Awake in Dreams

The science and practice of lucid dreaming

Photo by Jonas Verstuyft on Unsplash

We were fleeing from the monsters at the coliseum. I was riding a tricycle through the streets with my friend, but I just couldn’t get up enough speed to get away. As we approached an enormous hill I knew that if I tried to take it, I would crash for sure. “It’s okay,” I told my friend “I’m dreaming and I can’t die in my own dream!” Then I began to hit myself in the head in an attempt to wake up and get out of this stressful dream.

Many of us have had similar experiences of awareness that we were dreaming during a dream. This is a state of consciousness known as a lucid dream. And although it may seem rare, it is estimated that about half of the population has experienced a lucid dream at least once in life, with about 20% of the population experiencing them at least once a month.

There have been references to these types of dreams in writing as far back as Aristotle. In his treatise On Dreams, Aristotle speculates why we dream and what exactly they are. He briefly mentions what sounds like lucid dreams “when one is asleep, there is something in consciousness which tells us that what presents itself is but a dream.”

But the first real exploration was written by The Marquis Hervey de Saint Denys in 1867. The Marquis is now considered one of the earliest dream scholars. In his book Es rêves et les moyens de les diriger; observations pratiques (Translation: Dreams and the Ways to Direct Them: Practical Observations) he discusses lucid dreams and how to actually control them.

Simple, brief awareness of the kind I experienced in my dream is enough for a dream to be considered a lucid dream, but often the dreamer wishes to explore how to retain that awareness and thus begin to control the dream. At the point of control, the dreamer enters into a paradoxical state of consciousness, behaving both as an actor, and an observer. Many people are intrigued by the idea that they can control their dreams. In the dream world, it is possible to transcend the physics of space and time. In this excerpt from “The Neurobiology of Consciousness, Lucid Dreaming Wakes up”, scientist Allen Hobson describes his early forays into lucid dreaming:

“Sure enough, I was soon dreaming and aware that I was dreaming; I was lucid. I could observe and even direct my dreams, just like Hervey de Saint-Denis. Also, like Mary Arnold-Forster, I could fly. I could make love to whom ever I pleased; a practice that became very popular in the early1960’s. I could even wake myself up, the better to recall my exotic dream adventures, and then go right back to the same or some more preferable dream behavior. This experience helped to convince me that dream science was not only possible but extremely promising. I didn’t maintain my lucidity and never gave much thought to working on it. Only recently, has it become clear how promising lucid dreaming is to the study of consciousness. (p. 42)”

Photo by Xavier von Erlach on Unsplash

But Is It Real?

Skeptics of lucid dreaming have often said that perhaps the dreamers are just briefly awake, and not actually dreaming. Psychophysiologist and founder of The Lucidity Institute, Stephen LaBerge, published some of the earliest neurological studies of lucid dreaming in the late 1980s. He discovered that the dreamers could communicate with the outside world by moving their eyes or flexing their hands in a previously agreed-on pattern. After falling asleep, once the dreamer entered into a lucid dream, he or she would signal to the observing scientist by moving their eyes back and forth in this pattern. Once the outsider observed the pattern, brain states were recorded using EEG and compared to other states of consciousness.

LaBerge has been able to demonstrate that not only is this type of communication between dreamer and observer possible, but that their brain states are clearly the same as a person in deep sleep. Brain wave recordings show that lucid dreamers are in the REM stage of sleep. REM sleep is the stage of sleep during which dreams are most likely to occur, and when brain activity is characterized by high cerebral blood flow and high frequency, low amplitude activity.

More Than Just for Fun, Lucid Dreaming Therapy Can Help Nightmares

Lucid dreaming is now considered by psychologists to be a cognitive skill, and with practice, almost anyone can learn to control their dreams. Apart from the fun that one can have with this process, lucid dreaming may also be useful for therapy. Lucid Dreaming Therapy (LDT) has been developed recently to aid those who experience chronic nightmares.

Individuals that suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) commonly struggle with nightmares as one of their symptoms. Additionally, increases in nightmares have been shown to lead to increased severity of psychological distress and poorer physical health. A few pilot studies of LDT have shown promise by teaching individuals with PTSD how to lucid dream, and how to alter their nightmares to have a more positive outcome. Interestingly, these studies have also shown that the frequency of nightmares were reduced and sleep became less disturbed even when the individual didn’t experience lucid dreaming.

This suggests that even just feeling like you have mastery over your nightmares may be enough to help lessen their frequency. Currently, research into this field and the neuroscience of dreaming, in general, is still in its infancy.

How to Start Lucid Dreaming

The process to begin lucid dreaming is relatively simple. The hard part is that it takes practice and dedication.

  1. The first step to lucid dreaming is training the brain to remember your dreams. When we sleep, the part of the brain that is responsible for committing things to memory is mostly offline. So, it takes effort to begin to remember dreams. The best way to do this is to keep a dream journal. A dream journal is a notebook that you keep next to your bed, in which you write down any and all memory of your dreams upon waking. With practice, you will become better and better at remembering.
  2. The next step is to use cues throughout the day, and reality checks when you are dreaming. Cues are another mind-training exercise where you choose something to be your anchor and each time you see it, you say “I’m awake.” For example, some people use seeing their feet as the cue. Throughout your day, any time you happen to glance at your feet, say “I’m awake.” Doing this may help you “wake up” in your dream. When you see your feet in your dream, you’ll say “I’m awake” out of habit, and then you are awake in your dream. Once you are “awake” in your dream, you’ll want to use a reality check to make sure you are dreaming. These include trying to read because text is usually illegible, or looking at a clock or watch, as the time will move in unrealistic ways.
  3. Finally, a simple technique created by LaBerge is the MILD (mnemonic induced lucid dreams) technique. This involves repeating a phrase several times before falling asleep. Examples of phrases could be

“when I dream, I’ll know I’m dreaming”

“the next lucid dream will happen tonight”

“lucid dreams happen easily when I sleep”

This is priming the mind, and it’s a successful way to induce a lucid dream, when combined with the other techniques mentioned. So, to recap:

  1. Work to remember dreams, using a dream journal
  2. Use daily cues and nightly reality checks
  3. MILD before falling asleep

There is still so much that is unknown about the landscape of dreams, their purpose, and their meaning. We spend about a third of our lives sleeping, and on average, about six years of our life is spent dreaming. And although humans have been fascinated with the concept and content of dreams, we still have no idea what purpose they serve. The dream world is a mysterious other realm that we all share. Perhaps with time, we will find that life truly is, as Poe said, “but a dream within a dream.”

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Amanda O’Bryan, PhD

Written by

Meditation teacher. Psychologist. Human mood ring.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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