I’m fascinated by dreams. I know I’m not alone in this. As a sleep expert, I’m constantly being asked about dreams. People want to know what their dreams mean (I’m often as stumped as everyone else about the strangeness of dreams). People want to know what purpose dreams serve (scientists who study dreams are still searching for an answer to that very big question).
I’m especially fascinated by a particular type of dream: lucid dreams. In lucid dreams, the dreamer is aware of the fact that he or she is dreaming. During lucid dreams, dreamers often can even manipulate or control their dream as it’s happening.
Dreams have preoccupied humans for as long as we’ve been dreaming. And we’ve always been interested in how to control our dreams, to use them for creativity and insight. Thinkers and discoverers from Aristotle to Edison to Einstein have tried to harness the power of dreams to take advantage of this free-flowing, no-boundaries form of consciousness. That interest continues today, as we explore new ways to intentionally cultivate lucid dreams.
Let’s take a look at some of the latest science on lucid dreaming—what it is, why it happens, and how we might be able to train ourselves to become lucid dreamers and take greater control of our dream worlds.
What’s it like to have a lucid dream?
Have you ever been in the midst of a dream and found yourself thinking about the fact that you’re dreaming? Maybe you’ve had a moment of self-aware laughter at the oddity of a dream, or been able to temper your fear of a frightening dream episode because your mind grasps that what you’re experiencing isn’t “real.” Have you ever been able to control the circumstances or the action of your dream—as though you were the director of your dream “movie” and not only an actor in it?
Self-awareness of dreaming and the ability to control dreams are two central characteristics of the experience of lucid dreaming. They don’t always occur together, however. People who experience lucid dreams may have self-awareness within their dreams, but not the ability to control dream content. And the lucidity of our dreams can be fleeting—that’s to say, bursts of self-awareness within dreams may be very brief.
If you’ve never had a lucid dream, it can be tricky to imagine what this is all like. Think for a moment about what “regular” dreaming is like. During non-lucid dreams, we experience dream experiences as though they’re actually happening to us. It’s only after we awaken and recall our dream—even if that recall lasts for only a moment before we lose our dream memory—that we gain an awareness of having been dreaming.
The difference between this commonplace, non-lucid type of dream and a lucid dream is the ability to reflect on what’s happening in our minds as it is happening. That self-awareness of our thoughts is what’s known as metacognition. It’s generally understood that metacognition—an active ability of the human mind while awake-all but disappears during sleep. Lucid dreaming appears to be an exception.
In lucid dreams, at least two states of consciousness—a wake-like, metacognitive state and a dreaming state–appear to be mixed together. In this extraordinary mixed state of consciousness, we can both experience our dream and see ourselves dreaming—and maybe even control those dreams as they unfold.
Why do we have lucid dreams?
Not all of us do dream with lucidity. It appears to be pretty common for people to experience a lucid dream at some point in their lives. Research suggests that more than half of us may have at least one lucid dream during our lifetimes. But regular lucid dreaming is much more rare than that. And there appear to be a very small number of people who not only experience lucid dreams regularly, but also can exert some control within those dreams.
Scientific studies have shown that our brains behave differently during lucid dreams than in other states of sleep and dreaming. Research has found lucid dreamers displayed significantly higher brain wave frequencies than non-lucid dreamers.
Lucid dreamers also appear to have increased activity in regions of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, areas of the brain that are typically inactive during sleep. These parts of the brain are deeply involved with conscious awareness, a sense of self, as well as language and memory. Recently, for the first time, scientific study documented that the brain activity of lucid dreams shares several characteristics with the waking state of metacognition.
It’s not clear why some people have lucid dreams, while others do not, or why some people experience lucid dreams quite often, while most of us may only have this experience a handful of times in a lifetime.
But there are some interesting clues about what may distinguish lucid dreamers from non-lucid dreamers. Some research indicates that certain personality traits and cognitive styles may be linked to lucid dreams. Imagination and creativity have both been associated with more frequent lucid dreaming. Introspection, and a tendency to rely more heavily on internal thoughts (rather than external information) have also been linked to lucid dreams. Research shows that people who can effectively split their attention between different tasks, or points of focus, may be more apt to have lucid dreams. There’s also some indication that people who experience nightmares more often may be more prone to lucid dreams.
And some research suggests that stronger overall dream recall—a greater ability to remember all types of dreams after waking—may be linked to a greater capacity for lucid dreaming.
Recently, studies have shown lucid dreaming is more common in people with narcolepsy. In narcolepsy, brain activity is atypical, and some of the neural activity that promotes wakefulness and suppresses sleep are altered. This results in poor sleep control, intense and persistent daytime sleepiness, difficulty sleeping at night, and dream-like hallucinations. People with narcolepsy tend also to have more nightmares and better dream recall than people without the disorder.
Some fascinating recent research conducted by scientists in the United Kingdom has also linked lucid dreaming to sleep paralysis, another striking sleep experience. Sleep paralysis occurs when we wake from sleep unable to move or to speak. Both sleep paralysis and lucid dreaming appear to be related to transitions in and out of REM sleep. During REM sleep, the body is largely paralyzed (a condition known as REM atonia). And REM sleep is a sleep stage characterized by vivid, active dreaming.
