By Stephanie Schiller, Psychology Intern
It is said that we spend about a third of our lives sleeping. Though we are well aware of the importance of a good night’s sleep, in today’s day and age it is easy to think that it is time wasted. You have so much to attend to in your waking hours that it can be daunting to think about the recommended eight hours a night you’ll spend on dreams you may not even want to have. However, as it turns out there is indeed a way to choose the contents of your dreams: Lucid dreaming.
Lucid dreaming is defined as “dreaming while being fully aware of it being a dream” and is often accompanied by the ability to control the said dream. In truth, lucid dreams are quite common but only about a fifth of adults experience them regularly. The term was first coined in 1913 by the Dutch psychiatrist Frederik Willems van Eeden, though the phenomenon dates back to Aristotle. Lucid dreaming has even been used in various religious contexts like Tibetan Buddhism in the form of dream yoga.
Personally, I have experienced lucid dreaming on a couple of occasions. It usually happens when the dream isn’t evolving to my liking. Nightmares are a common trigger for me. I will be choking on my own fear, running away from something and then it hits me: This is not real. It is an epiphany that sets the dream to a halt and my breath returns to me. Sometimes the realization forces me awake. Other times I get to stay for a while and when that’s the case, I have full control of what happens.
What Happens in the Brain?
Despite extensive writing about lucid dreaming, many questions about it have yet to be answered. Nevertheless, some studies have given us some insight into what happens when we lucid dream. We know that the average lucid dream lasts about 14 minutes and occurs during REM sleep (i.e. the stage where most dreams occur). However, Stumbrys and Erlacher (2012) have found signs of lucidity during non-REM sleep.
So what exactly happens in the brain? Unsurprisingly, lucid dreaming can best be described as a hybrid state of consciousness. Studies have found brain activity in areas that are normally deactivated during sleep. Specifically, the frontal cortex and parietal cortical areas used for self-reflective awareness are active, albeit to a lesser degree than when people are fully awake (Baird et al., 2018; Voss et al. 2019). Additionally, it is believed that working memory functions are more active during lucid dreams compared to non-lucid dreams (Baird et al., 2018).
This makes sense for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, the increased self-reflective awareness gives the person the ability to be explicitly aware of themself and by extension their dream state. Furthermore, our working memory which has to do with our behavioral control and planning can explain why we often can control our lucid dreams.
How Do You Lucid Dream?
While lucid dreaming can occur seemingly randomly, La Berge (1980) found that it is a learnable skill. The techniques often used to induce lucid dreams are used when awake to encourage the brain to recognize when it’s in a dream state. Below are some of the methods, which can be used in combination to increase your chances.
First Technique: Reality Testing
With this method, you deduce whether or not you are dreaming, usually by relying on sensory observation. In short, habitually checking whether or not you’re dreaming while awake might make you more likely to do it while asleep. Examples include pressing a finger against your palm and trying to breathe through a pinched nose. If your finger can pass through your palm and you can breathe without issues, well congrats! You are lucid dreaming.
Second Technique: MILD
Most studies researching self-induced lucid dreaming make use of this method. MILD stands for mnemonic induction of lucid dreams and relies on our prospective memory. Prospective memory is defined as the memory for intentions, meaning it aids us in remembering to carry out an action we have planned for the future. With MILD, you repeatedly tell yourself that 1) you will dream and 2) you will be aware that you are dreaming.
Third Technique: Dream Diary
Unless the dream was particularly vivid, we often forget our dreams as the hours pass. Therefore it is best to dream journal earlier in the day. Dream journaling might help by encouraging our brain to become more aware of dreams when they have occurred and when they do occur.
Additional Techniques: Waking Up
Lucidity in dreams varies, meaning that you might find yourself stuck in an unpleasant and uncontrollable dream. Here are a few ways to get your brain to wake up:
- Going to sleep in dreams can signal your brain to wake up in real life.
- Blinking while dreaming can remind your brain to open your eyes.
- Yelling in dreams can be a wake-up call (pun intended) for your brain.
- Reading can activate parts of your brain not usually used in REM sleep.
Are There Any Benefits or Disadvantages to Lucid Dreaming?
Considering that lucid dreams differ from non-lucid dreams in terms of personal experience and brain activity, you may wonder if it has any benefits or drawbacks.
Studies on the self-perceived benefits of lucid dreaming mention increased spirituality, life satisfaction, self-esteem, and a lower degree of stress. Another great advantage has to do with nightmares. If you can control the contents of your dreams, you can hopefully turn a nightmare around. As such, self-induced lucid dreaming as a therapeutic intervention has yielded great results in helping people with PTSD. For example, while Holzinger et al. (2020) found no reduction of the severity in the nightmares for people with PTSD, their anxiety and depression significantly improved.
However, Soffer-Dudek (2020) has expressed some worry that the increased fascination with lucid dreaming is at the expense of not taking possible risks into account. She mentions disrupted sleep quality as being one of the possible downfalls as lucid dreaming has both sleeping and waking characteristics. This may especially be the case if you actively try to become lucid. I have yet to mention a technique in which the person purposely wakes up in the middle of the night to practice the MILD technique for 30 to 60 minutes before falling back asleep. While it is effective for some people, suffice it to say it can be at the expense of your sleep quality and length.
While lucid dreaming is nothing new, our current knowledge is still limited – especially concerning the long-term effects. Moreover, the techniques mentioned are not always effective. Yet despite the uncertainties surrounding the phenomena, lucid dreaming can be a source of adventure and productivity for many.
Baird, B., Castelnovo, A., Gosseries, O., & Tononi, G. (2018). Frequent lucid dreaming associated with increased functional connectivity between frontopolar cortex and temporoparietal association areas. Scientific Reports, 8(1), 1-15.
Cherry, K. (2022, August 28). What Is Lucid Dreaming? During a lucid dream, you’re aware you’re lucid dreaming and can control what happens. VeryWell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-lucid-dream-5077887
Holzinger, B. (2009). Lucid Dreaming – Dreams of Clarity. Contemp. Hypnosis, 26(4), 216-224.
Holzinger, B., Saletu, B., Klösch, G. (2020). Cognitions in Sleep: Lucid Dreaming as an Intervention for Nightmares in Patients With Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1-7.
Konkoly, K., & Burke, C. T. (2019). Can learning to lucid dream promote personal growth? Dreaming, 29(2), 113–126.
La Berge, S. (1980). Lucid Dreaming as a Learnable Skill: A Case Study. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 51(2), 1039-1042.
Stumbrys, T., & Erlacher, D. (2012). Lucid dreaming during NREM sleep: Two case reports. International Journal of dream research, 5(2), pp. 151-155.
Soffer-Dudek, N. (2020). Are Lucid Dreams Good for Us? Are We Asking the Right Question? A Call for Caution in Lucid Dream Research. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 11, 1-7.
Stumbrys, T., Erlacher, D., Johnson, M., & Schredl, M. (2014). The Phenomenology of Lucid Dreaming: An Online Survey. The American Journal of Psychology, 127(2), 191-204.
Voss, U., Holzmann, R., Tuin, I., & Hobson, A. J. (2009). Lucid Dreaming: a State of Consciousness with Features of Both Waking and Non-Lucid Dreaming. Sleep, 32(9), 1191-1200.