Dream Incubation – Can You Decide What to Dream?

5 Min Read | By Nat Took

Last Modified 22 February 2024   First Added 6 October 2021

This article was written and reviewed in line with our editorial policy.

What you do and see throughout the day will likely influence your dreams, as dreaming is thought to be a thinking process and a continuation of your thoughts throughout the day. With this in mind, can you influence what you dream about? Dream incubation is the practise of deciding what you dream.

What is dream incubation?

Dream incubation is a technique that is thought to cause a certain dream topic to occur when you sleep. This is used for recreation or in an attempt to solve a problem.

Related: The 10 Most Common Dreams You Can Expect

Dream incubation is often confused with lucid dreaming, but these are very different. In lucid dreaming, you control your dreams when asleep while dream incubation is about influencing your dreams before and as you fall asleep.

It is generally seen as a ritual that will help give direction to your dreams. The idea of this is to turn your conscious attention onto something you want to understand better so that your subconscious can provide the answers.

A man sleeping on a wooden bed, hugging the striped duvet.

Why use dream incubation?

Dream incubation is best done when you want help from your subconscious. This could be with finding solutions to a problem that you’ve been struggling with, or a decision in your life. It can also be used if you need closure from a grievance or from childhood memories that have resurfaced.

Bear in mind trying to instigate dreams rarely works if you simply want to dream about something nice, say your recent holiday. There has to be full intent behind dream incubation, it cannot be done for simple curiosity. Your subconscious wants to work things out in your sleep that are important.

How to dream about what you want with dream incubation

Also called targeted dream incubation, using rituals can help you to dream about what you want. Or at the very least, guide you to specific themes. The way to do this is to target NREM1, which is the state of entering sleep, and the first stage of the sleep cycle. Falling asleep isn’t the on/off process that most people assume it is; it takes time. During the NREM1 stage, you have begun to sink into sleep, but your senses are still active. The best way to achieve successful dream incubation is by applying certain practises to the different parts of your sleep routine:

1. Before going to bed

Before you go to bed, you need to set your intention for what you want to dream about. The clearer your intention, the more likely that you can direct your dream. So, think about what in your life needs clarity or attention and what you want to achieve by dreaming about it.

If you’re unsure of how to do this best, a good start is simply using pen and paper. Write down anything that comes to mind. Give yourself about 15 minutes. If you can’t think of anything, to begin with, write down the fact that you don’t know as doing this can help you move past the initial block.

As you’re writing to find your intention, keep it positive. For example, instead of writing ‘why am I so stressed?’ write ‘what mindfulness techniques would work for me?’ As you whittle down your intent, you want it to become a question or statement. It should also be one simple sentence, that uses the fewest number of words. If you’re asking a question, be sure you want to know the answer too. If you fear an answer, your subconscious will block the incubation.

Once you have found your intention, repeat it to yourself throughout the day. You can do this in your head or out loud.

If you’re planning on trying dream incubation, it’s also a good idea to cut down on caffeine, sugar, and alcohol during the afternoon. Having good sleep hygiene can make a big difference.

2. As you go to bed

If you want to control what you dream, you must go to bed mindfully. Have your intention in mind as you prepare for sleep. So, stop screen time at least an hour before bed, have a relaxing bath, or play some relaxing music at this time. If you like to journal, write down what your intention is.

You can also begin to visualise your dream. Imagine what it is you want to dream about and see yourself immersed in the dream. You can also use sensory aids. For example, if you want to dream about someone, have their picture next to your bed and look at it before going to sleep. If you want to direct your dream to solve a problem, gather data for the problem and look over it before bed.

As you’re falling asleep, recite your intention, either aloud or in your head. Keep doing this until you fully believe it.

woman lying on white bed stretching her arms towards the ceiling

3. After you wake up

When you wake up it’s best not to get up straight away, instead, stay relaxed and try to remember your dream. If you can’t remember, try to remember an emotion connected to the dream. Write down anything that comes to mind.

Be patient with dream incubation. It’s likely you won’t have successful dream incubation the first time you try. For most, it takes a lot of time. So be patient. Keep setting and thinking about your intention throughout the day. Sometimes you may be successful but not realise the connection between your intention and the imagery in your dream. That’s why it’s important to note down what you dream and look over it again.

You should also be aware of your subconscious pushing back on your dream incubation. If your subconscious sees what you’re trying to incubate as unimportant, it will often find a way in your dream of letting you know.

If you want to know more about dreams, what they mean, and ways to control them, check out our articles about dreams.

About the author

More from the Sleep Matters Club