Have you ever become aware that you’re dreaming? Maybe even able to change what happens in your dream and do amazing things like fly through strange landscapes?
It sounds like the stuff of science fiction movies, but it is possible to recognize that you’re dreaming, and even take control of what happens next.
It’s called lucid dreaming, and although it was reported as long ago as ancient Greek times, only in the last few decades have scientists confirmed that it’s a real phenomenon.
Lucid dreaming is something that’s fascinated me since I was a teenager, and something I’ve tried to do many times. Like most people though, it’s unfortunately not something I can usually turn on at will.
I think there’s an element of chance involved, despite trying the various techniques I’ll be talking about here.
In this article you’ll find out what lucid dreams are, how you might be able to learn to control your dreams too, and how some people even use lucid dreams to help them in their daily life.
What are lucid dreams?
A lucid dream occurs when you know that you’re dreaming. You might then take a passive role and observe how the dream unfolds. But some people find they can take action to influence what happens in your dream – your dream’s ‘plot.’
Some sleep scientists have estimated that lucid dreams normally last about 2 minutes on average. They calculated this by measuring sleepers’ eye movements in a lab.
However, if you’ve ever experienced a lucid dream, you’ll probably remember it as being long and elaborate. It may have felt like it lasted as long as an hour or two when you wake up.
This difference between your experience and scientists’ findings show that the research into lucid dreams still has a long way to go to fully understand what happens.
How common are lucid dreams?
Researchers investigating the frequency of lucid dreams had previously thought they were a rare occurrence.
However, surveys report that about 50% of people say that they’ve experienced at least one lucid dream during their lifetime. Furthermore, around 20% of people report that they have a lucid dream at least once a month.
A study of lucid dreaming in children in 2012 suggests that 25% of 6 year olds experience lucid dreams. And that lucid dreams become more common as you get older, up until the age of 16. After your teenage years, the frequency of lucid dreaming seems to decline.
These findings suggest that lucid dreams might be one of the processes that helps a child’s brain to develop into adulthood. They could be a way for the brain to rehearse real life skills by simulating events in the safety of their dream world.
What people do in their lucid dreams
If you theoretically have a blank canvas to do whatever you want to in your dream, it’s interesting to see what people say they do.
The graph below shows the results of a 2012 study into how lucid dreamers change their dream plots.
NB: Some respondents reported having many different lucid dreams, and changed their dream plots in different ways at different times. This means that the total for the graph above adds up to more than 100%.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, most lucid dreamers use their influence over their dream plots to have fun. For example, dreams involving flying, dancing, exploring and other enjoyable activities are quite common.
Others change the details of the environment and scenery of their dream into something more pleasing.
One of the study participants told the researchers how she changed her dream plot:
One of the nicest things [in the lucid dream] was that lemon cake which I enlarged to the size of a house. The best thing was that it really tasted like lemon cake!
Its appears then that the only limit to what happens in your lucid dream is your imagination!
If you have a lucid dream, you can use your influence over your dream plot to get rid of unpleasant thoughts and situations. After having fun, it appears that the next most common use of lucid dreaming is to banish nightmares.
Some researchers even believe that nightmares actually make lucid dreaming more likely. The unpleasant experiences created by a nightmare might lead you to realize that it isn’t in fact real.
Armed with this realization, you’re then naturally more likely to try to influence the dream plot and make it more pleasant and enjoyable.
Improving skills through lucid dreaming
I think the study above shows some of the most interesting types of experiences associated with lucid dreams. But there are potentially practical applications of lucid dreaming too.
For example, some sports psychologists have also become interested in lucid dreaming. They propose that it could be an effective way for athletes to mentally rehearse before competitions.
A springboard diver might practice complex twists and somersaults in their lucid dreams. A skier might practice techniques that they can’t perform in real life. A footballer could practice penalty kicks.
A recent study of German athletes showed that competitors who were able to use lucid dreaming to practice in their sleep felt that they performed better on the day. Over three quarters of athletes who used lucid dreams to practice their skills reported an improvement in their performance.
Even though a lot of research focuses on athletes and sports, there’s no reason why you couldn’t use lucid dreaming to practice other skills which are relevant to your life.
How to have lucid dreams
Lucid dreams can be elusive for most people, and it’s not always as easy as simply deciding to have them. Having said that, deciding you want to have lucid dreams is an important first step.
Following that, there are many different techniques that have been suggested to help people have them. The question is, do they work, and if so, which ones work best?
To find out, Swiss and German sleep researchers undertook a large scale review of many different techniques. They looked at 35 approaches, which they categorized as ’26 employed cognitive techniques, 11 external stimulation and one drug application’.
