Dream Series: Part IV – Why and how we dream remains something of a mystery. To understand our dreams, we need to understand how we dream, what lucid dreams are, and why some dreams are more memorable.
Have you ever started dreaming and suddenly realized that you were in a dream? Have you ever managed to gain control over your dream narrative? If your answer to either of these is “yes,” you have experienced what is called lucid dreaming.
Movies such as Inception have popularized lucid dreaming. This movie features impressive dream artisans who are able to control the shape and content of their dreams, as well as the dreams of others. Such feats of dream manipulation may not seem possible to the same extent in our real lives, but they are not altogether absent. In fact, a number of people are able to experience something called lucid dreaming, and some of them are even able to control certain elements of their nightly dreams.
According to some research, around half of all people have had a lucid dream at some time in their lives, and around 11% experience one or two lucid dreams per month. In his much-cited poem ‘A Dream Within A Dream’, Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “All that we see or seem/Is but a dream within a dream.” Whether or not he is right is a matter for philosophers to debate, but the boundary between dreams and reality is something that lucid dreaming appears to explore.
In this installment of the ‘Dreams‘ series, let’s take a look at what qualifies as lucid dreaming, whether these experiences can have any practical applications, and how a person might be able to become a lucid dreamer.
Typically, when we dream, we do not know that the dream is not real. As a character from the movie Inception quite aptly puts it, “Well, dreams, they feel real while we’re in them, right? It’s only when we wake up that we realize that something was actually strange.”
However, some people are able to enter a dream and be fully aware of the fact that they are actually dreaming.
“A lucid dream is defined as a dream during which dreamers, while dreaming, are aware they are dreaming,” specialists explain.
The very first record of lucid dreaming appears to feature in the treatise On Dreams by the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. In it, he describes an instance of self-awareness during a dream state. “[If] the sleeper perceives that he is asleep, and is conscious of the sleeping state during which the perception comes before his mind, it presents itself still, but something within him speaks to this effect: ‘The image of Koriskos presents itself, but the real Koriskos is not present,’” he wrote.
It is unclear how many people actually experience lucid dreaming, though certain studies have tried to gather information regarding its prevalence — and it seems that this phenomenon may be quite common. For instance, researchers in Brazil surveyed 3,427 participants with a median age of 25. The results of the survey indicated that 77% of the respondents had experienced lucid dreaming at least once.
Like most dreams, lucid dreaming will typically occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. For some people it occurs spontaneously, but others train themselves to start dreaming lucidly (or to become better at it).
As one experienced lucid dreamer describes it, “My lucid dreaming occurs when I’m waking up, or sometimes if I’ve woken up briefly and I’m going back to sleep. Nowadays, I can pretty much do it on a whim, as long as I’m in that half-asleep half-awake process.”
The degree to which a person can influence their dream also varies. Some people may simply wake up immediately upon realizing that they had been dreaming. Other people, however, may be able to influence their own actions within the dream, or parts of the dream itself.
The lucid dreamer before mentioned stated that she was able to manipulate the dream narrative in order to create a pleasant experience for herself. “Usually,” she explained, “I can control the narrative in the dream, so for example, if I’m unhappy with the way things are going in the dream, I can change it.”
Lucid dreaming is certainly an attractive and fascinating prospect; being able to explore our own inner worlds with full awareness that we are in a dream is intriguing and has an almost magical flavor to it. However, can lucid dreaming have any practical applications?
Dr. Denholm Aspy, at the University of Adelaide in Australia, is a researcher who specializes in lucid dreaming. He explained that this experience can actually be therapeutic. Its main application, Dr. Aspy said, is to address nightmares — especially recurring nightmares, which may affect a person’s quality of life. The practice of learning to lucid dream to stop nightmares from occurring or recurring, he explained, is called “lucid dreaming therapy.”
“If you can help someone who’s having nightmares to become lucid during that nightmare,” he said, “then that gives them the ability to exert control over themselves or over the nightmare itself. Some people take on superpowers or special abilities, [so] they can fight back against the attacker. And then you can also try to escape, so things like flying away, or even doing techniques to deliberately wake up from the nightmare.”
