Aerial view of a city with prominent castle in foreground, numerous buildings, and distant hills shrouded in mist under an overcast sky.

Aerial view of Edinburgh (c1920) by Alfred G Buckham. Courtesy the National Galleries of Scotland


Five ways to take control of your dreams

Aerial view of Edinburgh (c1920) by Alfred G Buckham. Courtesy the National Galleries of Scotland

by Christian Jarrett + BIO





Listen to this Idea.

Brought to you by Curio, a Psyche partner

Lucid dreaming lets you shape your dreamscape, whether your aims are practical or fantastical. These tips can get you started

A vivid dream is like a free virtual-reality experience, no expensive headset required. While your body lies tucked up in bed, your mind can take you to exotic lands and introduce you to amazing characters. If you’re lucky, you might even be granted fantastical powers, such as the ability to breathe underwater or walk through walls.

I mention luck because it can often feel as if dreams are randomly generated – the day’s events might shape the narrative, but otherwise it’s usually a case of waiting to see what your brain comes up with. But it doesn’t have to be that way: in so-called ‘lucid dreams’, it’s possible for you to have a degree of control over what happens. This opens up many options for using dreams to your advantage, such as to rehearse for real-life events, generate ideas, or simply have a whole lot of fun.

Over at the lucid dreaming channel on Reddit, for instance, choosing to fly like a bird is a particular favourite. ‘All of a sudden I was soaring up into the sky and the most intense feeling of bliss, happiness and excitement took over my body,’ wrote one user. Another recalled flying ‘over the city, the deep blue ocean and even a bunch of islands’, and deciding to evade missiles along the way.

‘A lucid dream is a dream in which you know you are dreaming,’ explains Mark Blagrove, professor of psychology at Swansea University in Wales and the co-author of The Science and Art of Dreaming (2023). ‘As a result, you can either decide to simply observe the dream with the knowledge that it’s not real or you can actually alter the content of the dream.’

People use lucid dreaming to practise all manner of real-life tasks, including rehearsing musical performances, making speeches and preparing for awkward conversations

You might have experienced a lucid dream for yourself already. Research suggests that around half of us will have the experience at least once in our lifetimes. A quarter of people have them regularly. Whichever camp you find yourself in, there are various techniques you can use to start purposefully having more lucid dreams.

Reasons to lucid dream

Before trying out some of these techniques, you might be wondering if it’s safe and worth the effort. Note that, if you have sleep problems or mental health difficulties, lucid dreaming could make matters worse – so check in with a doctor or mental health expert first. If you’re good to go, there are a few enticing reasons you might want to give lucid dreaming a try. There’s some preliminary evidence that it will make your dreams more positive, thus improving your waking mood. Another small study found lucid dreaming to be associated with lower stress and higher self-esteem and life satisfaction. Most tantalising to me, though, is the idea that you could use your lucid dreams to practise skills that you need in waking life.

One researcher looking into this application is Daniel Erlacher at the University of Bern in Switzerland. Although he cautions that his investigations are preliminary, he and his colleagues have shown that people can use lucid dreams to practise a basic finger-tapping task, such that they improve as much as others who practised the task in waking life – by about 20 per cent. The research team has uncovered similar findings for darts and coin tossing. Commentators on the website Quora have claimed to use lucid dreaming to practise all manner of real-life tasks, including rehearsing musical performances, making speeches and preparing for awkward conversations. ‘I would recommend this to everyone who has lucid dreams, to use the dream state for practising sport or music or whatever,’ says Erlacher.

Other reasons for which you could use lucid dreams include to boost your creativity, for example by asking dream characters for their ideas. On his deathbed in 1920, the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan reportedly said he’d used lucid dreams to help him solve problems. Or you could try dealing with nightmares via what’s known as ‘lucid dreaming therapy’. The basic idea in the latter case, says Erlacher, is that, when you realise you’re in a dream, you confront yourself with the kind of nightmare content that’s been troubling you, be that a creepy house, a nasty person or something else. ‘You can go there and you can say: “Hey, what are you doing here? It’s my dream,”’ Erlacher says. ‘What people describe is that the nightmare disappears, usually.’ The more control you feel you have over your dream content, the more likely it is that you will benefit from this approach.

Use a bracelet as a cue – any time you catch a glimpse of it, ask yourself: Is this real, or am I dreaming?

Ways to have more lucid dreams

Whether you’re just curious or you can already see the ways lucid dreaming might be helpful for you, here are some basic techniques to get you started:

Reality testing

The easiest approach is to get into the habit of asking yourself whether you are awake or in a dream, at least a few times each day. This technique has come to be known as ‘reality testing’. The thinking is that, if you do this often enough when you’re awake, the habit is likely to carry over into your dreams – in which case it can trigger a lucid state of being aware that you’re dreaming.

A popular way to do this, explains Blagrove, is to use a bracelet as a cue – any time during the day that you catch a glimpse of the bracelet, you ask yourself a reality-check question, such as: Is this real, or am I dreaming? ‘That questioning transfers over into the sleeping state,’ he says. Once you ask yourself the question while asleep and become aware that you are, in fact, dreaming, you can choose whether to just observe the dream or try to influence it in some way.

