During lucid dreams, the sleeper is aware a dream is taking place but will not leave the dream state. Some further define these phenomena as dreams in which the sleeper can exercise control over different aspects of their environment, though studies have found this is not always the case, and that certain people are more predisposed to “lucid dream control” than others.
Surveys show that roughly 55% of adults have experienced at least one lucid dream during their lifetime, and 23% of people experience lucid dreams at least once per month. Some research has pointed to potential benefits of lucid dreaming, such as treatment for nightmares. However, other studies argue lucid dreams may have a negative impact on mental health because they can disturb sleep and cause dreamers to blur the lines between reality and fantasy.
How Do Lucid Dreams Work?
Lucid dreaming has been studied extensively, but much is still unknown about the phenomenon. Some researchers believe activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain is related to the development of lucid dreams. During non-lucid dreams, people are cognizant of objects and events within the dream state, but they are not aware of the dream itself and cannot distinguish being asleep from being awake. This has been attributed in part to lower levels of cortical activity.
Lucid dreams are different because sleepers are aware they are dreaming and, in some cases, can exert control over their surroundings. Some studies have linked these characteristics to elevated cortical activity. In sleepers who have been observed during lucid dream studies, prefrontal cortex activity levels while they are engaged in lucid dreaming are comparable to levels when they are awake. For this reason, lucid dreaming may be referred to as a “hybrid sleep-wake state.”
While normal dreams can occur during different stages of the sleep cycle, studies have shown most lucid dreaming takes place during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. REM sleep constitutes the fourth and final stage of a normal sleep cycle; the first three stages consist of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. The general consensus among researchers today is that lucid dreams originate from non-lucid dreams during the REM sleep stage. In this sense, lucidity is an aspect of dreams that can be triggered using different means.
How Are Lucid Dreams Studied?
Spontaneous lucid dreams are rare and difficult to foresee. To study these phenomena, researchers typically induce lucid dreams using different methods. Some of the most common techniques include the following:
- Reality testing: This technique requires participants to perform tests throughout the day that differentiate sleep and waking. For example, a participant may ask themselves whether or not they are dreaming during the day; since self-awareness is not possible during non-lucid dreams, being able to answer this question proves they are in fact awake. Reality testing is based on the notion that repeated tests will eventually seep into the participant’s dreams, allowing them to achieve lucidity and distinguish between the dream state and waking.
- Mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (MILD): This technique involves training oneself to recognize the difference between dreams and reality during sleep. Subjects wake up after a period of sleeping and repeat a variation of the following phrase: “Next time I’m asleep, I’ll remember I’m dreaming.” Researchers will induce lucid dreams using the MILD method by waking up subjects after five hours of sleep.
- Wake back to bed (WBTB): Some people can induce lucid dreams using this technique, which involves waking up in the middle of the night and then returning to sleep after a certain amount of time has passed. WBTB is often used in conjunction with the MILD technique. When these two methods are used together, the most effective length of time between waking up and returning to sleep appears to be 30 to 120 minutes.
- External stimulation: This technique involves flashing lights and other stimuli that are activated while the subject is in REM sleep. The rationale behind this method is that the sleeper will incorporate this stimuli into their dreams, triggering lucidity in the process.
Additionally, some studies have involved inducing lucid dreams using certain types of drugs and supplements.
Once a subject has fallen asleep, researchers can measure levels of activity in the prefrontal cortex and other areas of the brain using a device known as an electroencephalogram (EEG), during which metal discs are attached to the subject’s scalp. An electrooculogram (EOG) may also be used to track eye movements to determine when the subject enters REM sleep. For some studies, subjects are asked to make specific eye movements while sleeping to signal they are having a lucid dream. EOGs are particularly helpful for detecting these movements.
Are Lucid Dreams Good or Bad For You?
The popularity of self-induced lucid dreams has grown in recent years. The most common reasons for inducing lucid dreams include wish fulfillment, overcoming fears, and healing. Some studies have also shown a link between inducing lucid dreams and overcoming the fear and distress associated with nightmares.
However, there is much debate over whether inducing lucid dreams is beneficial or harmful to mental health. Some researchers argue that creating lucid dreams intentionally blurs the lines between dreaming and reality, and that this can have negative implications for one’s long-term mental health. Lucid dream therapy has shown to be largely ineffective for some groups, such as people with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Some researchers have introduced another problem with lucid dreams: they are potentially disruptive to sleep. Since lucid dreams are associated with higher levels of brain activity, it has been suggested these dreams can decrease sleep quality and have a negative effect on sleep hygiene.
Additionally, people with narcolepsy – a sleep disorder characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness and irresistible sleep attacks – are more likely to experience frequent lucid dreams.
The study of lucid dreams is fairly new and largely incomplete. More research is needed to better understand these types of dreams and pinpoint why some people are predisposed to more frequent and intense lucid dreams.
Tips to Lucid Dream
Triggering lucid dreams can be fairly easy with the right methods. Those who are inexperienced with these phenomena may be able to induce a lucid dream for themselves through the following means:
- Optimize your bedroom for sleeping: Practicing good sleep hygiene can help to ensure a healthy sleep-wake cycle, including a sufficient amount of REM sleep (when lucid dreams are most likely to occur). Make sure the bedroom temperature is comfortable; 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18.3 degrees Celsius) is widely considered the ideal sleep temperature. You should also keep the room dark and relatively quiet. Blackout curtains, sleeping masks, and other accessories help reduce light levels, while ear plugs and sound machines can block disruptive outside noises.
- Assess your reality: Throughout the day, practice “reality testing” by checking your environment to confirm whether you’re sleeping or awake. In a dream, the environment may look familiar but there will be inconsistencies and distortions compared to reality. By performing these reality checks several times per day, you may acquire the ability to test your reality during dreams.
- Try the MILD and WBTB methods: For the mnemonic induction of lucid dreams technique, wake up after sleeping for five hours (use an alarm if needed) and tell yourself to remember you’re dreaming once you’ve fallen asleep. The MILD method has proven highly effective in some studies. The wake back to bed technique also requires waking up after five hours of sleep. With WBTB, you’ll want to stay awake for about 30 to 120 minutes before returning to sleep.
- Keep a record of your dreams: Every morning, write down everything you remember about your dreams in a journal. You can also use a voice-recording device to log your dream memories. Detailed records will allow you to recognize dreams more easily once you fall asleep, which in turn can help trigger lucid dreams.
- The power of suggestion: Some people can successfully induce lucid dreams merely by convincing themselves they will have one once they fall asleep.
- Pick up a lucid dream-inducing device: Portable devices that induce lucid dreams are widely available today. These devices, which often come in the form of sleep masks or headbands, produce noises, flashing lights, vibrations, and other cues that act as auditory, visual, and/or tactile stimuli. Expect to spend at least $200 on one of these devices.
- Experiment with gaming: Some studies have shown a link between playing video games and frequency and control of lucid dreams. This is especially true of interactive video games.
Other techniques may be used to induce lucid dreams. These include transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which painlessly applies electrical currents to different areas of the brain, and certain types of medications. There is little scientific research to demonstrate the effectiveness of these methods. These techniques are also only conducted in controlled clinical laboratory settings and should never be attempted by an individual unless under the supervision of a doctor or another credentialed medical or psychological professional.