Movies such as Inception create a world where ultimate dream manipulation is not only a possibility, it’s a common occurrence. While characters in the movie easily, and consciously slip in and out of reality, and their dreams, only about 20% of the world’s population have successfully been able to lucid dream.
What is Lucid Dreaming?
Lucid dreaming occurs when, during REM sleep, someone starts to dream, and recognizes that what they are experiencing is not actual reality. Upon this discovery, some individuals retain this knowledge, and continue to observe their dream. Others, however, are able to alter particular details about their dream, bending the dream they are experiencing to their will. Those who have mastered the art of lucid dreaming are capable of changing characters that appear in their dreams, the location in which the dream is taking place, even the overall story arc of a dream.
The concept of lucid dreaming was first mentioned in Aristotle’s treatise, On Dreams. In it, the Greek Philosopher discusses an instance where he became self aware while in the middle of a dream.
The actual term ‘lucid dream’ wasn’t used until 1913, when Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden discusses the concept in an article he published, titled, A Study of Dreams.
During the 1970s epistemologist Paul Tholey studied the art of lucid dreaming, and proposed seven different criteria to determine whether or not someone’s experience could be labeled as a lucid dream:
- Being aware of the dream state
- Being aware of the ability to make decisions within the dream
- Being aware of memories
- Being aware of self
- Being aware of the dream environment
- Being aware of potential meanings of the dream
- Being aware of the ability to concentrate and focus
The Benefits of Lucid Dreaming
In more recent times, lucid dreaming has been introduced as a helpful tool during different forms of therapy. Individuals who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can potentially use lucid dreaming as a means of re-living, and working through their past trauma in small, controlled doses within their dreams.
Dream manipulation is often used in therapy when an individual is trying to overcome a particular phobia. Lucid dreaming allows the individual to manifest that which they fear in their dreams, and condition themselves to be okay. Lucid dreams provide a safe environment in which exposure to certain dangers is okay, because the dreamer is always consciously aware that they cannot actually be harmed.
Some people claim that they use lucid dreaming as a means of reducing their anxiety. Riddled with stresses, an individual could potentially use dream control as a way of experiencing pleasant adventures, events, and conversations. Imagine if you were able to dream your way onto a white sand beach, with a cold drink in hand. Many use lucid dreaming as a way of enjoying the simple pleasures in life, all without leaving the comfort of their mattress.
The most common way lucid dreaming is used as a form of therapy, however, is to relieve individuals who suffer from chronic nightmares. When a dream starts to unravel into scary, or threatening, territory, individuals can simply alter their dream environment into a more amiable, stress-free experience.
How to Lucid Dream
As beneficial as lucid dreaming can potentially be, it is not an ability that is easily mastered. Many people have devoted years into learning how to manipulate their dreams, with very mixed results.
Nonetheless, there are several things one can do to help master this elusive, and wonderful ability.
It All Starts with Good Sleep Hygiene
Lucid dreaming is impossible without steady, solid rest, and good sleep hygiene helps guarantee you achieve both. Essentially, sleep hygiene is comprised of the individualized rituals, habits, and behaviors one adopts revolving around sleeping. For example, someone may take a bath prior to bed, as a means of relaxing, and growing sleepy. Others may develop the ritual of reading for an hour before they turn off the lights.
Good sleep hygiene depends on an individual’s needs. With that being said, there are certain behaviors everyone should adhere to for optimal sleep hygiene, such as getting enough sleep, trying to sleep at the same time each night, and avoiding digital screens for at least an hour prior to bed. Many people have reported a greater chance of being able to successfully lucid dream when they have consistent, healthy sleep hygiene.
Reality testing is a metacognition exercise one can perform multiple times a day in order to increase their chances of lucid dreaming. Essentially, you are conditioning your brain to notice your own awareness. Getting in the habit of checking self-awareness during the day greatly increases your chance of being able to become self-aware while dreaming.
To perform reality testing, simply follow the below three steps:
- Ask yourself, point blank, if you are dreaming
- Check your external environment – is it real?
- Become aware of your own consciousness, and how you are interacting with the environment around you
Individuals who have ingrained reality checking into a habit are better able to stop, and ask themselves these questions while dreaming, thus allowing them the opportunity to gain control of the dream.
If you start to perform a reality check, and begin to suspect you are actually in a dream, there are certain things you might want to look for that will confirm or deny whether you are lucid dreaming:
1 – Being able to breathe
Clamp your nose shut with your fingers. If you are, somehow, still able to breathe, then you have entered a dream state.
2 – Check the solidity of nearby objects
Experiment with being able to push your hand through a wall, or some other solid surface. Obviously, if you can successfully go through an object, you are dreaming.
3 – Time
Find a clock, and make a note of the time. After a little while, check the clock again. Have only a few minutes passed, or is the clock operating in a way that doesn’t make sense?
4 – Your Reflection
When in doubt, try to find a mirror, or other reflective surface. When you look at yourself in the mirror, does everything seem normal? Or is there something slightly off about your reflection?
