Lucid dreaming is one of those strange subjects that make occasional appearances in pop culture, perhaps most notably in the movie ‘Inception’, where the main characters enter the dreams of others and plant ideas, amongst other fun.
Perhaps as expected, the movie version is a way off the reality, Lucid dreaming is indeed a powerful practice and a fascinating subject to explore.
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What Is Lucid Dreaming?
First, let’s get our definitions straight. Lucid dreaming, occasionally also referred to as ‘wakewalking’, is simply the experience of dreaming and knowing that you are doing so, i.e. you are aware within the dream that you are dreaming. This may come with, but not necessarily, the ability to control aspects of the dream in unusual ways.
The term ‘lucid dreaming’ appears to have been first coined by Dutch Psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden in 1913, although he was far from the first to describe the practice. He recorded his dreams from 1898 to 1912, and categorised them into 7 different types of dream, one of which was ‘lucid dreaming’. Regarding lucid dreaming, he wrote that lucid dreams were “the most interesting and worthy of the most careful observation and study”.
How To Lucid Dream
The methods of cultivating lucid dreams are the subject of much more writing that can be covered in this article, but here are the basics with a brief description of how they can be performed. Below are some of the techniques you can use to help lucid dreaming, but you can also try lucid dreaming supplements (but that is beyond the scope of this article).
Record Your Dreams in a Journal
This is a practice which can seem laborious at first but will help cultivate lucid dreams in several ways. First, it helps you recall your dreams far more accurately that normal, especially when you use the journal first thing on waking up. Exactly how this helps encourage lucid dreaming is unclear, but it does indeed appear to help. It may be that journaling and increasing dream recall heightens your sensitivity to dream states and therefore you are able to recognise them more easily, but that is somewhat speculative.
The second way is does help, is that in processing your dreams through journaling you can learn to recognise dream signs. For example, you may identify that you fly a lot in your dreams, and hopefully, you are aware that you cannot fly when awake! In noticing this feature, you can sensitise your brain to associate ‘flying’ with the realisation that you are dreaming, and thereby become lucid.
Testing reality is not something that we often do normally, but it can help generate lucid dreams if we make a habit of it. It is very much like the old ‘pinch yourself to check you’re not dreaming’, although that is not a recommended method.
The idea is, somewhat like with dream journaling, that you are training your mind to recognise dream states vs waking states. In the setting of reality testing, you use techniques that you practice daily to develop a habit of testing whether you are dreaming or awake.
Some common examples include:
- Trying to push your fingers through your palms. If you are dreaming, they will go through (hopefully they won’t if you’re awake!).
- Pinching your nose and trying to breathe. If you’re dreaming, you will still be able to breathe through your nose.
- Staring in a mirror. In a dream your reflection would be distorted, but not if you’re awake.
This technique, wake back to bed (WBTB), is reportedly one of the most successful forms of lucid dream induction. The basic format is that you set an alarm for several hours before you would normally get up e.g. 4am if you normally rise at 7am, and then get up for a few minutes. What you do doesn’t matter too much, but obviously don’t wake yourself up so thoroughly that you can’t get back to sleep.
Perhaps, wake up, walk around for a few minutes, and then go back to bed. If you were dreaming on being woken, trying to focus on returning to that dream, with the focus that it is indeed a dream.
Why Bother Learning To Lucid Dream?
The benefits of lucid dreaming are a field of current study, so there is always more research emerging, but some of the relevant benefits are already clear.
One basic benefit, although this may be significant to those who suffer badly from nightmares, is that the power lucid dreaming affords you over your dreams, allows you to stop dreams heading in a direction you find unpleasant.
Monster chasing you? Zap it with your lighting bolt. Ship sinking? Fly away through the clouds. Drowning? Turn the water into butterflies who studiously bring you martinis while you head to the beach.
There is evidence that visualising yourself practicing a skill such as hitting a tennis ball, is a form of ‘practice’ that generates very real improvements in that skill. Similarly, lucid dreaming affords the same ability.
Dr Daniel Erlacher and Dr Michael Shredl performed a study on 40 participants, and found that those who practiced the skill while lucid dreaming showed significant improvement over those who did not. It’s worth noting that this is not a replacement for manual, waking world practice, but rather a supplement.
Imagine practicing your favoured skill each day, and then again each night! What an advantage over those who are simply sleeping or dreaming of fluffy bunnies and rainbows!
Explore Your Subconcious
WARNING: Potential woo-woo ahead. One area of lucid dreaming that the author finds particularly interesting is the possibility of exploring your own subconscious. There is a lot of research currently around the benefits of psychedelics for example, as a means of encountering other states of consciousness. Lucid dreaming is surely one of these ‘other states’, but one that does not require chemical support.
Interrogate the characters who populate your mind. Ask them why are they there? Call up characters at will. Explore your own mind in ways not possible during waking hours.
Disclaimer: The author doesn’t have any research to back this – it’s a speculative notion, so take these thoughts with a grain of salt.
Lucid dreaming is a powerful technique with potential we are just beginning to explore. It has a long history, much longer than mentioned in this article, and modern research is just now beginning to understand its promise. Do yourself a favour, and give lucid dreaming a go.