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How to Make Your Dreams Feel Real by Having Lucid Dreams

Lucid dreamers have been fighting goblins, flying, and conjuring entire galaxies in their dreams for centuries, all while feeling awake and engaged in the action. Now, scientific research tells us that lucid dreaming isn't just the stuff of sci-fi—it's a learnable skill. Would you like to give it a try?

By
Jade Wu, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #340
The Quick And Dirty

People can learn to lucid dream using straightforward techniques. Start by keeping a dream log, so that you can become generally better at recalling dreams, setting the table for lucid dreaming. During the day, practice asking yourself whether you are dreaming, even if you know you're not. Before going to bed, suggest to yourself that you will have a lucid dream, or better yet, focus on your intention to become aware during a dream. To boost your likelihood of success, wake yourself about an hour before your usual wake-up time, stay awake for at least 30 minutes, and then go back to bed with the intention of falling into a lucid dream. If you have a family or personal history of psychosis, you should check with your doctor before trying to lucid dream.

Last week, we opened up the world of lucid dreaming, an ancient and scientifically measurable practice that gives a dreamer the power to manipulate their dreams. We took a candid, scientific look at this sci-fi-sounding concept. And it turns out that neuroscientists have not only been able to measure lucid dreaming in the brain but even to hold two-way communication with a lucid dreamer in real-time. In an astonishing study published just this year, one lucid dreamer was fighting goblins while (correctly) answering the question coming from the sky: “What is six minus two?” And he did it all while staying asleep.

What happens when you try lucid dreaming?

This study got me so excited about lucid dreaming that I decided to give it a try this past week.

A little spoiler: It wasn’t easy. But on the fourth night of my self-study, I did manage to have a brief lucid moment just as I disembarked from a sky boat onto a long slide made of clouds. As I suddenly became aware that I was dreaming, I concentrated hard on this knowledge and told myself to fly… and it worked! I soared through the sky until I woke up.

How did I do it? Today, let’s walk through the scientifically documented methods for cultivating lucid dreaming.

Before we jump in, a reminder that some researchers have raised concerns about lucid dreaming, including the possibility that it could disrupt overall sleep quality if a person does it too often. There is also concern that frequent lucid dreaming could blur the lines between reality and dream, increasing the risk for psychosis or dissociation. More research is still needed to fully understand these potential risks. For now, “everything in moderation” seems like a good mantra. And if you’re at risk for psychosis or are prone to feeling detached from your body or reality, you should check with your doctor before trying to lucid dream.

How to lucid dream

Start by keeping a dream logbook

Dream researchers have known for a long time that people who generally remember their dreams more often are also more likely to lucid dream. So, to set the table for our lucid dreaming program, we can begin by getting into a more dream-aware mindset overall.

Using either of these methods for a week significantly increased the number of dreams people remembered.

How can we remember our dreams more often? Simply by paying attention and noting them down. You can go as far as keeping a detailed dream journal that describes your dreams with as much detail as possible or simply make a habit of giving a “title” to any dreams you had and recording how much of it you remember upon waking. In one study, using either of these methods for a week significantly increased the number of dreams people remembered.

Plant the idea in your mind

While you’re working on becoming more aware of your dreams, you can also start to plant the idea of lucid dreaming in your mind. You don’t have to tiptoe around the idea of lucid dreaming, treating your mind as if being too forward about your goal will somehow spook it away. Instead, you can simply suggest to yourself at bedtime, “Hey, let’s have a lucid dream.”

You don’t have to tiptoe around the idea of lucid dreaming, treating your mind as if being too forward about your goal will somehow spook it away.

Better yet, you can go a small step further and practice having the intention to become lucid while dreaming. Do this by imagining as vividly as possible the moment you become aware that you’re dreaming. You can do this while you’re in bed and relaxed, just before falling asleep, or even when you wake up during the night to use the bathroom. Just don’t get fired up to the point of keeping yourself awake.

Do some reality testing during the day

If keeping a dream log and planting lucid dreaming seeds in your mind doesn’t work right away, don’t be discouraged. You can keep building on your lucid dreaming skills during the day using the reality testing and reflection method.

When you get your mind into the habit of verifying reality during the day, it's more likely to do a spontaneous reality check during a dream.

When you’re awake, you know you’re awake. Hopefully, there’s no doubt about that. But you can still ask yourself “Am I awake, or am I dreaming?” You can pair this reflection with a reality test—pinch your nose and try to breathe, try to jump up and fly, ask your toddler to put away his toys… any quick action to see if you’re dreaming.

When you get your mind into the habit of verifying reality during the day, it's more likely to do a spontaneous reality check during a dream. So, if you suddenly find yourself able to breathe through a pinched nose or your toddler is perfectly cleaning his play area with no complaints, you’ll know you’re dreaming.

Take advantage of timing

Lucid dreams, like any other dreams, almost always happen during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. And REM sleep mostly happens during the morning hours. So if you're making a concentrated effort to induce lucid dreaming, you may be able to give yourself a boost by waking yourself up early in the morning, using some lucid dreaming techniques, and then going back to sleep.

Lucid dreams, like any other dreams, almost always happen during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. And REM sleep mostly happens during the morning hours.

One researcher, Stephen La Berge, documented his lucid dreaming efforts for three years during the 1970s. By the last few months of his experiment, he was averaging about one lucid dream per night. He found that his sweet spot for this technique was to wake himself 30 to 120 minutes earlier than usual, staying awake for about half an hour to an hour, and then going back to bed with an intention to become lucid when he was very likely to fall back into REM sleep.

If done well, this technique seems to be very effective. Using La Berge's technique, one recent study was able to produce lucid dreams in 10 out of 20 participants within two nights in the sleep lab. They amplified the method by asking participants to use their waking period in the wee morning hours to journal about any dreams they’d already had,  and then to pick out elements in the dream that were particularly surreal.

But here's a caveat. I would advise against using this technique if you have insomnia or otherwise don't get enough sleep. Waking yourself on purpose so close to morning can simply cut short much-needed sleep.

External cues can help you lucid dream, but ...

Researchers have used light, sound, touch, and even electrical stimulation during REM sleep to signal to a dreamer that they’re dreaming. The cues, like light flashes or specific sounds we learn to associate with reality checking during the day, need to be strong enough to penetrate the dream and reach the dreamer yet not strong enough to totally wake them up.

Who knows what's possible when there is no gravity, anxiety, or self-doubt to limit us?

But this technique works best if you are in a sleep lab. At home, it would be difficult to time the signals perfectly to catch you while you’re in REM sleep, and hard to know what kind of signal would perfectly cue you to become lucid without waking you up. It may be easier to simply practice reality testing and focusing your intention on becoming aware in a dream.

So, what do you think? Think you can harness your dreams? I must say that I was skeptical myself, but now that I've gotten a taste of lucid dreaming, just for one glorious moment of flying through the rolling clouds, I'm curious to try more. After all, who knows what's possible when there is no gravity, anxiety, or self-doubt to limit us?

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Jade Wu, PhD

Dr. Jade Wu is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine. Do you have a psychology question? Call the Savvy Psychologist listener line at 919-533-9122. Your question could be featured on the show.