Lucid Dreams: A Beginner’s Guide to Dream Control

8 min read

Last Modified 13 May 2022 First Added 10 March 2019

By Charlie Morley

What is lucid dreaming?

Lucid dreaming, also referred to as ‘conscious dreaming’, is the practice of becoming conscious within your dreams whilst still sleeping. Essentially this means that you realise you’re dreaming but remain asleep.

Once you become conscious within a dream, you can then interact with it and direct it at will, communicating directly with your unconscious. These are often particularly vivid dreams that you can remember the following day.

Lucid dreamers often report possessing all cognitive functions despite being asleep. This includes being able to reason, remembering the conditions of waking life and acting voluntarily. The range of possible experiences within lucid dreaming can extend from feelings to fantastical adventures. In contrast to other daydream techniques, however, such as hypnotism or trance, lucid dreamers are asleep rather than awake.

A meta-study (a study of 34 studies) in 2016 found that 55% of the population has had at least one lucid dream in their lifetime and 23% reported experiencing them on a regular basis (once a month or more).

The history of lucid dreams

The term “lucid dream” as nomenclature was not introduced until 1913 by Dutch psychiatrist Frederik Van Eeden. The phenomenon of lucid dreaming has been investigated since antiquity however. Aristotle referred to lucid dreams as part of his Parva Naturali – seven works that investigated the body and soul dating back to 400BC. In eastern cultures, practices to cultivate awareness of dreams and “apprehend the dream state” have occurred for thousands of years too.

Lucid dreaming was mostly consigned to exaggeration and dismissed by most researchers due to the lack of objective data and only phenomenological accounts. Indeed, this was a major stumbling block as the only evidence for their occurrence was the lucid dreamer saying they had had a lucid dream. Norman Malcolm made the argument that it was impossible to simultaneously be dreaming and be self-aware in his 1962 book Dreaming, which aimed to tackle some of the major philosophical issues surrounding sleep and dreaming.

Pioneering work in the 1970s proved that lucid dreams were an objectively verifiable phenomenon that occurs during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Stephen LaBerge made it possible with his ‘eye signals during lucid dreaming’ method. Lucid dreamers were asked to move their eyes in a pre-agreed upon sequence as soon as they became lucid i.e., left-right-left-right. This became the gold standard for objectively verifying lucid dreams through distinct volitional eye movement patterns.

For LaBerge, lucid dreams are dreams during which the dreamer recognises the dream state and can act upon volition. At the same time, Paul Tholey, a professor of Gestalt psychology, outlined that lucid dreams must fulfil seven factors:

  1. Awareness of the dream state
  2. Awareness of the capacity to make decisions
  3. Awareness of memory functions
  4. Awareness of identity
  5. Awareness of the dream environment
  6. Awareness of the meaning of the dream
  7. Awareness of concentration and focus.

What happens when you lucid dream?

Scientific research shows that lucid dreams occur in the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep, which is one of the deepest stages of sleep. The Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry discovered that during lucid dreaming, part of the brain reactivates allowing you to experience the dream state consciously with self-reflective awareness. Therefore, despite common belief, you’re not half awake while lucid dreaming. You’re completely out for the count, except for the part of your brain that has become reactivated. This is evidenced by several studies into the physiology of lucid dreaming.

LaBerge further observed that lucid dreams are associated with heightened physiological activation. Moreover, our heart rates and perspiration are increased compared to non-lucid sleep following research in 1986.

Frequent lucid dreaming has also been associated with increased cortical activation, such as the frontopolar cortex of the brain responsible for higher-order behaviour, which is usually suppressed during sleep. This may explain the increased cognition, insight and vigilance compared to normal sleeping.

Why would we want to dream lucidly?

