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How To Lucid Dream: 6 Techniques, Benefits, and Cautions

By Charlotte Ruhl, published July 07, 2021

lucid dream

Take-home Messages
  • Lucid dreams are the ability to be conscious of the fact that you are dreaming. In some cases you might even be able to control the narrative of your dreams by manipulating the characters and plot.
  • Although lucid dreaming seems like an unattainable phenomenon to some, there are multiple ways to help increase the likelihood that you will lucidly dream, from dream journaling and reality checks to more serious induction methods. And approximately 50% of all people actually experience at least one lucid dream during their lifetime.
  • There are both benefits and risks of lucid dreaming. And what might be a benefit or a risk to someone might not be to another – lucid dreaming is a very individualized experience that affects people differently. More research needs to be done to not only better understand the pros and cons of these dreams, but to also understand why we lucid dream and what regions of the brain play a role.

Everyone dreams. Even some animals. Although oftentimes we awake from a night of sleep having no recollection of our dreams, or we remember them for only a few minutes after we awake, we still dream as part of the four stages of the sleep cycle. Most people dream about their life experiences or concerns, but some types of dreams are more vivid, more disturbing, or allow us to have more control over them.

In a typical night, a person will experience normal dreams – the content is relatively harmless and they don’t have any distinguishable characteristics.

Other types of dreams include daydreams – the stream of consciousness that detaches us from current tasks when our attention shifts to a more inward place – false awakenings – vivid and convincing dreams about awakening from sleep while the dreamer still continues to sleep – nightmares – dreams that are very scary and troubling – and lucid dreams (Chinsami, 2020).


What are Lucid Dreams?

Lucid dreams are a type of dream where the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming. During this dream, the dreamer may gain a certain degree of control over the dream’s characters, plot, and setting, however that is not always the case – sometimes the dreamer is just aware that they are dreaming but they do not control the narrative (Nunez, 2019).

Lucid dreams, like other types of dreams, have been extensively researched for centuries, but there is still a great deal of information that is unknown about them. And also like regular dreams, lucid dreams occur during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of the sleep cycle (Nunez, 2019).

After an individual falls asleep, they pass through three stages of non-REM sleep before beginning to dream. But when a person enters lucid dreaming, different processes occur that allow the dreamer to be aware that they are dreaming. And while there are obvious benefits to this unique metacognitive state, there are also several risks of lucid dreaming that make understanding this concept all the more necessary.


6 Techniques to Try for Lucid Dreaming

Given the fascinating nature of lucid dreaming, it is common to want to learn how to actually do it. Luckily, there are a few approaches to being conscious of your dream state. However, certain methods might be more effective than others.

More REM Sleep

As we know, lucid dreaming happens during the REM stage of the sleep cycle – the stage in which we experience any and all kinds of dreams. As a result, spending more time in this stage will increase your chances of lucid dreaming (Nunez, 2019).

In order to do so, you would need to make sure that you are getting enough sleep overall, whether that means going to bed earlier or sleeping in later – it is important to try to get a minimum of seven hours of sleep a night.

When this occurs, your body is more easily able to properly cycle through the four stages of sleep, increasing the time you spend in REM. Otherwise, you might interrupt your time in REM (if you wake up too early, for example), making it less likely that you will lucid dream.

Concrete ways to ensure that you are getting enough sleep are to:

  1. Follow a sleep schedule –waking up and sleeping at relatively the same time every day
  2. Exercising daily or almost daily
  3. Avoiding electronics before going to bed, as the screens affect your melatonin production (the hormone released in the evening to help you feel tired) and keep you awake for longer
  4. Creating a relaxing sleep environment, one that helps you fall asleep (comfortable mattress, absence of loud noises, etc.)
  5. Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed, as these will definitely prevent your ability to fall asleep
Dream Journal

A dream journal, or a diary of your dreams, might also help induce lucid dreams (Aviram & Soffer-Dudek, 2018). We’ve all experienced waking up after having a very vivid dream but no longer being able to recall a single detail just minutes later.

With a dream journal, you are forcing yourself to recall your dreams, which in turn trains your brain to become more aware of dreaming. A dream journal can come in any shape or form – as a notebook, wall of sticky notes, on an app, or anything else!

It is an opportunity to get creative while also training your brain to be more cognizant of your dreams.

It is also important to read through your journal as regularly as possible to help familiarize your brain with these dreams.

Induction Techniques

The previous techniques help train your brain to recognize consciousness and dreaming in order to increase the likelihood of randomly falling into a lucid state. However, it is also possible to intentionally enter a lucid dream through specific induction techniques. Some of these methods include:

  1. Wake back to bed (WBTB): With this approach you would set an alarm or have someone wake you up approximately five hours after going to bed. Because you have woken up in the middle of the sleep cycle, when you go back to sleep you will likely reenter the REM stage but you will still be conscious since you had just awoken. Thus, it is possible that you will enter a lucid dream.
  2. Mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (MILD): Created by Dr. LaBerge in 1980, when you practice MILD, you tell yourself that you will have lucid dreams tonight. This relies on a concept called prospective memory – the ability to remember future events. This sort of self-talk may increase the chances of you actually lucid dreaming (LaBerge et al., 2018).
  3. Wake-initiated lucid dreaming (WILD): With WILD, you will enter REM sleep from wakefulness while still maintaining consciousness. You can do this by lying down until you have a hypnagogic hallucination – an imagined sensation that appears to be very real and occurs as you are falling asleep.

As mentioned before, it is possible (and likely!) that some of these techniques will work better than others, and some might not work at all. Practicing these methods takes time and patience, and might require experimenting with combinations of these approaches before you are able to experience your first lucid dream.

A 2017 study demonstrated that reality testing, combined with both WBTB and MILD works best (Aspy et al., 2017). Specifically, you can do reality testing during the day and then practice WBTB by setting an alarm to wake up in five hours and then practice MILD while you are awake.

Reality Checks

Testing reality is another way to increase your chances of lucid dreaming (Aspy et al., 2017). That is because your level of consciousness while dreaming is relatively close to when you are awake.

Therefore, when you increase your awareness during your waking state, you can help train your brain to enhance your consciousness during your sleeping state. This metacognition – recognition of your own thoughts and consciousness – can be done through reality checks that are done periodically throughout the day. There are many different types of reality checks, including:

  1. Pushing your fingers against your opposite palm – if they pass through, you are dreaming
  2. Pinch your nose – if you are able to breathe, you are dreaming
  3. Look away from a book you are reading and then back again – if the text changes, you are dreaming
  4. It is important to note that none, some, or all of these reality checks might work. These are merely clinical suggestions, but what works for one person may not work for another. It is likely that you would have to try out multiple different methods before figuring out which works best for you.

Historical Timeline

Although an empirical exploration of ludic dreams didn’t take off until the latter half of the 20th century, these dreams have been written and talked about for centuries.

Descriptor Rather Than a Theory

Lucid dreams date all the way back to 350 B.C. when, in his work On Dreams, Greek philosopher Aristotle described reaching a state of awareness of his dreaming state: “often when one is asleep, there is something in consciousness which declares that what then presents itself is but a dream” (LaBerge, 1988).

Around the same time, Galen of Pergamon (a Greek physician in the Roman Empire) used lucid dreams as a form of therapy (Boudon-Millot, 2012). In addition to these two scholars, in 415 AD, Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote about the story of a dreamer, Doctor Gennadius, and specifically refers to lucid dreaming in a letter he wrote (Hurd, 2009).

17th-19th Centuries

During the 1600s, Sir Thomas Brown, a philosopher and physician, wrote about his own ability to lucid dream in his Religio Medici (The Religion of a Doctor), a spiritual testament and psychological exploration of himself, "...yet in one dream I can compose a whole Comedy, behold the action, apprehend the jests and laugh my self awake at the conceits thereof" (Brown, 1878).

Samuel Pepys, a member of the British parliament wrote in his famous diary on August 15th, 1665: “I had my Lady Castlemayne in my arms and was admitted to use all the dalliance I desired with her, and then dreamt that this could not be awake, but that it was only a dream" (Pepys et al., 1991), referencing lucid dreaming.

In 1867, a French sinologist (an expert on Chinese studies) named Marie-Jean-Léon, Marquis d'Hervey de Saint Denys, published Les Rêves et Les Moyens de Les Diriger; Observations Pratiques (“Dreams and the ways to direct them; practical observations”) where he described his own experiences lucid dreaming and stated that it is possible for anyone to engage in this form of dreaming (de Saint-Denys, 1867).

20th Century

It wasn’t until the 20th century that researchers really began to study lucid dreaming through a much more objective and critical lens, relying on the scientific method to conduct experiments that investigated how and why lucid dreaming occurs.

In 1913, Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden officially coined the term “lucid dream” in an article titled “A Study of Dreams,” but since the article’s publication, some have noted that he was actually referring to a more specific phenomenon that had less to do with actually recognizing that you are dreaming (Blackmore & Inquirer, 1991).

The first official book on lucid dreams was Celia Green’s 1968 study titled Lucid Dreams. Green reviewed past literature on the topic and analyzed data she had gathered from subjects of her own. She then concluded that lucid dreams were a distinct form of dreams with their own unique characteristics and she posited that they likely occur during REM sleep (which we now know is correct!). Seven years later, the first set of scientific studies on lucid dreaming were conducted.

Inspired by reading Celia Green's book, British parapsychologist, Dr. Keith Hearne, used eye movement signals on an electrooculogram (EOG) machine to induce lucidity in Alan Worsley, an experienced lucid dreamer. Hearne demonstrated that actions agreed upon during waking life could then be not only recalled, but replicated once an individual becomes lucid in a dream.

Specifically, Hearne established a pre-defined set of eye movements that Worsley was then able to repeat once he was in a lucid dream, signaling his awareness. Because he was aware that he was dreaming, Worsley was able to take control of his state of consciousness and perform the agreed upon eye movements (Hearne, 1982).

Similarly, Stephen LaBerge of Stanford University ran a series of experiments in the 80s that investigated lucid dreaming. In 1985, he performed a pilot study that demonstrated that time perception is the same as during wakefulness. Specifically, he had participants go into a state of lucid dreaming and count out ten seconds, signaling the start and end with pre-determined eye movements measured with the EOG (LaBerge, 1990).

In another study, he had four participants either sing while dreaming or count while dreaming and found that the right hemisphere was more active during singing and the left hemisphere was more active during counting (LaBerge & Dement, 1982). These initial studies inspired a wave of research that looked into the specific differences in brain activity that occurs during lucid dreaming.

As a neurobiological approach to understanding lucid dreaming gained traction, neuroscientist J. Allan Hobson devised his own theory as to what was occurring in the brain while a dreamer is lucid. He hypothesized that the initial recognition that one is lucid may occur in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area that is deactivated during REM sleep and where working memory occurs.

Once this region is activated, Hobson argues that the dreamer must maintain a balance between letting the dreams continue but being conscious enough to recognize them – a process he says involves both the amygdala and parahippocampal cortex to be less intensely activated. In order to keep dreaming, the pons and the parieto-occipital junction cortex must remain activated (Hobson, 2001).

Although a singular study has yet to confirm the involvement of all of the aforementioned brain regions that Hobson hypothesized play a role in lucid dreaming, his neurobiological model inspired a flood of experiments that tried to understand this form of dreaming on the neurochemical level and discern what brain regions are actually involved. This will allow scientists to better understand how lucid dreaming occurs and how it might be beneficial or harmful to an individual.

Empirical Research

  • While there are many different brain regions involved in lucid dreaming, research studies have highlighted the specific role of the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the region responsible for complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, and decision making. During lucid dreaming, certain areas of the PFC demonstrate increased activity relative to normal REM sleep (Dreslet et al., 2012).
  • Other studies have pointed out that in lucid dreamers, the anterior PFC (aPFC) is larger in volume (Filevich et al., 2015). This provides further evidence that lucid dreaming and metacognition are tied together. Lucid dreams can also help improve the function of certain areas of the PFC.

    Specifically, one study found that those who experienced a greater degree of lucidity performed better on tasks that involved the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC; Neider et al., 2011). These studies help illustrate the role the PFC plays in lucid dreaming and the connections between lucid dreaming and metacognition.
  • In addition to the role the PFC plays in lucid dreaming, other research studies have investigated the connectivity between brain regions during lucid dreaming. In a 2018 study, Benjamin Baird and colleagues recruited 14 individuals who reported at least three lucid dreams per week along with a control group.

    The team used fMRIs on the participants to measure the functional connectivity of the aPFC and found that compared to the control group, the frequent lucid dreaming group showed significantly increased resting-state functional connectivity between the aPFC and multiple regions: the bilateral angular gyrus, bilateral middle temporal gyrus, and right inferior frontal gyrus.

    This study built off prior research that also found that a similar network of areas exhibited increased functional connectivity during lucid dreaming compared to normal REM sleep (Dresler et al., 2012). These studies help us better understand the role of the aPFC as being connected to metacognitive functions.
  • Because there is a degree of consciousness during lucid dreaming, cognitive scientists have been able to successfully establish two-way communication with an individual while they are asleep. In one experiment, those dreaming were able to consciously communicate with researchers via eye movements and facial signals, comprehend complex questions, and use working memory (Konkoly et al., 20121).

    Researchers in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States recruited 36 volunteers, some of whom were regular lucid dreamers and some who weren’t. After training them to recognize when they were dreaming, each lab used a different method to communicate with the sleeper, from spoken questions to flashing lights. The participants would move their eyes and face in certain directions in order to answer the questions.

    Over the course of the study, the researchers asked 158 questions, and the participants responded correctly 18.6% of the time, incorrectly only 3.2% of the time, and they either did not respond or gave unclear answers the remaining 78.2% of the time.

    This line of research could have implications for increasing creativity. These “conversations” can also help a dreamer solve problems and learn new skills, adding to the list of benefits of lucid dreams.

Benefits of Lucid Dreaming

  • Enhanced Creativity: Lucid dreaming often goes beyond recognizing that you are dreaming – it can give the dreamer the power to create and control anything within the dream. Thus, it provides you with a way to explore your creative boundaries, especially things that you may not be able to do in your daily life (Vallat & Ruby, 2019). Additionally, research has found that those who lucid dream rank higher on measures of creativity and people who lucid dream report feeling more creative as a result of the experience.
  • Relieve Anxiety: Research studies have also demonstrated that lucid dreaming can help reduce symptoms of anxiety of PTSD (Harb et al., 2016). Certain therapeutic conversations can help decrease any distressing content that may arise during dreams and promote relaxation, and then this can be applied to the waking state (Colic, 2007).
  • Fewer Nightmares: By taking control of your dreams, this may help prevent or soften the disturbing events of a nightmare (Vallat & Ruby, 2019). And because nightmares often worsen sleep quality, lucid dreaming may help lead to a healthier sleep schedule. Specifically, a 2006 pilot study revealed that lucid dreaming therapy treatment helped reduce the frequency of nightmares (Spoormaker & Van Den Bout, 2006).
  • Better Motor Skills: A few research studies suggest that it is possible that lucid dreams can help improve motor skills. If you engage in certain forms of mental rehearsal, whereby you rehearse motor skills in the dream state, this might improve subsequent performance of those specific skills (Stumbrys et al., 2016). This is by no means of an exhaustive list of all of the benefits, and because there is not an abundance of research in this domain, psychologists may continue to discover additional advantages to lucid dreaming or even reveal that lucid dreaming does not give way to some of these benefits.

Risks of Lucid Dreaming

  • Increase Psychopathology: Despite certain studies suggesting that lucid dreaming can help reduce anxiety in the waking state, other studies have revealed the exact opposite. For example, one study found that the techniques used to induce lucid dreams (such as MILD or WBTB) might lead to a higher risk of depression and anxiety. The study also found that people who have more intense lucid dreams may experience increased symptoms of psychopathology (Aviram & Soffer-Dudek, 2018). Other research suggests that lucid dreaming could exacerbate the symptoms of borderline personality disorder by increasing dream-reality confusion (Allan, 2019).
  • Decrease Sleep Quality: Because some of the methods for inducing lucid dreams require you to wake up in the middle of the night and interrupt your sleep cycle (such as WBTB), this can decrease both your sleep duration and quality (Vallat & Ruby, 2019). This, in turn, can have a negative impact on your mental health.

Conclusion

During lucid dreams, the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming and may be able to extend a certain degree of control over the content of the dream.

And they might be more common than we think: roughly 50% of all people experience at least one lucid dream during their lifetime, 23% of people have one a month, and 11% have two or more throughout a month (Saunders et al., 2016).

There are both benefits and risks of lucid dreaming, but more research is needed to better understand this phenomenon and the implications it has for humans at large.

About the Author

Charlotte Ruhl is a member of the Class of 2022 at Harvard University. She studies Psychology with a minor in African American Studies. On campus, Charlotte works at an implicit social cognition research lab, is an editor for the undergraduate law review, and plays softball.

How to reference this article:

Ruhl , C. (2021, July 07). How to lucid dream: 6 techniques, benefits, and cautions. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/lucid-dreams.html

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How to reference this article:

Ruhl , C. (2021, July 07). How to lucid dream: 6 techniques, benefits, and cautions. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/lucid-dreams.html

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