What are lucid dreams, and how does your brain become aware that it’s dreaming?
Have you ever stopped what you’re doing and thought for a second “wait, am I dreaming?”
If you were, in fact, asleep at the time, you might have been having a lucid dream.
It’s a type of dream in which the dreamer is aware they’re dreaming, but may also gain control of it and change the narrative.
Laura from Melbourne has been able to lucid dream since she was about seven.
“I just I thought everyone could go in their dreams, like I didn’t ever do anything in there … I just knew that I was dreaming,” she says.
“I remember always looking really forward to going to bed as a kid and being really excited about my about dreaming life.”
Laura would dream of magic carpet rides over cities and oceans, but as she got older and learnt what a lucid dream was, she began to take control.
“I can think to myself in the lucid dream, ‘I want a change of scenery, I want to go fly through the Amazon forest or I really want to see someone from my past’,” she says.
Denholm Aspy, visiting research fellow at the University of Adelaide, is an expert in the field of lucid dreaming.
His own experience with them drove him towards the topic.
“When I was about to start my PhD, I had a spontaneous, lucid dream, the first one I’ve had in a while. And I woke up and I thought, well, I could do research on this.”
Lucid dreaming usually occurs in the stage of sleep called rapid eye movement, or REM sleep.
As its name suggests, it’s characterised by random rapid movement of the eyes, and is generally the stage where most dreams occur.
“The eyes moving around in your sleep — that’s actually you looking around inside of the dream,” Dr Aspy explains.
Not much is known about what happens in the brain during dreaming in general, but as for what is known about lucid dreaming, Dr Aspy says it seems to be “a delicate balance of two states of consciousness that don’t normally go together”.
During sleep, various parts of the brain are selectively deactivated, but not completely turned off.
“These are parts of the brain involved in things like self-awareness, critical thinking, sometimes moral reasoning, which is one of the reasons why we sometimes do things in dreams that we would never do while we’re awake,” Dr Aspy says.
And it’s also why we often don’t clue into the fact we’re dreaming; the brain doesn’t question absurd scenarios when these parts are somewhat shut down.
But if you do become aware you’re in a dream, that’s when it becomes a lucid dream.
Some people, like Laura, spontaneously lucid dream without trying, while others may go their entire life never having one.
Dr Aspy says this is due to natural variations in the human brain that we don’t fully understand.
But there can be some factors that predispose a person to lucid dreaming.
For instance, disrupted sleep, through shift work or sleep disorders, can affect the brain’s activity during the night, making lucid dreams more common.
Why would you want to lucid dream?
The main reason is for recreation.
“If you can enter a world within your own mind that feels just as real as waking reality, where you can do literally anything you want and it feels just as real as you’re awake … I mean, that’s a very desirable thing to be able to do,” Dr Aspy says.
Because experiences in the dream can feel real to the brain and body, lucid dreaming is used by some people as a source of creativity and growth.
People have used lucid dreaming for artistic inspiration, and athletes have harnessed them to practise their skills during the night.
Laura is a dancer, and she uses her lucid dreams to come up with choreography or learn a new step.
“I practised it and see myself doing it in the lucid dream, and it makes it easier to tackle in real life,” she says.
She also has musician friends who have used lucid dreaming to write songs and music.
Additionally, some research suggests there are mental health benefits, with the dream world providing a safe space to self-reflect, try new things, face fears and solve problems.
People can even use the ability to control the dream to stop a nightmare in its tracks.
Can you make yourself have a lucid dream?
Daniel from Sydney had a few lucid dreams as a child, but only began to get them more regularly as a teenager after he started meditating.
“The thing that I like doing most is like flying,” he says.
“Once you’re in, you’re aware that you’re dreaming, and you can pretty much do anything, assuming you believe you can.”
He’s tried many different techniques to improve his lucid dreaming — meditation, varying combinations of mantras and visualisations, waking in the middle of the night, and supplements such as galantamine — with varying levels of success.
“I find if I’m using different techniques, I am more likely to achieve success rather than if I just stick with the one thing all the time.
“It’s almost like the mind habituates, and then from my perspective, it’s just not working.
“So that’s why I try and introduce fresh, different techniques just by changing little things here or there.”
These different techniques are one of Dr Aspy’s areas of research.
For anyone wanting to start lucid dreaming, Dr Aspy primarily recommends improving your ability to remember your dreams.
“We found that general dream recall abilities are usually the strongest predictor of how successful you will be in learning lucid dreaming,” he says.
“If you’re able to remember your dreams most nights of the week or even every night of the week, you’re probably going to have more success than someone who can only remember one or two dreams per week.”
Daniel agrees. His most important tip is to have a dream diary and record your dreams every morning when you wake up.
A study by Dr Aspy found the act of writing down dreams improves dream recall far more than simply thinking back over them.
Another study of his found taking vitamin B6 before bed can be very effective for increasing dream recall.
The theory here is an increased synthesis of serotonin results in a greater REM sleep period in the last few hours of sleep.
Another key staple of lucid dreaming is a “reality check” — basically a moment to pause and check if you’re asleep or awake.
There are may different ways to do this, such as seeing if light switches work, looking for the tip of your nose, or if you can breathe even with your nose and mouth sealed.
Daniel has the word “dream” tattooed on his right wrist, which will often change when he is dreaming. It could be missing, misspelled, or a completely different word.
For Laura, she looks at her hands, which in the dream will look different. Perhaps they’re distorted, or have a changing number of fingers, telling her she is asleep.
Many techniques have been developed to expand the ability to lucid dream, and results vary depending on the person.
“If you’re serious about it, it is a fairly intensive practice that requires multiple different techniques, angles and often supplementation and meditation,” Dr Aspy says.
What’s the best technique to start with?
In addition to dream journaling and reality checks, Dr Aspy’s studies found one technique to be most effective: the mnemonic induction of lucid dreams, or MILD.
It takes advantage of one of our types of memory, called prospective memory — basically our ability to remember to do things in the future.
For example, if you need to go to the shops and buy bread, then you might say to yourself, “I need to remember to go to the shops and get some bread”.
That intention will stay active in your mind until you complete that goal.
The MILD technique involves waking up after 5 hours of sleep, forming this prospective memory, and then going back to sleep to enter REM sleep.
Instead of trying to remember to buy bread, the intention is to try and remember to realise you’re dreaming in your next dream.
Recall the last dream you just had, and after a couple of minutes, visualise you’re back in that dream, and recite to yourself, “next time I’m dreaming, I want to remember that I’m dreaming” over and over.
By visualising the dream, you tie a visual component to a verbal affirmation, a combination of senses that makes memories stronger.
“This is that prospective memory, because you’re forming an intention to remember something in the future,” Dr Aspy explains.
“When you’re next in a dream … hopefully at some point that intention will bubble up from the subconscious mind.
“And then that’s the point where now you know that you’re dreaming and then you can basically do anything you want.”