The most popular reason why people wish to enter lucid dreams is that it’s tempting to enter. Through lucid dreams, we can enter altered states not possible in real life such as flying, without the use of physical substances. Beyond entering a wish-fulfilment state, however, many also report aims such as overcoming fears and healing. A 2016 study found that wish fulfilment was the most frequent application of lucid dreams used in 43% of lucid dreams, followed by solving waking problems (14.5%) and overcoming nightmares (10.8%). Though, the empirical evidence is ambiguous on the effect of lucid dreaming as a source of help.

MBCBT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) has shown us that many psychological problems have their own source that we don’t know very well. Through lucid dreaming, we get to become more mindfully aware. Resultingly, lucid dreaming has been related to our internal locus of control. Yet there is disagreement as to whether a heightened control state is beneficial for mental health. A study of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with PTSD found increases in dream control decreased nightmare distress, yet did not show any beneficial effect on PTSD symptoms. Moreover, a 2016 study found that individuals suffering from psychotic symptoms had significantly higher lucid dream control compared to healthy participants.

Lucid dreams have also been advocated as a therapeutic approach usually aimed at chronic nightmare sufferers. The theory is that through lucid dreams, individuals can take control of their nightmares and end the nightmare scenario. Evidence does suggest that lucid dreams may help treat nightmares by minimising their frequency, intensity and distress caused. However, current studies are scarce and provide inconsistent results.

Is it dangerous to lucid dream?

Lucid dreams are completely safe, and no one has reportedly died from lucid dreaming. In fact, many people want to know how to lucid sleep themselves. There are a few negative side effects that can occur when you experience lucid dreams. For example, lucid dreams can initially be scary if you’re unsure what is or isn’t real, but, after a reality check and the realisation that you are dreaming, you can have more fun with it.

As lucid dreams have been associated with areas of the brain responsible for thought-monitoring, which are usually inhibited during normal sleep, this may disrupt sleep. A 2018 study found that lucid dreaming was associated with poor sleep quality across two samples. Yet, because in absolute terms, lucid dreamers do not spend much sleep time in a lucid dream state, it may be unlikely that lucid dreaming disturbs sleep.

While lucid dreams are possible, lucid nightmares are also possible. During these episodes, your nightmare will feel particularly real and even more frightening. If you’re aware you are dreaming it’s a little less daunting than a regular nightmare and you may even be able to change the topic of your dream.

A common side effect of lucid dreaming is sleep paralysis. This is a condition which also happens in REM sleep, and it is where your mind wakes up while your body is still asleep, causing you to be temporarily paralysed. This is similar to lucid dreaming as your mind is consciously aware in both states. Although sleep paralysis is scary it is not in any way dangerous and will quickly pass. Some even say it’s possible to transform sleep paralysis into lucid dreams by focusing your awareness on re-entering a dream space.

Read more: Sleep Paralysis: The Symptoms, Causes & Treatments

How to lucid dream

It’s tricky to train yourself how to lucid dream and a lot of the time these dreams occur by chance. If you want to give it a try yourself, there are a few techniques you can employ to help you with inducing lucid dreams:

1. Reality testing

Reality testing involves examining your environment and then performing a test to differentiate between waking and dreaming repeatedly throughout the day. Such tests can include things that are impossible in real life but possible in dreams e.g. putting your hand through a solid object or tests that are hard in dreams e.g. reading a book. The rationale is that if reality testing becomes habitual, it will eventually be performed while dreaming and trigger lucidity.

2. Mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (MILD)

MILD involves creating a memory intention to remember that one is dreaming through the repetition of the phrase “next time I’m dreaming, I will remember I’m dreaming”. This is performed during a brief awakening after roughly 5 hours of sleep. A variation of this is the ‘Wake Back to Bed’ technique, returning to sleep after a certain amount of time has passed.

3. Dream recognition

Finally, you can train yourself to recognise the content of your dreams to alert your consciousness the next time you are dreaming. Start by keeping a dream journal and writing down any dreams you can remember. Then you can familiarise yourself with their content and start spotting patterns. For example, once you notice that you often dream of being back at school, you can set a trigger in your mind telling yourself that the next time you’re back at school, you know you’re dreaming.

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