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What Is Lucid Dreaming – and How to Do It

Updated September 11, 2019

Dreams can leave us distressed and disoriented; we’re often grateful to return to reality after waking from a nightmare. Other dreams entail pure pleasure, presenting adventures more engaging that our own lives. 

Whatever our dreams involve, we rarely control their content. Instead, we wait to see what sleep will bring. Moreover, we’re typically unaware that we’re dreaming at all; we only realize when we open our eyes.

But what if you could recognize a dream as it unfolds – and influence it accordingly? Would you grant yourself supernatural powers? Could you halt a nightmare in its tracks? No matter your fears or fantasies, the power to orchestrate your dreams is an appealing prospect.

This elusive ability is called lucid dreaming, and it has fascinated great minds since at least the age of Aristotle. Individual experiences differ significantly, but lucid dreamers generally report that they recognize when they are dreaming and alter the course of their dreams as a result.

What exactly does lucid dreaming involve, and what are its potential benefits? Perhaps more importantly, what can you do to acquire this ability? In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into lucid dreaming and suggest some techniques you can use to experience it yourself.

What Is Lucid Dreaming?

Defining lucid dreaming can be difficult: The term encompasses a diverse range of deeply personal experiences. Our dreams are highly intimate and individual, and one person’s sense of lucidity may differ wildly from another’s. 

female hugging comforter in bed

Still, experts agree that a core requirement of any lucid dream is recognizing that you’re actively dreaming without waking up. In other words, lucid dreamers are aware that they are dreaming while continuing to dream – and aware of this awareness. 

By contrast, people are typically unable to distinguish dreams from reality while they are happening. This immediacy makes dreams emotionally impactful: Nightmares terrify us because we believe frightening events are actually taking place.

Once they realize that they are dreaming, many lucid dreamers can influence what happens next in their imagined reality. These individuals report differing degrees of control over their dream content: Some can shape whole realities or exercise superhuman powers, while others can only make more modest choices. Certain dreamers accomplish specific goals, such as athletes who mentally rehearse key movements while dreaming. 

What would your experience of lucid dreaming look like? How much control would you possess? Later on, we’ll discuss some common lucid dreaming techniques to help you see for yourself. 

When Do Lucid Dreams Typically Take Place? 

Most dreams occur during REM sleep, named for the rapid eye movements that occur at this stage of slumber. In contrast to non-REM sleep, the brain is quite engaged during this phase, 

Sleep Cycle Infographic

resulting in an abundance of dream activity. Unsurprisingly, lucid dreams are most common during REM sleep as well.

The science behind lucid dreams remains only vaguely understood, but the limited existing research suggests that the prefrontal and parietal areas 

of the brain are involved. Neuroscientists observe that while these brain areas are typically lethargic during REM sleep, they’re substantially more engaged during the REM sleep of lucid dreamers. 

Whatever the case may be, solid REM sleep is required for lucid dreaming and essential to many aspects of mental health as well. 

How Common Is Lucid Dreaming?

While estimates of the prevalence of lucid dreaming vary significantly, experts generally agree that most people experience at least one lucid dream in their lifetimes. Indeed, sleep researchers say that between 50% and 80% of individuals report some kind of lucid dreaming experience. 

However, most individuals experience lucid dreams only rarely. Indeed, one lucid dream is no guarantee of more to come down the road. A smaller subset have lucid dreams more regularly: According to one 2016 study, roughly 23% of people have them once a month or more.

Lucid Dreaming: Potential Benefits

On the basis of novelty and enjoyment alone, lucid dreaming may seem appealing. But recognizing and controlling one’s dreams presents many other benefits as well, especially for individuals with specific goals and challenges. Here are some important advantages that lucid dreaming may offer, beyond the mere thrill of manipulating your dreams.

Experimentation and Reflection

Some lucid dreamers see sleep as a time for endless experimentation. As they engage and control their dreams, these individuals indulge their creative instincts, shaping invented worlds however they see fit. For artistic or adventurous types, it’s hard to imagine a more appealing canvas. 

Additionally, lucid dreams invite sleepers to take risks and register their emotional reactions – without the fear of real-world consequences. Perhaps you suffer from social anxiety: A lucid dream could be the perfect opportunity to try striking up a conversation with a stranger. Need to have a difficult confrontation with a friend or loved one? First try a dry run while dreaming.

Nightmare Prevention

No one likes nightmares. But for individuals who suffer from certain mental health disorders, upsetting dreams can be devastating. 

Specifically, those afflicted by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can experience intense and recurring nightmares related to difficult parts of the past. As a result, people with PTSD often develop a fraught relationship with sleep, sometimes even suffering from insomnia.

Clearly, the capacity to recognize and alter such dreams would be highly advantageous to people with PTSD. Indeed, researchers are actively working to develop lucid dreaming treatments for PTSD. If successful, these methods could empower individuals to change the course of their nightmares, perhaps resolving some of the feelings related to traumatic events. Moreover, individuals with the power to lucid dream might approach sleep with less apprehension, knowing they can address whatever arises.

