Have you ever had a nightmare so vivid and terrifying that you were sure it was really happening? What if you could consciously change the course of a dream, even while asleep, so that you woke up feeling great instead of shaken? That’s the idea behind lucid dreaming, the ability to realize that you’re in a dream and potentially control the actions. It may sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but lucid dreaming is more common than you might think—and it’s something you can actually learn to do yourself. Here’s everything you need to know about lucid dreaming.
The science behind lucid dreaming
We all dream, but lucid dreaming can be more difficult to recognize—and unlike other sleep conditions, it’s not always repeatable in a lab.
Scientists have found a way to test whether someone is experiencing a lucid dream by using electroencephalograms (EEGs) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the patterns of brain waves produced in REM sleep.
Some studies have shown that lucid dreaming is associated with increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for complex thinking tasks like planning and forethought. A 2013 study published in the journal Sleep also found that other areas of the brain are associated with lucid dreaming, including the cuneus, which is involved in visual processing. Another study, from Germany, suggests that actions taken in lucid dreams activate the same neurological structures as actual physical movements.
More recently, scientists have been experimenting with ways to induce lucid dreaming. In 2014, neuroscientists from Frankfurt University were successful in inducing consciousness during dream sleep. By bombarding the frontal lobes of sleeping participants with a weak current of 2 to 100 Hz gamma waves, the study could induce lucid dreaming up to 77% of the time.
Other groups have studied the effects of pharmaceuticals and supplements on lucid dreaming. A research team from the Lucidity Institute in Pahoa, Hawaii, published findings in 2018 that showed that galantamine, which is usually prescribed to treat dementia, is also effective in inducing lucid dream states in the majority of patients.
Related: 6 reasons you’re having vivid dreams
Techniques to induce lucid dreaming
You don’t need to take pharmaceuticals or be blasted with gamma rays to experience lucid dreaming. Some experts, like Rubin Naiman, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the sleep and dream specialist at the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine, share recommendations for developing the ability to lucid dream, especially for patients who are experiencing troublesome nightmares.
“Lucidity is a state of mind, and you can actually practice it during the day,” says Naiman. The easiest way to do this, he says, is to practice mindfulness. Take the time to notice the details around you that you might not appreciate already. “Intentionally relaxing our gaze when we can throughout the day, noting context or the bigger picture,” according to Naiman, can put us in the right frame of mind to experience lucid dreaming.
Another of Naiman’s favorite techniques involves Post-it notes. Have you ever seen something so many times that it appears in your dreams? Perhaps your dreams take place in detailed settings that mirror your office, or maybe you spend so much time on Twitter that you dream about having a Twitter conversation with a celebrity. Naiman’s technique takes advantage of this phenomenon.
Take several Post-it notes and write the phrase “Am I awake or am I dreaming?” on each. Place these Post-it notes in locations where you will encounter them frequently. In a few days, one will probably show up in your dreams, and when you see it, you will have to consciously question whether you are in a dream state or if you’re awake. According to Naiman’s experience and the experience of his patients, this should induce an episode of lucid dreaming.
But Naiman cautions against the desire to control our dreams. “We live in a world where there’s an overarching fear of the subconscious,” he says. “We have a long history of mistrusting dreams and mistrusting the unconscious. The result of that is that there’s a dramatic epidemic of dream loss.” Naiman believes we should learn to appreciate dreams as we appreciate nature. Instead of using lucid dreaming to gain control, use it as a method of experiencing your dreams more deeply.
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