Imagine a world where you’re in control. You write the story, choose the characters, and set the scenery. You experience this world, however briefly, and your actions have no bearing on your real life.
For some people, that’s what it’s like to have a lucid dream. You may not have this much control or anything like the creative freedom in the dreamscape of Inception, but lucid dreams are a step above your usual nightly visions.
Unfortunately, oneirology, the scientific study of dreams, has its limitations. The exact cause, mechanics, potential benefits, and possible dangers of lucid dreaming remain unclear. That said, Nolah has everything you need to know about dreams—or at least the scientific community’s best theories—to your top questions on lucid dreams.
Table of Contents
What Is a Lucid Dream?
Intentional Lucid Dreaming
How to Lucid Dream
The Lucid Dream Experience
Lucid dreams typically occur during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep. Sleep paralysis and lucid dreaming are both dissociated experiences related to REM sleep. In a lucid dream, you have metacognitive awareness, meaning you know you’re asleep and that the unfolding events are not reality.
You may also have some degree of autonomy, allowing you to control your surroundings or make active decisions for yourself in the dream. However, the vividness of lucid dreams and one’s ability to control them vary; some people report very real-like lucid dreams, while others have hazy experiences.
While the exact cause of lucid dreaming remains unknown, researchers have identified a variation in brain activity during lucid dreams and normal dreams. According to a 2018 study:
“The neurobiological basis of lucid dreaming is unknown, but evidence points to involvement of anterior prefrontal cortex (aPFC) and parietal cortex…Our results suggest that frequent lucid dreaming is associated with increased functional connectivity between aPFC and temporoparietal association areas, regions normally deactivated during sleep.”
Studies show that roughly 50 percent of the general population has experienced a lucid dream at least once in their life. Only 20 percent have a lucid dream on a monthly basis, and 1 percent have them multiple nights a week.
Because scientists don’t know the exact cause of lucid dreaming, it’s impossible to say if everyone has the ability to lucid dream. That said, studies have shown a higher frequency of lucid dreaming among certain populations:
Especially if you’ve never had one yourself, the idea of lucid dreams may sound fantastical and alluring. Dreamworlds fascinate people, inspiring countless works of fiction, from Alice in Wonderland to The Sandman. With endless possibilities in dreams, it’s easy to see why some people may want to induce lucid dreaming.
However, scientists simply don’t know enough about lucid dreams to determine if intentional lucid dreaming can help or harm someone psychologically. Below, we discuss the latest research on induced lucid dreaming, but that does not mean we endorse or recommend it. If you choose to try any lucid dreaming strategies, do so at your own risk.
Common motivations for intentional lucid dreaming include wish fulfillment, problem-solving, overcoming fears, and emotional self-healing. Essentially, lucid dreaming gives you a sandbox version of your own life where you can play out different scenarios, decisions, and conversations. There may be therapeutic value to exploration in a realistic environment that doesn’t involve others or affect your physical body. It’s an experimental field, but there are specialists who use lucid dream induction in psychotherapy.
In theory, learning how to lucid dream could also help people who have frequent nightmares. If you can control your dreams or know that their content can’t hurt you, for example if dream about terrorist attack, you may experience less stress and fear.
Early research shows potential; a pilot study with 23 participants found that subjects who received lucid dreaming treatment reported fewer nightmares 12 weeks after intervention. However, a 2022 study exploring lucid dreaming as a nightmare intervention for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder found no improvement in nightmare frequency or PTSD symptoms.
While intentional lucid dreaming has potential for self-exploration and healing, it does come with the risk of psychological distress, particularly among individuals with a history of dissociation or psychosis.
Research at the Consciousness and Psychopathology Laboratory (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev) investigated these concerns. According to a 2018 article:
“...deliberately induced LD frequency (but not spontaneous LD frequency) significantly
predicted a future increase in both dissociation and schizotypy symptoms, over a 2-month period. This supports the idea that popular LD induction techniques (e.g., reality testing, the reflection technique) may impair sleep-wake boundaries and thus induce symptoms characteristic of psychopathologies in which differentiation between reality and fantasy is impaired, such as derealization.”
In other words, intentional lucid dreaming may blur the lines between dreams and reality, posing mental health risks.
Common methods of inducing lucid dreams also have side effects and risks. Many of these strategies—which we’ll discuss in greater depth below—involve intentional sleep disruption. Any behaviors that sacrifice quality sleep or alter your circadian rhythms can negatively affect your overall physical and mental health.
As previously mentioned, about 50 percent of people have a lucid dream at least once. Without ever trying, you may very well have a lucid dream with some degree of metacognitive awareness and control. That said, there are a few strategies that may increase the likelihood of having lucid dreams.
Many of these methods require consistency and patience; even when effective, results aren’t immediate. Typically, individuals trying to induce lucid dreams employ multiple strategies at once.
To complete a reality test, you mentally “check” your person or surroundings to determine if they’re logical and real. For example, you may view yourself in a mirror to observe the reflection, look closely at your hands to assess their detail, monitor your breathing, or look at an analog clock to see if time passes at a consistent pace.
In theory, doing reality tests regularly in your waking life trains your brain to do it in your dreams. If you perform a reality test in your dream and it doesn’t pass, you’ll know you're asleep and can try to control the dream’s content.
Below, we've listed a few telltale signs that you're in a dream. If you want to increase your odds of noticing them in a dream, perform these tests regularly while awake.
Dream journaling enhances dream recall, which has a positive correlation with lucid dream frequency. As soon as you wake up in the morning, try to remember your dreams and write them down. Every few days, re-read what you’ve written. Familiarizing yourself with recurring themes, characters, or locations in your dreams may help you identify your surroundings or situation as a fabrication the next time you dream them.
Wake Back to Bed (WBTB)
The WBTB method involves waking up abruptly from REM sleep—the last stage of the sleep cycle when dreaming occurs—and staying awake for about 30 minutes before going back to bed. Typically, people set their alarm for about 5 hours after going to sleep. To increase the likelihood of having a lucid dream when you fall back asleep, do something that requires alertness while awake, like reading or writing.
Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (MILD)
This strategy combines the WBTB technique with a mnemonic mantra that sparks metacognitive awareness. You set an alarm to wake you up 5 hours into sleep (during the REM stage of a sleep cycle), then repeat a saying (mentally or aloud) that focuses on consciousness. For example, you may choose a phrase like “I will know what I am dreaming” or something similar. Do this for up to 30 minutes, then go back to bed. If it works, thinking this mantra while dreaming will trigger lucidity.
A 2020 study of multiple lucid dreaming techniques found that “the strongest predictor of lucid dreaming was the amount of time taken to fall back asleep after completing the MILD technique.” About 46 percent of participants who completed the MILD technique and fell asleep within 5 minutes experienced a lucid dream.
Senses Initiated Lucid Dream (SSILD)
Once again, this technique requires waking up from REM sleep and staying up for about half an hour before falling asleep again. While awake, mentally rotate through your senses, meditating on what you hear, see, and feel.
Whether you induce a lucid dream or it occurs naturally, the experience is one-of-a-kind. Lucid dreams meld consciousness and dreaming, creating a malleable environment like no other. The science behind lucid dreaming and its potential applications remain largely undiscovered—but hopefully, we’ll know more in the years to come.
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