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.
Lucid dreaming has recently been popularized by movies such as Inception.
The movie features impressive dream artisans who are able not just to control the shape and content of their own dreams, but also those of others.
Such feats of dream manipulation may not seem possible to the same extent in our real lives, but they are not altogether absent.
In fact, certain people are able to experience something referred to as lucid dreaming, and some of them are able to control some of the elements of their nightly dreams.
In his much-cited poem, Edgar Allan Poe once wrote, "All that we see or seem/Is but a dream within a dream."
Whether or not he is right is a matter for philosophers to debate, but the boundary between dream and reality is something that lucid dreaming seems to explore.
In this Spotlight, we look at what qualifies as lucid dreaming, whether these experiences can have any practical applications, and how one might be able to become a lucid dreamer.
What is lucid dreaming?
Typically, when we dream, we are not conscious that the dream is not real. As a character from the movie Inception quite aptly puts it, "Well, dreams, they feel real while we're in them right? It's only when we wake up then we realize that something was actually strange."
However, some of us are able to enter a dream and be fully aware of the fact that we are actually dreaming.
"A lucid dream is defined as a dream during which dreamers, while dreaming, are aware they are dreaming," specialists explain.
The very first record of lucid dreaming appears to feature in the treatise On Dreams by the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. In it, he describes an instance of self-awareness during a dream state.
"[If] the sleeper perceives that he is asleep, and is conscious of the sleeping state during which the perception comes before his mind, it presents itself still, but something within him speaks to this effect: 'The image of Koriskos presents itself, but the real Koriskos is not present,'" he wrote.
It is unclear how many people actually experience lucid dreaming, though certain studies have tried to gather information regarding its prevalence; and it seems that this phenomenon may be quite common.
For instance, a study conducted in Brazil surveyed 3,427 participants with the median age of 25. The results of the survey indicated that 77 percent of the respondents had experienced lucid dreaming at least once.
When does it happen, and what is it like?
Like most dreams, lucid dreaming will typically occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. For some people, it occurs spontaneously. However, others train themselves to start dreaming lucidly, or to become better at it.
As one experienced lucid dreamer told Medical News Today:
"[M]y lucid dreaming [...] occurs when I'm waking up, or sometimes if I've woken up briefly and I'm going back to sleep. Nowadays I can pretty much do it on a whim, as long as I'm in that half-asleep half-awake process."
The degree to which a person can influence their dream if they are lucid while dreaming also varies to a great extent. Some people may simply wake up immediately upon realizing that they had been dreaming.
Other people may be able to influence their own actions within the dream, or parts of the dream itself. The lucid dreamer who spoke to MNT told us that she was able to manipulate the dream narrative in order to create a pleasant experience for herself.
"Usually I can control the narrative in the dream, so for example if I'm unhappy with the way things are going in the dream, I can change it," she explained.
What are its applications?
Lucid dreaming is certainly an attractive and fascinating prospect — being able to explore our own inner worlds with full awareness that we are in a dream state is intriguing and has an almost magical flavor about it.
However, can lucid dreaming have any practical applications?
Dr. Denholm Aspy, at the University of Adelaide in Australia, is a researcher who specializes in lucid dreaming.
He explained for MNT that this experience can actually be therapeutic.
Its main application, Dr. Aspy said, is to address nightmares — especially recurring nightmares, which may affect a person's quality of life.
The practice of learning to lucid dream in order to stop nightmares from occurring or reoccurring, he explained, is called "lucid dreaming therapy."
"If you can help someone who's having nightmares to become lucid during that nightmare," he explained to us, "then that gives them the ability to exert control over themselves or over the nightmare itself."
"[L]et's say you're being attacked by someone in a nightmare. You could try to talk to the attacker. You could ask them 'why are you appearing in my dreams?' or 'what do you need to resolve this conflict with me?'"
Dr. Denholm Aspy
"Some people," he added, "take on superpowers or special abilities, [so] they can fight back against the attacker. And then you can also try to escape, so things like flying away, or even doing techniques to deliberately wake up from the nightmare."
Lucid dreaming also has the potential to help people with phobias, such as fear of flying or animal phobias including arachnophobia (the fear of spiders).
