How to Have a Lucid Dream (and Why You Might Want to)
If you've ever had a dream in which you knew you were dreaming, congratulations! You've experienced the elusive phenomenon known as lucid dreaming. While some people may periodically have lucid dreams without trying, others achieve them using various techniques. Here's everything else you want to know about this altered state of reality — and how to lucid dream yourself, if you so wish.
What Is a Lucid Dream?
Lucid dreaming is like a state of consciousness between dreaming and wakefulness in which you're aware that you're dreaming. Although lucid dreaming may sound new-age, it's actually a scientifically studied process. "From a physiological perspective, electrical recordings of the brain wave patterns in individuals lucid dreaming reveal that it's a state of hybrid consciousness with features of both REM sleep and the waking state," says Kristen Willeumier, Ph.D., neuroscientist and author of Biohack Your Brain.
Refresher: The average sleep cycle lasts 90 minutes, and the average person goes through five or so sleep cycles per night. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is one of the four stages of sleep that can occur during a sleep cycle. It's the stage when you dream and get the most quality sleep, since you're deep into the sleep state and can't wake easily. Typically, you'll spend 20 to 25 percent of your total time sleep time in REM over the course of a night, assuming an absence of sleep problems.
The difference between a normal dreaming state and a lucid dreaming state is that your frontal lobe (which plays a role in memory, decision-making, and judgment) gets in on the action. "Research demonstrates that during lucid dreaming, the brain is in the REM state while specific regions are shifting to a more awakened state," says Willeumier. Specifically, "the shift involves increased activity of the frontal lobe networks, which are involved in self-reflective, conscious thought." Basically, though regular dreaming and lucid dreaming both occur in REM sleep, your frontal lobe is at work during lucid dreaming, which brings you into a conscious state. (Related: All the Products You Need for Better Sleep, According to a Sleep Snob)
Though lucid dreaming is generally characterized as dreaming while being aware you're dreaming, over time, those who practice it can work to actually control what happens in their dreams in addition to just being aware that they're dreaming.
Why You Might Want to Try Lucid Dreaming
Lucid dreaming is more than just a fun trick. Experts note that it can also be used to quell anxiety, reduce phobias, boost creativity, and more.
Lucid dreams may help you dive deeper into your subconscious, or even help you come up with ideas for creative projects. "You can evaluate patterns, habits, behaviors, thoughts, and feelings and find ways to address them to improve the quality of your life," says Willeumier. Perhaps after noticing a common thread in your lucid dreams, you bring it up in therapy or journal about it.
Or maybe you turn a lucid dream into a sketch, painting, or story. "There have been some case study reports that show lucid dreams are beneficial for enhancing creativity, where you can draw upon the storylines or characters from the dream to use in a creative manner," says Divya Kannan, Ph.D., the lead psychologist at Cure.fit, a digital health and fitness platform.
Health professionals sometimes suggest lucid dreaming for patients who have extreme phobias or recurring nightmares, says Willeumier. "Individuals that struggle with nightmares may be trained through this treatment to control their own dream narrative, so to speak," says Kannan. It can potentially help reduce both the frequency and intensity of nightmares, though more research is required to say for sure, according to an article in Frontiers In Psychology. "Recurrent nightmares can be one of the symptoms of PTSD as well, and [lucid dreaming] be used to treat these," says Kannan. (Related: Why You're Having So Many Weird Dreams During Quarantine, According to Sleep Experts)
Recurring nightmares are common among people with anxiety as well — and that's just one reason lucid dreams can also be useful for reducing anxiety, adds Kannan. Since the dreamer has the conscious ability to change the narrative present in a dream, they can practice feelings of control (feeling a lack of control is a common element of anxiety), which may help reduce fears.
All that said, Kannan notes that you should not practice lucid dreaming to improve nightmares or other mental health issues (anxiety, PTSD, etc.) without guidance from a mental health professional, as lucid dreaming may impact the quality of your sleep and can cause confusion or disorientation. "Nightmares usually represent underlying information that needs to be processed," says Kannan. "Once you address the nightmares and potential solutions with guidance, then you can try it on your own based on recommendations." (Related: Foods That Can Help You Sleep for Some Much-Needed ZZZs)
Willeumier adds that lucid dreaming should not be practiced if you have insomnia or disordered sleep, considering most lucid dreaming protocols involve intentional disturbances in the sleep-wake cycle.
How to Have a Lucid Dream
Lucid dreaming is a skill that can be learned, and it's safe to practice at home as long as you and your doctor feel comfortable, according to Willeumier. Although a 2016 case study reported that about 55 percent of people have experienced lucid dreaming at least once in their lifetime, more research needs to be done to understand if lucid dreams are possible for everyone. (Related: Here's What That Sex Dream Really Means)
If you want to try it out for yourself, there four common techniques that may help train your brain on how to have a lucid dream, according to Willeumier. These include the Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams technique (MILD), Wake Up and Back To Bed (WBTB), Senses Initiated Lucid Dream (SSILD), and reality testing (RT). They can be used alone or in combination with each other. Research has shown that performing more than one of the above techniques together makes patients more likely to lucid dream, but experts aren't sure why.
Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams technique (MILD): The MILD technique involves waking up five hours after going to sleep by setting an alarm or having someone wake you up, then saying a phrase or memory intention to remember the dream (i.e. "The next time I'm dreaming, I will remember the dream"), then going back to sleep. This technique can also be done before you fall asleep.
Wake Up and Back To Bed (WBTB): This technique involves falling asleep for three to five hours, and then setting an alarm to wake you up. You'll then need to find something to occupy yourself with for about 30 minutes, according to Psychology Today. Try reading a book or something similarly relaxing. The task you choose shouldn't be so taxing that you're unable to fall back asleep afterward. Then, once you return to bed, set a firm intention in your head or aloud that you'll remember in order to recognize that you're dreaming as it occurs.
Senses Initiated Lucid Dream (SSILD): This technique is similar to the above techniques, in that it involves waking up after five hours of sleep by setting an alarm or having someone wake you up. But instead of saying a phrase, you think about your three senses — sight, sound, and touch — before falling back to sleep. What are you seeing, hearing, and feeling in that moment you're awake? After you go through each sense, repeat until you fall asleep.
Reality Testing (RT): You can read more about reality testing here, but essentially it involves training yourself to notice a behavior in your waking life that will help you recognize reality in your dream life. For example, if you look at your left hand thoughtfully a few times per day, the theory is you will eventually repeat the habit during a dream, which will trigger you to become lucid without taking you out of the dream entirely.
The purpose of waking yourself up while practicing the MILD, WBTB, or SSILD techniques is to hack into your sleep cycle, so to speak. Experts believe that REM sleep is entered more quickly and for long periods of time the longer you've already been sleeping. So by waking yourself up well into your night of sleep — and planting these seeds of awareness — you might be more likely to enter a REM state that allows you to have a lucid dream.
FYI, as noted before, some studies have found a correlation between lucid dreaming and lowered sleep quality. Authors of a 2019 article in the journal Frontiers In Neuroscience argued that lowered sleep quality might not be a result of lucid dreaming itself but rather a result of lucid dreaming induction techniques — which makes sense, considering you are completely interrupting your night of sleep with many of these protocols. (Related: 5 Ways to Reduce Stress After a Long Day and Promote Better Sleep at Night)
With that in mind, if you have no pre-existing sleep issues and just want to try lucid dreaming, the above methods may help. If you're unsure, don't hesitate to reach out to your physician for advice.