Dreaming permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives. — William Dement
I once spent an entire summer training myself how to dream. Well, training myself how to control my dreams.
For most, dreaming happens whether you like it or not. But, what if you were able to decide what happened in them? Pull a bazooka on that nightmare villain, or call to mind a friend you hadn’t seen in decades?
This is the power of lucid dreaming.
Intuitively, lucid dreaming has the appeal of free virtual reality; however, research shows it also provides other, actual benefits. For example, you are able to dispel nightmares; you’re able to practice and rehearse skills in your sleep; and you can use these dream to work on creative solutions to everyday problems.
Now, people have been describing this phenomenon of lucid dreaming for thousands of years; however, not until 1975 was it proven scientifically:
Researchers recruited lucid dreamers to come into the lab, where they had these participants memorize a series of random eye movements (the only part of the body that moves while sleeping). Then, when electrical signals from the participant’s brain indicated they were asleep, the researchers watched their eyes for the pattern.
And they found it.
Today, estimates suggest that about 50% of people have experienced at least one lucid dream in their life. But whether you’ve only experienced it once or not at all, this post will teach you the essentials to becoming a lucid dreamer yourself.
Generally, there are two ways to induce a lucid dream, but the important component in both is recognizing that you’re dreaming while you’re dreaming. First, you can use external stimuli (i.e., electronic devices) that play sounds, flash lights, or even administer mild electric shocks while the person dreams. These cues can help signal to the dreaming mind that the person is indeed dreaming.
More popular, however, are the cognitive techniques that one can practice while awake:
Reality Testing. One of the most popular practices to trigger the dreaming mind into self-awareness is to ask yourself (while awake), “Am I dreaming?” Repeatedly quizzing yourself daily (e.g., 10x a day), will help cue your mind to ask the same question when sleeping.
The Inhalation Test. While awake, close your mouth and then try breathing through it. You can’t. However, when you’re asleep, it creates a contradictory sensation, because you’re actually able to breathe through your pressed lips, and this odd sensation should trigger the mind into realizing that it’s dreaming.
Everyday Weirdness. If you can find a light switch or written text in your dream, this is another way to “wake up” while remaining asleep. That is, light switches don’t usually work in dreams and written text is often indecipherable, or it changes from glance to glance.
The Mnemonic Induction. Here, you harness the power of prospective memory (i.e., the ability to perform planned actions in the future). Before you go to sleep, imagine that you’re lucid dreaming and then repeat the phrase: “Next time I’m dreaming, I will remember that I’m dreaming” (or some variation of that).
The Wake Back to Bed Technique. If you want to get serious about lucid dreaming, set an alarm to wake you up about 5 to 6 hours into the night. Then, turn on a light to help you stay up for 10-20 minutes, read an article about lucid dreaming (even this blog post if you want), and then practice the mnemonic induction (above) before returning to sleep.**
And there you have it! All the skills to make yourself a lucid dreamer. In fact, researchers took these same cognitive techniques I described, and taught them all to non-lucid dreamers. Before the training, about 9% had experienced a lucid dream. However, after two weeks of training, nearly 20% had!
So, if you can’t afford the new Occulus Rift, or you just think you look goofy with big goggles on your face, now you have access to the best virtual reality device on the market: Your sleeping brain.
Psychophilosophy to Ponder: We spend nearly 1/3 of our lives asleep. But what if you could take control of that time? Besides having awesome adventures, how else could you use that time to your benefit? What projects could you develop? What skills could you hone? What flaws in yourself could you confront and overcome while in this deeper state of consciousness?
**In all of these techniques, sometimes realizing that you’re dreaming can wake you up automatically. To help stay asleep after you realize you’re dreaming, try vigorously rubbing the palms of your hands together (focusing on the sensation) as you repeat, “This is a lucid dream.”
Aspy, D. J., Delfabbro, P., Proeve, M., & Mohr, P. (2017). Reality Testing and the Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams: Findings From the National Australian Lucid Dream Induction Study. Dreaming, 27(3), 206-231.