An Introduction to Lucid Dreaming

Most of us have had the experience of having a dream so real, we wake up wondering if it really happened. Maybe we’ve also had the experience of knowing we are dreaming, and even knowing ourselves as directors of the action in the nighttime movies of our minds. 

Why do some dreams feel so real?

The stuff of dreams is part of our brain’s sleep time work to process our memories. That’s why our dreams often feature people, places, and thoughts we have encountered in our waking moments. Experts believe that such processing helps us not only to retain memories, but also to solve problems and process emotions. The most real-seeming dreams occur during the REM (rapid eye movement) phase of sleep and are known as vivid dreams.

Lucid dreaming can also feel very vivid and real but with the added dimension of self-awareness. Lucid dreams are the product of a brain state between REM sleep and being awake. Parts of the brain that are usually at rest while sleeping become active during a lucid dream. This results in a very heightened experience of reality where your physical sensations are intensified. Foods can be tastier, music sound lovelier, and even sex can feel better than in waking life. Some have compared it to the experience of virtual reality in that it is completely accurate yet independent of the physical world. Flying dreams are a common example of an otherworldly power in a lucid dream.

Is lucid dreaming dangerous?

Lucid dreaming is not generally dangerous, but it can have drawbacks. Painful feelings are amplified as much as the pleasant ones. And nightmarish experiences may be traumatizing, particularly if you have a mental disorder that makes it more difficult for you to distinguish between what is real and what isn’t. The most common negative consequence of lucid dreaming is that it can cause sleep disruption.

On balance, however, lucid dreaming is benign and can even be helpful. Scientists have learned that lucid dreamers show greater ability during waking hours to solve problems requiring insight. It can also be beneficial in combatting sleep disorders caused by nightmares. The practice of learning to lucid dream to stop nightmares from occurring or recurring is called “lucid dreaming therapy.” “Dream yoga” in Tibetan Buddhism is taught as a way to transform lucid dreams into a window to the deepest experiences of reality. 

Is lucid dreaming rare?

Lucid dreaming is relatively rare and varies across populations and age groups. While it is normal to lucid dream, only half of us have personally experienced a lucid dream. Roughly one in five have them at least monthly, and a mere one in a hundred lucid dream on a weekly basis. Researchers have also noted differences in frequency by different cultures, and young children and adolescents report higher rates of lucid dreaming than adults.

How can you tell if you are lucid dreaming? 

Psychologists have identified four levels of lucid dreaming. The first is simply that you know you are dreaming. Next is having the ability to deliberately take actions in your dream, like walking down a hallway, or eating an ice cream cone. The third level occurs when you can change your dream surroundings—perhaps from your living room to a baseball stadium? The fourth and highest level is when you can control the actions of other people in your dreams. Maybe you get your favorite movie star to drive you to work!

What triggers lucid dreams?

Lucid dreams sometimes just happen randomly, but there are ways to induce them. In addition to adhering to good sleep hygiene practices, beginners will often start by keeping a dream journal. The practice of recording your dreams reinforces your ability to remember more of them, in more detail. This sets the stage both for recognizing when you are dreaming and for remembering what happens in your lucid dream. 

The next step is to practice “reality testing.” During the day, take note of basic experiences like pinching your nose or looking in a mirror. You will restrict your air flow or see a familiar image, respectively. Repeat these reality checks during the day until you feel you really know them. If these experiences then pop up in a dream, chances are they will be quite different—you are able to breathe or that face in the mirror is not your own. That will be a signal that you are dreaming.

Techniques to induce lucid dreams include telling yourself before you go to bed to have one tonight. Another is to set an alarm to wake up after five hours of sleep when you are more likely to be on the edge of REM sleep. Then when you are still awake, initiate a sleep-like state while maintaining your consciousness.

How do you get out of a lucid dream?

If you feel you need to exit a lucid dream, there are several recommended practices. These include: 

  • Crying for help. The sound of your own voice can serve to wake you up.
  • Blinking. This often happens when we first wake up normally.
  • Making yourself fall asleep in your dream. Then you can wake up.
  • Trying to read something in your dream. Reading is not possible in REM sleep, so you have to wake up to do it.

There are many reasons, including recreational, creative, and spiritual, to undertake the practices of lucid dreaming. Scientists, however, are beginning to see this ability as a possible key to some mysteries of consciousness and as an aid to diagnosing and treating some illnesses and brain injuries. Whatever the motivation, lucid dreams help us to explore and cross the boundaries between our conscious and unconscious worlds.

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