Another approach I’ve heard about is to check occasionally throughout the day whether you can pass the fingers of one hand through the palm of the other, which of course is impossible, thus confirming that you’re awake. Similar to the basic reality-check question, if you perform this strange ritual often enough when awake, the chances are that you’ll do it in a dream. While dreaming, it’s likely that you will be able to pass your fingers through your hand, and you might trigger a lucid state in the process.

Wake back to bed (WBTB)

With this approach, you set an alarm two to three hours before you would normally wake up. That is just the time when you’re most likely to be having rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is a stage of sleep that is strongly associated with having dreams. After waking, you keep yourself awake for an hour or so before you allow yourself to nod off again.

Keep a diary of common symbols or images that you experience in your dreams, and then form the lucid dreaming intention around those images

The WBTB approach aligns with what is known about the brain basis of lucid dreaming, which experts admit is fairly limited for now. The lucid dream state tends to be associated with greater frontal brain activation than non-lucid dreaming, especially during REM sleep. The WBTB approach would appear to help you target this brain state, thus increasing the odds of achieving dream lucidity. ‘What happens with this technique,’ explains Blagrove, is that ‘your sleep is much later [than normal] because you woke yourself up earlier and, as a result of the circadian rhythm, your brain is more activated. And also you’ve just deprived yourself of some sleep, so you have a much more intense rapid eye movement period occurring.’

Mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (MILD)

This approach builds on the WBTB protocol and similarly involves setting an alarm to wake a few hours before you would normally rise. In fact, Erlacher says you really ought to combine WBTB with MILD – otherwise you risk simply ending up with a bad night’s sleep.

At its most basic, the MILD technique involves waking yourself up toward the end of your usual sleep period and then forming a conscious intention to have a lucid dream when you fall back to sleep. ‘It’s a sort of self-suggestion method,’ says Blagrove. Some experts suggest repeating a mantra to yourself, such as: “The next time I am dreaming, I will remember that I am dreaming.”’

A more elaborate version of this approach is to keep a diary of common symbols or images that you experience in your dreams, and then form the lucid dreaming intention around those images. For example, if you frequently see flying cows in your dreams, you might tell yourself, prior to returning to sleep: ‘When I see a flying cow, I will know that this is the dream.’ Erlacher explains: ‘So you combine these events with the suggestion of “I will know that I’m dreaming when I see this.”’

The senses initiated lucid dream technique

This approach was proposed by a blogger and lucid dreaming enthusiast more than a decade ago, and now it’s often mentioned in the academic literature on lucid dreaming. Despite the mentions, it’s been studied only once, but the results were promising. As with WBTB and MILD, the idea is to set an alarm to wake yourself a few hours before your normal rising time.

Once awake, you close your eyes and quickly cycle through some of your senses a few times, first focusing on your sight (with eyes closed), then on what you are hearing, then tuning in to your body. After doing that a few times quickly, you then repeat the cycle a few times more, but this time slowly. Once you’ve finished the slow cycles through your senses, you let yourself fall back to sleep. It’s been claimed that you are then much more likely to have a lucid dream. The full tutorial is available online.

Targeted lucidity activation

This approach has been used recently by sleep labs to try to induce more lucid dreams, and it’s probably the most ambitious of the techniques described here. You might need to rope in your bedtime companion, if you have one, for some assistance.

Spend a few minutes reflecting, while simultaneously exposing yourself to a red flashing light or electronic beeping sound

The basic principle is this: during the day, you spend a few minutes reflecting on your thoughts, your sensations and your state of awareness (a little like ‘reality testing’), while simultaneously exposing yourself to some distinct sights or sounds, such as a red flashing light or electronic beeping sound. You’re conditioning yourself to be self-reflective when you experience these stimuli. Then, while you’re in REM sleep, you need a way to expose yourself to the sensory stimuli again. The idea is that this will nudge you to reflect on your state of mind and surroundings (but without fully waking you up), thus prompting you into a lucid state.

This is where your understanding partner could come in handy. They should be able to tell when you’re in REM sleep by watching your eyes flicker under your eyelids. Then, they might flash the red light or play the electronic sound. An alternative is to buy a fancy lucid dreaming mask that detects when you’re in REM sleep and flashes the light and/or plays a beeping sound.

‘The idea is that these sounds and visual stimuli get incorporated into the dream,’ Blagrove explains. ‘You’re never quite sure how they’ll be incorporated … it may be that there’s a red object there or that the whole scene turns red, or the electronic tune might come into the dream. But the aim is that it causes the person to ask themselves the question: Am I asleep?

Final notes

So, there you have it: a few different ways to begin taking more control of your dreams. You might even be able to start using your dreams to benefit your waking life, such as by practising something you will be doing the next day.

As you get started, bear in mind that lucidity is not all or nothing. A recent survey found that control of your dream body is more common than complete control of the dream environment. The same study found that having more frequent lucid dreams was associated with having greater dream control – implying that practice makes perfect – and that being more mindful during the day could help, too. Good luck and sweet dreams!





20 June 2023