Optimal Physical Performance

Some research indicates that lucid dreaming can serve as a valuable rehearsal for complex or arduous physical activity. This phenomenon could prove useful for athletes wary of becoming injured from too much real-world practice. 

Consider a competitive ice skater preparing for a risky jump or a pole vaulter attempting a new technique. A string of failed attempts could leave them sidelined with injuries. Could lucid dreaming provide a consequence-free realm for this kind of high-stakes exercise?

Unfortunately, the research around this possibility remains in its early stages and it’s hardly guaranteed to help the average amateur athlete. Even so, it may be worth a shot: What’s the harm in dreaming of a physical activity that you enjoy?

Potential Concerns: A Note of Caution

While the potential benefits of lucid dreaming are significant, some recent research has raised concerns that attempting to lucid dream could have negative repercussions. One 2018 study found that trying to lucid dream was associated with a range of mental health challenges.

Specifically, the study’s results indicated a connection between lucid dreaming attempts and psychological symptoms such as depression and anxiety. One possible explanation lies in the way lucid dreaming attempts can impact sleep. If you’re trying so hard to lucid dream that your sleep suffers, your mood may decline as well. 

As we move toward discussing lucid dream techniques, keep this research in mind. While you may be eager for a new experience, don’t let your attempts undermine your rest. The benefits of lucid dreaming can be substantial, but they’re not worth sacrificing your sleep.

How to Lucid Dream: Tips and Techniques Backed by Science

While no single technique is guaranteed to deliver lucid dreams, research suggests that several techniques may increase your chances considerably. If you’re eager to experience lucid dreaming, the following methods are worth exploring. Additionally, these techniques do not require any special tools or training, so you’re welcome to try them at any time.

Reality Testing

Scientists suggest that higher metacognition is essential to lucid dreaming: We must be able to analyze our own mental activity critically. Accordingly, doing so while awake may translate to lucidity while dreaming. 

Reality testing involves checking whether you are awake throughout your day, using clues in your environment to gauge whether it’s real. Cultivate this habit while awake, experts say, and it may just translate to your dreams.

How might you assess whether you’re dreaming or awake at any given moment in time? Try by checking the laws of physics: When you touch a wall or another solid surface, does your hand pass through?

Another option is examining your own body. If you pinch your nose and close your mouth, does breathing becomes difficult? If not, there’s a good chance you’re dreaming.  

Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (MILD) Technique

In recent studies, researchers have seen encouraging results from the MILD technique for lucid dreaming. The process, originally developed by an American psychophysiologist, revolves around recalling dreams and silently reiterating your desire for lucidity in your own mind. 

Here’s a simple breakdown of the MILD method that you can try for yourself:

  1. When you’re going to bed, set an alarm to go off in exactly five hours.
  2. When the alarm goes off, try to recall the dream you were having immediately before it woke you. If you can’t recall anything, just think of another recent dream.
  3. Laying down in a comfortable position, recite a silent mantra in your head: “Next time I’m dreaming, I will remember that I’m dreaming.” Concentrate on these words and the sincere intention behind them.
  4. As you repeat this phrase in your head, try to recall the dream you remembered in step two and visualize yourself remembering that you are dreaming.
  5. Continue to repeat steps three and four until you fall asleep or feel sure that your intention to remember that you are dreaming is firmly fixed in your mind. As you doze off, that intention should be the last thing you dwell on.

Wake Back to Bed Technique

The wake-back-to-bed method is fairly self-explanatory. First, set an alarm for two hours earlier than you’d typically wake up. Once you’re awake, stay up for approximately half an hour before returning to sleep. 

Experts suggest that this method allows sleepers to enter REM sleep more quickly and alertly than they would otherwise. Accordingly, they’re more likely to experience dreams, especially lucid ones.

If you’re wondering what to do in those 30 minutes you stay awake, try something that requires your full attention and won’t allow you to doze off accidentally. You could try reading or listening to music, but these might tempt you to nod off before the 30 minutes have elapsed.

REM Sleep: The Key to Lucid Dreaming

As we conclude our discussion of lucid dreaming, we must reemphasize an essential point: To enjoy any kind of dream, you need to get enough high-quality sleep. If you’re serious about experiencing lucid dreaming, you’ll need to establish healthy habits conducive to the REM stage of the sleep cycle.

Even if your attempts at lucid dreaming prove unsuccessful, you’ll still benefit deeply from REM sleep. Researchers have linked REM sleep to everything from improved cognitive performance to reductions in perceived pain. And unlike other stages of sleep, which address somatic regeneration, the REM phase primarily facilitates mental and emotional health. That means more REM rest could boost your mood and keep you sharper throughout your day.

What can you do to increase your REM sleep, both for lucid dreaming and other benefits? Start by getting between seven and nine hours of sleep each night and keeping a regular sleep routine. You might also want to cut back on alcohol, which studies have linked to poor REM sleep. Finally, reconsider what you’re sleeping on. If your mattress doesn’t meet your needs, all your sleep stages will suffer. 

We hope this guide has been both intriguing and informative, offering concrete lucid dreaming techniques that you can attempt yourself. We wish you great sleep and sweet dreams – lucid or otherwise.