A lucid dream is when you’re asleep and dreaming, and aware that you’re dreaming. You’re able to recognize your emotions and thoughts as the dream takes place. Often, you’re able to control the lucid dream. You may be able to change the environment, people, or storyline. This type of dream of control could potentially reduce anxiety and nightmares.
What Are Lucid Dreams?
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 these is “yes,” you’ve experienced what is called lucid dreaming.
When you sleep, your brain cycles through rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. Non-REM sleep includes three separate stages. During non-REM, your brain waves, heartbeat, and eye movements gradually slow down.
In REM sleep, your brain is extremely active. Your heart rate and eye movements also increase. Lucid dreaming, like most dreams, usually happens during REM sleep. In a lucid dream, you know that you’re dreaming. You’re aware of your awareness during the dream state.
In the last 20 years, psychophysiologist Dr. Stephen LaBerge has become the pioneer of lucid dreaming research. Not only did he invent one of the most popular lucid dreaming techniques, but he has led many scientific studies on the subject. LaBerge’s work has helped researchers discover therapeutic benefits of lucid dreaming. It may be useful in treating conditions like PTSD, recurring nightmares, and anxiety.
Interestingly, lucid dreaming may be associated with narcolepsy, a clinical sleep disorder that causes people to fall asleep quickly at any point during the day. Many people with this condition report having extremely vivid, strange dreams that feel true to real life. The reason behind vivid night dreams in those with narcolepsy may be related to the stage of sleep called REM, or rapid-eye movement. A person with narcolepsy often enters this deep dream stage very quickly, which means he or she has the chance to experience a vivid dream in a short amount of time.
How to Experience Lucid Dreaming
About half of all people have experienced one or more lucid dreams in their lifetime. However, having frequent lucid dreaming is rare — less than 20% of people have lucid dreams at least once a month. There are some techniques that you can attempt to increase your chances of experiencing a lucid dream.
In general, lucid dreaming techniques train your mind to notice your own consciousness. They’re also designed to help you regain or maintain consciousness as you enter REM sleep.
Reality testing, or reality checking, is a form of mental training. This might involve verifying whether you are dreaming both in real life and during a dream. It increases metacognition by training your mind to notice your own awareness.
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, while in a dream the hand will easily pass through.
Conducting these experiments repeatedly throughout the day may make it easier to remember to conduct them during a dream state, thus allowing the dreamer to gain awareness of the dream.
The following are common reality checks that people use to lucid dream:
- Breathing. This popular reality check involves pinching your nose and seeing if you can breathe. If you can still breathe, you’re dreaming.
- Time. If you’re dreaming, the time on a clock will constantly change. But if you’re awake, the time will barely change.
- Hands. Look at your hands. Do they look normal?
- Solid objects. Push your hand against a wall or table and see if it goes through.
- Mirrors. Check your reflection to see if it looks normal.
It’s recommended to pick one reality check and do it multiple times a day. This will train your mind to repeat the reality checks while dreaming, which can induce lucid dreaming.
Your level of metacognition is similar in your waking and dreaming states. So, higher metacognition when you’re awake could lead to higher metacognition when you’re dreaming.
This may be related to the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which plays a role in both reality testing and lucid dreaming. To enhance your metacognition, you can do reality tests while you’re awake.
Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (MILD)
In 1980, LaBerge created a technique called mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (MILD). It was one of the first methods that used scientific research to induce lucid dreams. MILD is based on a behavior called prospective memory, which involves setting an intention to do something later. In MILD, you make the intention to remember that you’re dreaming.
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.
Wake Back to Bed (WBTB)
Wake back to bed (WBTB) involves entering REM sleep while you’re still conscious. There are several versions of WBTB, but one of the most common is to follow this pattern:
- Set an alarm for five hours after your bedtime
- Go to sleep as usual
- When the alarm goes off, stay up for 30 minutes, enjoying a quiet activity like reading
- Fall back asleep
Once awake, the person should aim to remain awake for a while, before going back to bed. This technique is supposed to immerse the sleeper immediately into REM, the phase of sleep during which they are more likely to experience a lucid dream. When you go back to sleep, you’ll be more likely to lucid dream.