Along with Paul Tholey, psychologist Stephen LeBerge also conducted in-depth studies on lucid dreaming during the late 1970s. During this time, he developed a technique called Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams, or MILD for short.
- First, determine the precise time you are going to bed. Set an alarm for approximately five hours after you first fall asleep.
- When the alarm goes off, try to recall either a dream you were just experiencing, or a dream you remember from your past quite vividly.
- Remain in bed, and get comfortable. Tell yourself, in your head, that the next time you experience a dream, you will know it’s a dream.
- As you repeat this phrase in your head, visualize yourself back in the dream you were just experiencing, or the dream you recalled. Visualize yourself remembering that you are dreaming, while within that dream environment.
- Repeat steps three, and four over and over again. It should be the last thing you think of before you drift back to sleep.
This type of technique is based off of the concept of prospective memory, which is basically just a fancy way of saying you are consciously planning on doing something specific, at a later point in time.
While the MILD technique works for some, be patient with the process. It is a technique that will likely take several attempts before you see any type of results.
Wake Back to Bed
Because lucid dreaming occurs during REM sleep, the Wake Back to Bed method, or WBTB, uses the body’s own natural rhythms to encourage the chance of lucid dreaming upon entering that part of the sleep cycle. While not as intensive as the MILD technique, WBTB still requires you to adhere to a strict sleeping rotation.
- Determine the exact time you intend to sleep
- Set your alarm to go off five hours later
- After your alarm goes off, stay awake for the next thirty minutes
- Occupy yourself with a low key, relaxing activity, such as reading a book
- Fall back asleep
With this technique, you have a greater chance of immediately entering REM sleep once you fall back asleep, increasing your chances of lucid dreaming.
Wake Initiated Lucid Dreaming
Wake Initiated Lucid Dreaming, or WILD, occurs when you slip into a dream while still conscious. While this technique is perhaps the most challenging of the ones mentioned in this article, it also has a great propensity to promote lucid dreaming, as you are, essentially, conditioning your brain to remain conscious while your body falls asleep. Follow the steps below to help induce WILD.
- Lay down, and try to relax as much as possible
- Wait until you experience hypnagogic hallucinations
- Try to remain focused on the hallucinations, and control their outcomes
What Are Hypnagogic Hallucinations?
Most people experience these types of hallucinations in their life, and it is normal to do so. Hypnagogic hallucinations are what we tend to experience right when we are on the brink of falling asleep. Have you ever started drifting off, and then suddenly feel as though you are flying, or falling? These are the most common experiences of hypnagogic hallucinations.
It’s easy to get frustrated, attempting to lucid dream. The process often takes more time, and is more challenging than people anticipate. There are a couple of things you can add to your routines in order to encourage lucid dreaming.
Many individuals have reported that keeping a dream journal helped them to learn how to lucid dream. Getting into the habit of writing down the details of your dream after waking up will help you to better recall the minutiae of said dream when you are unconscious.
Others have reported that meditating on a regular basis helps with lucid dreaming, as you condition yourself to get into a relaxed, almost trance-like state–the same kind of state you want to be in when attempting the MILD or WILD technique.
In 2017, the Sleep Research Society conducted and published their findings on a study linking video games to lucid dreaming. The study found that people who play video games on a regular basis have a greater chance of lucid dreaming, whether intentional or not. This is due to the fact that your brain is already conditioned and comfortable in dealing with false realities.
The Risks of Lucid Dreaming
Lucid dreaming can be an entertaining hobby, as well as a helpful coping mechanism for certain conditions. However, it is not recommended for everyone.
People who suffer from schizophrenia, for example, are discouraged from trying to lucid dream, as it can exacerbate the condition. Lucid dreaming blurs the lines of dream worlds, and reality and individuals with this mental health condition may struggle to discern delusions from real life.
Attempting to lucid dream can also severely disrupt your sleeping patterns, especially if you attempt the MILD or WBTB technique. Continuously waking up five hours after going to bed can potentially increase symptoms of depression, and may make certain sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy, must worse.
Furthermore, the possibility of sleep paralysis may increase when an individual attempts to lucid dream. Being unable to physically move, as well as the chance of experiencing a hallucination in which an intruder manifests can make this experience rather unpleasant.
Those who manage to lucid dream should also be cognizant of potential problems with the process. For example, some people experience what is known as “sleep claustrophobia,” which happens when a person finds themselves aware that they are dreaming, but they do not have the ability to wake up, nor control the dream they are experiencing.
Individuals who tend to lucid dream too much, also report sometimes feeling isolated by the experience. It may be hard to share and relate the experience with people who have never had a lucid dream. That, paired with the very nature of blurring the lines of reality, and the worlds we make in our unconscious states, can be quite discombobulating.
Overall, lucid dreaming is a fascinating concept, but one that requires persistent effort. The long term effects of lucid dreaming have not been extensively studied, so tread lightly.