"If a person has a particular phobia, then their lucid dream environment [...] provides an interesting opportunity to do things like exposure therapy, where you gradually expose yourself to the thing you're afraid of, in an attempt to gradually overcome that fear," Dr. Aspy said.
This is possible, he said, because dream environments can provide a realistic enough experience without it actually feeling unsafe. During lucid dreaming, the individual knows that they are not in the real world, so they may safely explore their fears without actually feeling threatened.
'Lucid dreaming is a kind of creative activity'
At the same time, lucid dreaming is also attractive as an unusual means of entertainment — kind of like the immersive experience of virtual reality.
An experienced lucid dreamer might be able to "go on an adventure" and interact with people and things in a way that they may not be able to do in real life.
The lucid dreamer who spoke to MNT said that she thinks of the experience as something akin to storytelling, which makes her feel happier upon waking up:
"Lucid dreaming for me is a kind of creative activity — I get to explore what my dreams are telling me a little bit versus what my conscious mind wants. It's not got much use apart from just being interesting and it makes me happy usually [...] I tend to wake up quite content."
"I do lucid dreaming for fun," she went on to say. "I enjoy it, and as someone who enjoys storytelling it's a similar experience to writing a story or playing a video game. You get immersed in a narrative that involves you in some way."
Techniques for lucid dreaming
There are many techniques that people who want to try and achieve lucid dreaming — or who want to perfect their lucid dreaming experiences — employ.
A study conducted by Dr. Aspy and colleagues last year tested the efficacy of three common techniques.
The first is known as "reality testing." This might involve verifying whether you are dreaming both in real life and during a dream.
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.
Another "reality check" is rereading a line of text. In reality, if we read the text on a poster, for instance, it will stay the same when we reread it. In a dream, however, the text will constantly shift.
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.
Another technique is "waking back to bed," and it requires setting an alarm to wake up the sleeper after about 5 or 6 hours of going to sleep.
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.
Finally, lucid dreaming may eventually occur through "mnemonic induction." Once more, this is a technique that requires intent and lots of practice.
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.
Dream journals and meditation
It also appears that those who find it easier to lucid dream do not have much trouble recalling their dreams on a regular basis.
"When it comes to lucid dreaming, the strongest predictor of whether you have lucid dreams or not is how good you are at remembering your ordinary dreams," Dr. Aspy explained.
Therefore, some people who are interested in exploring their dreams with full awareness may find it useful to keep a dream journal in which they record the dreams that they have each night in as much detail as possible.
The lucid dreamer that we interviewed corroborated this idea by noting that, for a long time, she used to enjoy writing down her dreams upon waking up.
Another practice that may aid lucid dreaming is meditation, or mindfulness, as it "trains" people to become more aware of themselves and their surroundings, in general.
"A lot of people are interested in meditation and mindfulness as a way to have lucid dreams," Dr. Aspy mentioned, explaining, "The idea there is that if you're more aware during the day, you're more likely to notice that you're dreaming while you're asleep."
Concerns and risks
One concern that people express about engaging in lucid dreaming, if they are able to achieve it, is that they may get "stuck" in a dream and find it more difficult to wake up.
However, Dr. Aspy explained to MNT that this is not a worrying risk; normally, an individual is only able to sleep — and dream — for a set amount of time every night, so it is unlikely that anyone would get "stuck" sleeping.
He told us, "The main reason for that is — pretty much no matter what you do you are only going to, on average, only have a certain amount of sleep and dreaming every night. There are some things that you can do to increase it a little bit, but you can't really sustain that for very long."
Another concern is that engaging in lucid dreaming requires focus and effort, which might mean that the sleeper does not get enough rest.
However, Dr. Aspy again reassured us, noting that the lucid dreamers with whom he has worked in the past have not reported more tiredness or poorer sleep quality as a result of lucid dreaming.
At the same time, in speaking to us, he also issued a warning to aspiring lucid dreamers:
"I generally recommend that people don't pursue lucid dreaming if they have certain mental health problems."
One example is schizophrenia, which may cause people to be unable to distinguish between some of their thoughts or fears and real-life events. In some cases, Dr. Aspy noted, lucid dreaming may actually exacerbate the condition.
Lucid dreaming may be a fascinating, helpful, or pleasant experience, but you should still consider why you are interested in achieving it, and what you expect to get from it, before trying to experiment with dream states.