Picture this: You’re walking through a forest when a butterfly alights on your shoulder. Then a bird alights on your other shoulder. Then you leap off the ground and begin soaring through the air, your butterfly and bird friends close by your side. This would seem impossible—after all, humans can’t fly. But you know you’re not bound by the usual laws of physics, because you know that you are in a dream. This is the kind of thing that can happen when people experience lucid dreaming.
Lucid dreaming involves being conscious within a dream world. If you’ve never experienced this, it might sound like hokum. Many people who haven’t lucid dreamed question, is lucid dreaming real? Or is it simply the stuff of overactive imaginations?
The reality is that research suggests most people will experience at least one lucid dream in their lifetime—and many people will experience lucid dream states more frequently than that.
Note: The content on Sleepopolis is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t be taken as medical advice, and it shouldn’t take the place of medical advice and supervision from a trained professional. If you feel you may be suffering from any sleep disorder, chronic pain, or medical condition, please see your healthcare provider immediately.
While research into lucid dreaming is still relatively young, so far studies suggest there may be several benefits to occupying this unique brain state. Here’s what lucid dreaming is, how it might benefit you, and how to induce lucid dreaming so you can enjoy these benefits on the regular.
What Is Lucid Dreaming?
Lucid dreaming occurs when a person who is dreaming is aware of the fact that they’re dreaming even as the dream takes place. It’s basically like being “awake” inside your own dream. Lucid dreaming is not the same as daydreaming; you must be dreaming in your sleep—and aware that you’re doing so—in order for a dream to qualify as lucid.
During a lucid dream, a person is able to recall their identity from waking life, feel like they physically inhabit their body, and think clearly. Some people who lucid dream find they’re simply able to observe whatever’s happening in their dream, while others may be able to make choices within their dream and influence whatever’s taking place in the dream.
Lucid dream worlds may take any of the same forms as a “regular” dream. They might mimic real life or be filled with fantastical or surreal creatures, settings, and so on. People can lucid dream in any type of dream world, and the sensations they experience there are likely to be similar to the sensations they experience in waking life. (For example, some research has found that orgasming during a lucid dream may be similar to orgasming in waking life.)
Researchers are still working to understand the ins and outs of lucid dreaming, but what they’ve figured out so far is that lucid dreaming is typically characterized by activity in parts of the brain that are usually inactive while a person is sleeping. Because lucid dreaming features unique brain states, researchers believe it represents a distinct brain state somewhere in between being fully awake and being in a deep REM sleep.
A simple way to know if you’re having a lucid dream is to ask yourself if you’re awake. If you can answer “yes” to that question even as your dream unfolds around you, then you are officially lucid dreaming.
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What Causes Lucid Dreaming?
Researchers aren’t entirely sure what causes lucid dreaming. So far evidence suggests pretty much anybody is capable of lucid dreaming any time they sleep.
Many studies have tried to determine whether it’s possible to induce lucid dreaming. These induction techniques include everything from electrical stimulation of the brain to yoga, herbal supplements, and strategies for improving dream recall. While different induction techniques have been associated with an increased likelihood of lucid dreaming, no technique has been shown to work on demand.
Lucid dreaming is associated with changes in brain activity, but it’s unlikely these brain states cause lucid dreaming. In fact, it’s most likely the other way around: Researchers think lucid dreaming probably causes these brain states. (For more on the relationship between lucid dreaming and brain states, check out “What Does Science Say About Lucid Dreaming?” below.)
All told, the question of what causes lucid dreaming remains somewhat of a mystery. More research is definitely needed to better understand this unique state of consciousness.
What Are the Benefits of Lucid Dreaming?
To some people, the idea of being awake within a dream might be sort of off-putting. Others would leap at the chance to influence the action within their own dream. No matter where you fall on that spectrum, there’s evidence lucid dreaming can offer a variety of benefits. The potential benefits of lucid dreaming include:
- Improving physical performance. Some studies suggest that practicing physical movements during a lucid dream can lead to improved physical performance in waking life. In fact, there are anecdotal stories of professional athletes improving their skill set during lucid dreams—for example, by tweaking a golf swing or practicing squats. Practicing cardiovascular movements in a lucid dream has even been linked to increased heart rate—suggesting the body is processing those movements similarly to the way it would in waking life. This helps explain why people who practice athletic movements in their lucid dreams may enjoy improved motor activity in their everyday activities. It also suggests lucid dreaming may play a role in physical rehabilitation and in improving the lives of people with physical disabilities.
- Improving cognitive performance. Several studies have found a connection between lucid dreaming and greater cognitive performance. For example, people who lucid dream on a semi-regular base may enjoy greater capacities for focus, attention, decision-making, and processing complex information. Lucid dreamers may also perform better at drawing connections between seemingly unrelated ideas.
- Enhancing creativity and problem-solving skills. When you lucid dream, you have the opportunity to role play in a wide variety of scenarios in a safe place where there are no consequences or “wrong” decisions. This can ignite creativity and improve your capacity to solve problems. As you practice thinking creatively in your dreams, those habits are likely to spill over into your daily life. In fact, studies have found that people who lucid dream often perform better on problem-solving tasks than people who don’t.
- Alleviating recurrent nightmares. Several studies have found that people who were trained to lucid dream felt empowered to respond to their nightmares in constructive ways, thereby reducing or eliminating nightmare recurrence. These findings suggest lucid dreaming may — and that’s very much a may — have a role to play in helping people cope with anxiety, depression, and/or PTSD.
- Enhancing self-reflection. Research has found the part of the brain responsible for self-reflection tends to be larger among people who lucid dream. This suggests lucid dreamers may be better equipped to reflect on themselves both in their dreams and in waking life.
- Gaining insights into your subconscious. So much activity takes place in our subconscious minds—often without us being aware of it. Lucid dreaming enables you to tap into these inner workings of your mind so you have a chance to witness and understand the various influences operating deep within your subconscious.
- Boosting self-confidence. Likely because of all the benefits listed above, there’s evidence a lucid dreaming practice can yield greater self-confidence in waking life. This makes sense: If you’re performing better physically and cognitively, have greater self-awareness, and are learning how to cope constructively with anxiety, depression, and PTSD, odds are pretty darn good that you’re going to feel more self-assured.
Just how is it that lucid dreaming can yield so many benefits? Researchers believe the answer may lie in the fact that lucid dreaming is fairly similar to creative visualization, a proven psychological practice wherein a person envisions the best possible outcome of a situation—thereby making that outcome more likely to occur.
What Are the Potential Risks of Lucid Dreaming?
As a general rule, most experts agree that lucid dreaming isn’t inherently dangerous. After all, nothing that happens in a lucid dream is actually “real”.
That being said, there may be some potential downsides involved in lucid dreaming. These include the following:
- Realistic feelings. While the actions that take place in a lucid dream may not have consequences for your waking life, experiencing “negative” emotions (such as anger, fear, or sadness) in a lucid dream can feel just like experiencing those emotions when you’re awake.
- Dream claustrophobia. This is a condition in which people find themselves lucid in a dream world but unable to take action within the dream or wake up. This can feel a bit like being trapped in a dream, which may produce some anxiety.
- Sleep paralysis. While uncommon during lucid dreaming, sleep paralysis is a possibility. This is a condition in which you know you are awake but you can’t move your physical body. As you can imagine, this can be an unnerving experience.
- Exacerbation of existing mental health conditions. While more research is needed in this area, there’s a chance people with mental health conditions such as Borderline Personality Disorder (or any other mental disorder that makes it difficult to identify what’s real) may find their condition is exacerbated by lucid dreaming.
- Addiction. Lucid dreaming can be fun and liberating—which means the more you do it, the more likely you are to want to do it. This isn’t a problem unless your preference for lucid dreaming starts to interfere with your ability to enjoy your waking life.
While each of these scenarios is unlikely to take place during a lucid dream, it’s still important to be aware of these potential risks. As with anything that might affect your physical and/or mental wellbeing, it’s a good idea to consult a medical professional if you have any concerns prior to giving lucid dreaming a try.
What Does Science Say About Lucid Dreaming?
References to lucid dreaming have existed for thousands of years. (In fact, it’s widely believed that Aristotle experimented with lucid dreaming.) But it wasn’t until 1975 that western scientists began studying lucid dreaming in earnest. Depending on which source you consult, the term “lucid dreaming” was coined either by French sinologist Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denys or Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden. Lucid dreaming has also been popularized by psychophysiologist Stephen Laberge.
Even all these decades later, the field of lucid dream research remains relatively small. As more and more research about the potential therapeutic applications of lucid dreaming emerges, it’s likely interest in this field will increase.
Even though there are still a lot of holes in lucid dreaming research, studies have come to a few conclusions. Here’s a brief overview of what science has to say about lucid dreaming thus far:
Lucid dreaming represents a unique state of consciousness.
Many studies have validated the idea that lucid dreaming represents a “hybrid state of consciousness” that is distinct from both REM sleep and full wakefulness.
Lucid dreaming is associated with unique brain activation patterns.
When a person begins lucid dreaming, certain parts of their brain experience activation that isn’t present during regular sleep or dream states. Areas in the parietal and prefrontal lobes that are typically suppressed during REM sleep “wake up” during lucid dreaming. There’s also evidence lucid dreaming may increase activation of both alpha and gamma waves in the brain. This further suggests lucid dreaming represents a distinct brain state.
Lucid dreaming is attenuated by physical reactions.
In addition to stimulating unique brain activity, lucid dreaming may also provoke physical autonomic reactions such as increased heart rate, changes in respiration, or sweating. This information helps explain why practicing physical activity in a lucid dream may translate to improved physical performance in waking life.
Some people can signal that they’re lucid dreaming from within a dream state.
Once researchers figured this out, it opened up whole new avenues for dream research. Because the eye muscles are not paralyzed during sleep, some lucid dreamers have been able to move their eyes from left to right from within a dream, thereby signaling to sleep researchers that they’re lucid dreaming.
Lucid dreaming can stimulate changes in neuroplasticity.
“Neuroplasticity” is a term for the brain’s capacity to rewire itself. It’s the reason we’re able to learn and improve our skillsets (both physical and cognitive) over time. When we practice certain activities during lucid dreaming, this can have a similar effect on neuroplasticity as if we were practicing those activities in waking life. This helps explain why practicing public speaking, athletic feats, or artistic pursuits in our lucid dreams may lead to real-life improvements.
Who Is Capable of Lucid Dreaming?
Researchers are still trying to understand what makes a person more or less likely to lucid dream. Estimates suggest most people will experience a lucid dream at least one time in their life.
Whether we’re able to recall those experiences is another story. Studies have found that only around 50 percent of people can recall having lucid dreamed, while only a quarter of people report having lucid dreams with any regularity. (There is some contention on these stats; other research puts the number of people who have had a lucid dream once in their life at around 87 percent and the number of people who experience lucid dreaming around once a month at 37 percent.) People who lucid dream on a very frequent basis are part of a much smaller cohort; only around one percent of people experience multiple lucid dreams per week.
It’s generally thought that anybody is capable of lucid dreaming—and more and more research suggests the practice may be a learnable skill. (We’ll touch more on how to induce lucid dreaming later in this piece.)
That being said, some people may be more naturally inclined to lucid dream than others. For example:
- A German study found lucid dreaming is likely to occur more frequently among children, teenagers, and young adults. Lucid dreaming may become less frequent as we age, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Middle-aged and older adults may still experience lucid dreaming, although it’s less likely they’ll experience frequent lucid dreams compared to younger people.
