night that might lead them to have out-of-body experiences culminating in perceived encounters with an angel. Half of them succeeded, the researchers said.
Specifically, the volunteers were told to try to re-create the story of Elijah, a prophet who is referenced in the Talmud, the Bible and the Quran. In one of the stories in the Bible's Book of Kings, Elijah flees to the wilderness and falls asleep under a juniper tree, exhausted and prepared to die. Suddenly an angel shakes him awake and tells him to eat. He looks around and, to his surprise, sees a loaf of bread baked on some coals and a jug of water. Elijah eats the meal and goes back to sleep. Lead researcher Michael Raduga said this event was chosen from among a multitude of biblical passages involving religious visions during the night, because, "in terms of verifiable results, angels were the ideal choice, as Western culture provides a relatively well-established image for them (wings, white robes, halos, etc.)."
The research, which has not been reviewed by peers for scientific publication, does garner support from some dream researchers who were not involved in Raduga's study. They said the findings support further inquiry into the basis of such religious visions. One dream expert, however, pointed out that many religious tales of angelic encounters occurred in daytime, which suggests they could not have been dreams.
Dreaming of Elijah
During the four weekends devoted to the study, 24 of the volunteers indicated they had experienced at least one lucid dream. They had been instructed to try to "separate from their bodies" every time they became half-awake or lucid during the night. If they were able to dream that they had separated from their sleeping bodies, they were then supposed to look for angels in their homes. If they were unable to have an out-of-body dream experience, they were told to go back to sleep and try again later in the night.
Fifteen of the 24 "lucid" participants said they were able to re-create the story of Elijah during their dreamlike experiences, either in part or in full. Nine of them dreamed of experiences involving both an angel and food, while the other six encountered only an angel. [Alien Abductions May Be Vivid Dreams]
Raduga, whose organization is partly funded by sales of his "practical guide" books on lucid dreaming, designed the experiment to test his theory that many reports of miraculous encounters are actually instances of people experiencing this vibrant, lifelike dream state. If he could coach people to dream a realistic religious encounter, he said, that could prove that many historical accounts of such encounters — such as Elijah's vision in the Bible — are really just products of people's imaginations.
The volunteers who succeeded in envisioning angels described their encounters for the researchers.
One participant, identified as Anton M., recalled making a successful attempt to separate from his body: "I left my body and then summoned my 'guide,' and he came in the form of an angel. I asked him for some cookies and water. He gave them to me readily. I ate everything up, experiencing every taste sensation and the feeling of satiation. I returned to my body and fell right back asleep."
Though Raduga and his colleagues' work has not been peer-reviewed or published, other dream researchers called the findings interesting and suggestive. "I am sure these guys are on to something," said Allan Hobson, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of several books on the neuroscience of dreaming, including "Dream Life" (MIT Press, 2011).
Hobson said the idea that religious encounters were actually vivid dreams isn't new. "William James, the great and very tolerant philosopher-psychologist, wrote a book in 1912 entitled 'Varieties of Religious Experience' in which he stated that many visions were probably dreamlike apparitions," he told Life's Little Mysteries in an email.
And then there is "the story of Emmanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish scholar, who … sleep-deprived himself, and it wasn't long before the angels appeared and told him to found the Church of the New Jerusalem," Hobson said.
Ursula Voss, a sleep and dreaming psychologist at the University of Bonn in Germany, agrees that some religious encounters could be products of the human mind. "But other scenarios are also possible," Voss said. If the visions are imagined, she argues that these encounters would not happen during lucid dreaming, but instead could be examples of "hypnagogic hallucinations," which happen just before people fall asleep, when the brain is highly susceptible to the power of suggestion. [Key to Hallucinations Found]
Brigitte Holzinger, a psychologist at the Institute for Consciousness and Dream Research who was not involved in Raduga's study, said that many biblical tales are recorded as having happened during the day; as such, they were probably not dreams.
"What we can learn from this is that we need a better definition of lucid dreaming, and based on that definition we need to distinguish lucid dreams from other forms of trances, visions and maybe even hallucinations," Holzinger wrote in an email.
She added that "a project trying to determine these states would be very interesting."
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Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature WritingandThe Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.