They also determined that lucid dreams aren’t so easy to have, even with 35 different methods to try out. They concluded the following in their study:
None of the induction techniques were verified to induce lucid dreams reliably, consistently and with a high success rate. Most lucid dream induction methods produced only slight effects, although some of the techniques look promising.
Despite that, there are plenty of people who have learned to lucid dream, so those promising techniques are definitely worth trying if you’re interested in this topic.
Let’s take a look at some of them.
1. MILD technique (Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams)
The MILD technique is one of the most common techniques suggested in books, websites and articles about lucid dreaming, and thought to be one of the most effective.
Some people describe more complex versions of it, often including other techniques alongside. But it’s essentially a simple idea.
The core concept is to repeat a mantra to yourself while lying in bed, with the aim of planting the idea in your mind that you will recognize that you’re dreaming, and so have a lucid dream.
So as you’re falling asleep, you can repeat over and over in your head mantras like:
‘When I’m dreaming, I’ll remember that I’m dreaming.’
‘The next time I dream, I’ll remember to recognize that I’m dreaming.’
The theory goes that it’s important to put the idea in your head that you’ll remember to recognize the fact that you’re dreaming.
If you wake up in the night, you can also repeat the mantra. This can be especially effective if you try to visualize a dream you were just having, and in particular any clear signs it was a fantasy, such as flying. Tell yourself the next time you’re flying you’ll recognize that it’s a dream.
In addition to the MILD technique, it’s also thought to be good practice to add some of the other techniques below. That way you’re really planting the seed in your mind during the day and night.
2. Auto-suggestion / intention
Before sleeping, try to imagine the sort of dream you want to have whilst asleep. Then imagine yourself recognizing that you’re dreaming while holding the dream image in your mind.
By creating an image of your desired dream that’s as vivid and detailed as possible, you’ll be more likely to experience this imagined situation as a lucid dream.
This technique is thought to be particularly successful for people who suffer from nightmares. By picturing a pleasant, safe environment before falling asleep, you’ll be more likely to recognize that you’re having a nightmare.
You’ll then be able to change the dream narrative to the safe place you imagined before you fell asleep.
3. Reflection and reality testing
This technique involves asking yourself throughout the day, “am I dreaming?”
It might sound strange, but what this exercise does is prepare your mind to ask the same question when you’re asleep and actually dreaming.
In theory, self-reflection makes it more likely that you’ll be aware that you’re dreaming. This could turn a ‘normal’ dream into a lucid dream; your awareness will allow you to take control of the dream narrative to focus on whatever you want.
Another reflection technique involves keeping a dream diary. This gets your brain into the habit of focusing on your dreams. Some also argue that learning to remember your dreams in the first place is important for lucid dreaming.
4. Dream re-entry
It’s possible to re-enter a dream after you wake up. If you wake up from a dream and want to try and return to it, there are a couple of steps to follow.
First, keep very still. Next, try and focus your mind on a simple task (such as counting) while you fall asleep. By doing this, you may be able to re-enter the dream you just left, but be able to keep your conscious awareness when you sleep.
This effectively turns the normal dream you were having into one where you can alter and control the plot of the dream. Unfortunately, it isn’t a reliable technique (researchers estimate it works about one in four times).
5. Light and sound stimulation
Some people use commercially available devices to try to induce lucid dreams. These are typically face masks which produce light stimuli while you sleep.
The theory behind these products is that the light stimuli that the masks create will be incorporated into your dreams and trigger lucidity.
Sound stimulation works on a similar basis. A particular type of sound, known as ‘binaural beats,’ are thought to be effective in inducing lucid dreams.
Binaural beats might sound like a left-field music genre, but in fact it’s the technical name for an auditory illusion that occurs when sounds of different tones are played into each of the dreamer’s ears.
You can find many examples of recordings of binaural beats for free online which you can listen to as you fall asleep.
As I’ve mentioned, it appears that teens have more lucid dreams than children and adults. This means that older dreamers may need to try a few different techniques to find a method that works for them.
Some of the methods for inducing lucid dreaming may work best in combination. Sound stimulation on its own might not work for you, but when combined with keeping a dream diary and practicing the MILD technique, you might find your chances of experiencing a lucid dream increase.
As you get better at turning your normal dreams into lucid dreams, you might want to think about how you can shape your dream plots to improve your real life skills.
Some top athletes are using lucid dreaming to practice and hone their abilities. You could do the same with skills that would benefit your waking life.
Your thoughts and tips for lucid dreaming
In some ways I’ve just scratched the tip of the lucid dreaming iceberg in this article, and there are many more theories, techniques and ideas about it.
So I’d love to hear what your experiences are of lucid dreaming. Can you fully control your dreams? Which technique has or hasn’t worked for you?
And if you have any tips to share, I’m sure other readers will appreciate them.