- There’s some evidence people who are skilled at thinking critically may be more likely to lucid dream. This may be a chicken-or-the-egg scenario, because lucid dreaming has also been shown to boost critical thinking.
- Research suggests people who live in cultures or subcultures that are interested in lucid dreaming are more likely to experience lucid dreams.
- People who practice meditation have a slight leg up when it comes to cultivating lucid dream states.
- People who play video games on a regular basis may be more likely to experience lucid dreams on account of their familiarity with role-playing in virtual worlds.
Lucid Dreaming Tips and Techniques
As noted above, sleep researchers generally believe anyone can learn to lucid dream. What they’re less sure of is exactly how to go about doing so. Researchers have tried everything from mantras to food combinations, meditation, herbal supplements, and electrical stimulation in an effort to induce lucid dreams.
Some of the most promising research suggests using the “MILD” (Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams) approach. A study from Australia’s University of Adelaide outlined the practice this way:
- Set an alarm for five hours after you go to bed. Most of us dream in the two or three hours before we wake up. Setting your alarm for five hours into your sleep cycle will increase the odds of you waking up in the midst of dreaming.
- When the alarm goes off, aim to recall whatever you were dreaming about before you woke up. If that’s not possible, recall a dream that you had recently.
- Continue to lie on your bed with the lights off and repeat this phrase silently in your mind: “Next time I’m dreaming, I will remember I’m dreaming.” Really focus on the meaning behind these words. As you repeat this phrase, imagine you are in the dream you just recalled. The goal is to visualize yourself in the process of remembering that you’re dreaming.
- Repeat the affirmational process until you fall back asleep (or until it feels like you’ve internalized the intention).
This might sound kind of hokey, but more than 50 percent of the study participants who utilized this technique experienced at least one lucid dream within their first week of adopting the practice. Those people who were able to fall back asleep quickly after setting their intention enjoyed the most success. If setting an alarm after five hours of sleep has you concerned, take heart: The researchers found the MILD practice had no negative impact on sleep quality.
Other research has found that combining the MILD technique with two other practices may be even more effective. Those additional practices involve:
- Reality testing. This is the practice of observing your environment throughout the day and questioning whether you’re awake or dreaming. People typically perform these “checks” using certain stimuli. For example, you might ask yourself, “Am I awake?” while reading a book or a text message, while looking at something you see frequently throughout the day (such as a doorknob), or during an activity you perform frequently (such as flicking a light switch). In many cases, these normal aspects of daily life won’t be normal in a dream—for example, light switches tend not to work in dreams, and text tends not to stay fixed while you’re dreaming. These changes can serve as clues that you’re dreaming.
- Waking back to bed (WBTB). This involves waking up after five hours of sleep, staying awake for anywhere between 10 minutes and an hour, and then going back to sleep. The goal here is to re-enter a REM sleep period, thereby increasing the likelihood of dreaming.
Some sources claim a variety of other techniques may increase the likelihood of entering a lucid dream state, although there’s less research to back up these claims. These techniques include listening to binaural beats before bed, keeping a dream journal to encourage greater dream recall, practicing yogic meditation, setting an intention to lucid dream before going to bed, or even utilizing smartphone apps that claim to facilitate lucid dreaming.
Drawing Your Own Conclusions About Lucid Dreaming
Until you’ve experienced lucid dreaming, it can sound a bit far-fetched. But as the preceding research shows, lucid dreaming is no hoax. Instead, many people find it to be a profound experience that can offer several benefits ranging from improved physical and cognitive performance to greater emotional wellbeing. Most people can train themselves to induce lucid dreaming in order to enjoy these benefits.
Of course, if you have a pre-existing mental health condition or any other concerns, it’s important to speak with a professional prior to incorporating lucid dreaming into your life. And if you ever feel that your interest in lucid dreaming is growing out of control, it’s time to consult a mental health professional. When used in moderation and treated with respect, lucid dreaming may open you up to whole new worlds.