This research showed an association between the frequency of sleep paralysis and the frequency of lucid dreaming. It also highlighted some important differences between the two sleep phenomena. Sleep paralysis was connected to higher stress and to lower sleep quality. That’s not surprising to me, given how upsetting and scary episodes of sleep paralysis can be. On the other hand, lucid dreaming appeared to be a much more positive sleep experience. In this study, lucid dreaming was not associated with stress or reduced sleep quality. It was linked to more positive waking daydreaming experiences, and to more vivid waking imagination.
Can we induce lucid dreaming?
This a big question, for dreamers and scientists alike. How can we encourage lucid dreaming?
You might be asking: why would people want to encourage lucid dreaming? We don’t know the fundamental purpose of dreaming. But dreams have long been thought to be vehicles for emotional processing, problem solving, idea exploring and creativity. Since ancient times, dreams have been thought to be a forum for both healing and discovery related to our waking lives. In our modern age, rigorous scientific study has given us data to support all of these long-held thoughts about the usefulness of dreams.
Scientists, sleep experts and therapists (including me!) are interested in the specific potential of lucid dreams a therapeutic tool. Working intentionally with lucid dreams can be effective in reducing the intensity, frequency and emotional disruption of nightmares. In a lucid dream setting the dreamer has the capacity to push back against negative and disturbing dream narratives, emotional content and events. In a real sense, the dreamer may be able to re-script a cream to create more positive, empowering, calming outcomes. That makes lucid dreaming potentially useful in a range of psychological situations, including the treatment of waking-life phobias and traumas, issues with mood, and in relationships.
Lucid dreams have also long been sought as a way to enhance creativity—and that continues to be true today. People are understandably curious about how to mine their dream worlds to unlock creative powers, as well as to enhance other cognitive skills. And let’s face it: it’s pretty thrilling and cool to contemplate being able to control our dreams, and bring about self-awareness and self-reflection within them. The experience alone is enticing and desirable for many people.
Ways to promote lucid dreams
There are a number of techniques and tools being explored by scientists as ways to increase lucid dreaming. Studies show that the drug galantamine, which is used to treat dementia, may be effective in increasing the frequency of lucid dreams. Galantamine works to stop the breakdown of acetylcholine, a brain chemical that is an important facilitator of reflective thinking, reasoning, and memory. Acetylcholine also is involved the the regulation of REM sleep. Research is also exploring how sensory and environmental cues might be used to stimulate lucid dreams.
If you’re interested in cultivating your own lucid dreaming abilities, there are some techniques you can try on your own.
Reality testing. This simple technique involves checking in with your surroundings throughout your waking day. As you observe your waking environment, ask yourself: am I awake or am I dreaming? This practice may spur the mind to ask this question inside your dreaming consciousness.
Wake back to bed, or WBTB. Using WBTB, a person sleeps for 5-6 hours, then deliberately wakes for a period of time—as little as 10 minutes, or up to an hour—before going back to sleep. The idea here is to send yourself immediately into REM sleep (which occurs most abundantly in the final third of the night), where most, if not all, lucid dreaming occurs. (One note: don’t use WBTB if it shortens your sleep amounts or leaves you feeling tired and shortchanged on rest. Lucid dreaming isn’t worth actually losing sleep over!)
Mnemonic induction of lucid dreams, or MILD. This is one of the best studied lucid dream techniques. It uses intention to stimulate self-awareness in dreams. Before going to sleep, say to yourself: “The next time I’m dreaming, I will remember I am dreaming.” You can also use MILD with specific dream recollections. Take a moment to recall a dream you had recently, and think specifically about an oddity or anomaly in that dream. (Maybe street signs were in a strange language, or the furniture in your living room was all rearranged.) Visualize yourself returning to that dream and recognizing that anomaly, while also saying to yourself the same intention from above.
A 2017 study investigated these techniques and found that using all three together was effective in stimulating lucid dreaming.
Enhance dream recall. Strengthening your ability to remember your dreams is one way to potentially develop your ability for lucid dreaming. Keeping a dream journal is one way to increase dream recall. Keep the journal at your bedside. As soon as you wake, write down everything you remember about your dream. There’s also some pretty interesting recent research showing that Vitamin B6 can help enhance our memories of dreams.
Scientists at Australia’s University of Adelaide found that taking a high-dose (240mg) of vitamin B6 supplements before going to bed for five consecutive days led to greater dream recall. You can increase your vitamin B6 intake by eating whole grain cereals, legumes, fruits (such as banana and avocado), vegetables (such as spinach and potato), milk, cheese, eggs, red meat, liver, and fish.
Meditate. Meditation is a practice of mindful awareness, of attention to the present moment. Practicing meditation during your waking day will help you develop your capacity for awareness of where your mind is in the moment. That skill may translate into the dream world, increasing your ability for self-awareness—aka lucidity—in your dreams. A 2015 study found that meditation and mindfulness were connected to more frequent lucid dreaming. Other research shows meditation has benefits for dreaming as a whole. Mindfulness practices have been shown to reduce negative and disturbing content in dreams. And as I’ve written about before, mindfulness practices, including meditation, can help you sleep better overall.
Let me know your experiences with lucid dreaming, and any questions you have about our dreaming lives! I’ll continue to talk about lucid dreams as we learn more about this extraordinary form of dreaming. Until then, here’s a link to all of my articles about dreaming.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor