The phenomenon of “waking up” inside a dream might sound a lot like the plot of a sci-fi movie. But is it actually possible to have some control over the way your dreams play out? In fact, the answer is yes. With lucid dreaming, some people can direct their dreams like a play. And the potential benefits of doing so can be pretty amazing.
What is lucid dreaming?
A lucid dream is one where the sleeper becomes aware they’re having a dream as it’s happening. Sometimes (but not always) the sleeper may be able to control the dream’s narrative. This could mean they create new characters, alter a series of events, or even take on a superpower! Like all types of dreams, they occur most often during REM sleep, or the final stage of a sleep cycle.
What causes dreams to be lucid?
While researchers don’t technically know why some people have lucid dreams more than others, studies have shown that differences in brain anatomy could be one possible answer. Only about half of adults have experienced them at least once in their lives, while an even smaller percentage surveyed have them on a regular basis.
Is lucid dreaming healthy?
Although more research is needed to definitively prove the mental health benefits of frequent lucid dreaming, scientists have suggested that it could have some positive long-term effects, like:
- Enhanced creativity. Taking control of a dream narrative where anything is possible opens up all kinds of opportunities for your mind to play. This creative freedom within a dream state may translate to better creativity in everyday life.
- Better problem solving. Some dreamers have reported finding new solutions to their problems after lucid dreaming. While asleep and tapped into your subconscious mind, you may be able to gain better insights and understanding to help you tackle real life obstacles.
- Overcome nightmares and/or fears. If you’re someone who experiences frequent nightmares, lucid dreaming has been suggested as a therapeutic tool to help overcome them. Understanding that the nightmare scenario isn’t real and having some control over the narrative may help you stop the cycle of bad dreams once and for all.
- Decreased anxiety. Being able to exert control over your dreams may lead to lessened anxiety in your daily life. Using lucid dreams to rehearse scenarios that typically make you feel anxious, for example, may help you learn to relax when similar situations occur in the real world.
Are lucid dreams dangerous?
Despite what some movies and sci-fi novels might suggest, there's no risk of getting stuck in a lucid dream. Although it’s possible to have a dream that feels like it lasts for days, at some point you must wake up and the dream state will end.
However, researchers suggest that intentional and frequent lucid dreaming could pose the following risks to your long-term health:
- Unstable mental health. Particularly for those already affected by mental health conditions, intentional lucid dreaming might make it hard to distinguish fantasy from reality. This state of being unable to determine what’s real can negatively affect your mental and emotional wellbeing.
- Worsened sleep quality. Studies have not shown that the act of lucid dreaming itself significantly disrupts sleep. However, the techniques used to induce them and the likelihood of waking up after vivid dreams occur may lead to poor sleep quality over time.
If you’re already suffering from sleep deprivation, a sleep disorder, or a mental health condition, it’s best to seek your doctor’s advice before inducing lucid dreams.
How to lucid dream
To study lucid dreams, researchers have come up with a few methods to induce them. If you’re interested in some of the potential benefits, the Sleep Foundation recommends trying these techniques:
- Reality testing
This practice involves repeatedly doing a task throughout your day that helps you verify whether or not you’re dreaming. This might mean trying to do something supernatural (but safe!), like pushing your hand through a solid object. By doing this while awake, the idea is that you will train your brain to do the same once in a dream state, helping you distinguish dreams from reality.
- Mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (or MILD)
With this technique, you’ll go to sleep with the intention of remembering that you’re dreaming once it happens. Before falling asleep, repeat a phrase like “Next time I’m asleep, I will realize I’m dreaming.” After this, sleep for a period of 5 hours, wake up, repeat the same phrase again, and go back to sleep.
- Wake back to bed (or WBTB)
Similar to the MILD technique, the wake back to bed method involves waking yourself up in the middle of the night and then remaining awake for 30 – 120 minutes before going back to sleep.
- Take steps to ensure good sleep
While optimizing your overall sleep hygiene will not directly trigger lucid dreams, it will promote healthy, normal sleep cycles. This means your REM cycles will be sufficient enough to produce lucid dreams in the first place. You can improve your sleep hygiene by:
- Sleeping in a room that’s cool, quiet, and dark
- Investing in a comfortable mattress and bedding
- Creating a bedtime ritual and practicing it at the same time each night
- Avoiding large meals and caffeine at nighttime
- Cutting out electronic use an hour before bedtime
- Being physically active during the day
- Getting enough sleep each night
For more information and resources on lucid dreaming, we encourage you to read the following:
What Is Lucid Dreaming? by Verywell Mind
Stages of Sleep by the Sleep Foundation
How to Lucid Dream by the Sleep Foundation
Is Lucid Dreaming Dangerous? by the Sleep Foundation
Applications of lucid dreams: An online study. by APA PsycNet