Lucid dreaming also has the potential to help people with phobias, such as a fear of flying or a fear of spiders. “If a person has a particular phobia, then their lucid dream environment provides an interesting opportunity to do things like exposure therapy, where you gradually expose yourself to the thing you’re afraid of, in an attempt to gradually overcome that fear,” Dr. Aspy said.
This is possible, he added, because dream environments can provide a realistic enough experience without it actually feeling unsafe. During lucid dreaming, an individual knows that they are not in the real world, so they may safely explore their fears without actually feeling threatened.
There are many techniques that people who want to try lucid dreaming or perfect their lucid dreaming experiences employ. A 2017 study that Dr. Aspy and colleagues conducted tested the efficacy of three common techniques. The first is called “reality testing.” This may involve verifying whether or not you are dreaming both in real life and during a dream.
For instance, throughout the day, a person may want to ask themselves, “Am I dreaming right now?” as they try to make their hand pass through a solid wall. This technique relies on intention. In real life, the wall will remain solid and impenetrable, but in a dream, the hand will easily pass through it.
Another “reality check” is rereading a line of text. In real life, if we read the text on a poster, it will stay the same when we reread it. In a dream, however, the text will constantly shift. Conducting these experiments repeatedly throughout the day may make it easier to remember to conduct them during dreams, thus allowing the dreamer to gain awareness of the dream.
Another technique is “waking back to bed.” This requires setting an alarm to wake oneself up around 5–6 hours after going to sleep. Once awake, the person should aim to remain awake for a while before going back to sleep. This technique is supposed to immerse the sleeper immediately into REM, which is the phase of sleep during which they are most likely to experience a lucid dream.
Lucid dreaming may also occur through “mnemonic induction.” This is another technique that requires intent and lots of practice. With mnemonic induction, a person must repeat to themselves — just before going to bed — a phrase such as, “Tonight, I will notice that I am dreaming,” so as to “program” themselves to achieve in-dream lucidity.
It also appears that those who find it easy to lucid dream do not have much trouble recalling their dreams on a regular basis. “When it comes to lucid dreaming, the strongest predictor of whether you have lucid dreams or not is how good you are at remembering your ordinary dreams,” Dr. Aspy explained.
Therefore, some people who are interested in exploring their dreams with full awareness may find it useful to keep a dream journal in which they record the dreams they have each night in as much detail as possible.
Another practice that may aid lucid dreaming is meditation, or mindfulness, as it “trains” people to become more aware of themselves and their surroundings in general. “A lot of people are interested in meditation and mindfulness as a way to have lucid dreams,” said Dr. Aspy, explaining, “The idea there is that if you’re more aware during the day, you’re more likely to notice that you’re dreaming while you’re asleep.”
One concern that some people express about engaging in lucid dreaming, if they are able to achieve it, is that they may get “stuck” in a dream and find it more difficult to wake up. However, Dr. Aspy explained that this should be no cause for concern; usually, people are only able to sleep (and dream) for a set amount of time every night, so it is unlikely that anyone would get “stuck” sleeping.
“The main reason for that is — pretty much no matter what you do, you are only going to, on average, only have a certain amount of sleep and dreaming every night, according to Aspy. “There are some things that you can do to increase it a little bit, but you can’t really sustain that for very long.”
Another concern some people have is that engaging in lucid dreaming requires focus and effort, which might mean that the sleeper does not get enough rest. In fact, the authors of a 2019 article expressed concern that frequent lucid dreaming may lead to disrupted sleep. However, Dr. Aspy explained that the lucid dreamers with whom he has worked in the past have not reported more tiredness or poorer sleep quality as a result of lucid dreaming.
He did, however, issue a warning to aspiring lucid dreamers:
One example of this is schizophrenia. This condition may cause people to have difficulty distinguishing between hallucinations and real-life events. In some cases, Dr. Aspy told us, lucid dreaming may actually exacerbate the condition. Other scientists ask whether or not encouraging lucid dreaming might blur the line between sleep-wake psychological boundaries. They call for more research into how it might affect certain vulnerable people, including those who experience dissociation.
Lucid dreaming may be a fascinating, helpful, or pleasant experience, but you should consider why you are interested in achieving it and what you expect to get from it before trying to experiment.
Tristan Reed (script), Troy Hudson (narration), HowlingCreations (animation)