How to Lucid Dream
Alicia Roth, PhD, DBSM
Alicia Roth, PhD, DBSM is a Clinical Health Psychologist & Staff at the Cleveland Clinic, where she specializes in Behavioral Sleep Medicine. She completed her doctoral training at the University of Florida, Internship at the Baltimore VA, and Behavioral Sleep Medicine Fellowship at The Cleveland Clinic. Her work focuses on treating a range of sleep disorders, […]
Lucid dreaming is a hybrid state of consciousness—somewhere between REM sleep and being awake—when the dreamer is aware they are dreaming. During a lucid dream, people often report being able to take some control of the actions or narratives in their dream. While 55 percent of people have experienced at least one lucid dream in their life, 23 percent of people report experiencing them once a month or more.
What is Lucid Dreaming?
Lucid dreaming is a dissociated state featuring aspects of both dreaming and waking. While lucid dreaming has REM-like power in frequency bands, our overall coherence levels are much higher than REM sleep. In fact, coherence levels while lucid dreaming is very similar to waking levels. This hybrid state of consciousness produces a set of characteristics unique from waking and sleeping.
According to German psychologist Paul Tholey, some of those characteristics include:
- Full awareness of the dream state
- Awareness of the possibility of making free decisions
- Clear consciousness of the dreamer
- Perception by all senses
- Full memory of waking life
- Full memory of all lucid dream experiences in the waking state and in the lucid dream state
- Awareness of the meaning of symbols
So when exactly do lucid dreams happen? According to Dr. Keith Hearne, a British psychologist who was the first person to create scientific proof of lucid dreaming, lucidity is consistently preceded by a REM burst and is typically triggered in one of two ways. One is when someone is dreaming and an unusual occurrence causes them to realize they are in fact dreaming. The second is when someone wakes from dreaming and quickly falls back asleep without a break in consciousness.
Lucid dreams usually occur on their own, however, you may be able to induce one on purpose with a little bit of practice and easy daily habits. In this post, we explain what exactly a lucid dream is and discuss steps for how to experience one. We also share the positive effects and potential drawbacks regular lucid dreaming can have.
1. Set an Alarm
Before falling asleep, set an alarm clock for five to six hours later.
This is the first step in the Wake Back To Bed (WBTB) method, an effective technique for inducing lucid dreaming.
2. Tell Yourself You Will Realize You’re Dreaming
As you’re falling asleep, tell yourself—out loud—you want to realize you are dreaming tonight. Keep repeating this to yourself so it’s the last thing you remember before falling asleep.
Assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard, Deirdre Barrett, says this is the most important thing you can do to learn how to lucid dream. And it’s known as the Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (MILD) technique. A study by the International Lucid Dream Induction Study found this technique to be effective for inducing lucid dreams.
3. Assess Your Reality
Performing a reality check is a great way to differentiate yourself from real life and the dream world, and to see if you’re lucid dreaming. Check common things like text in a book or the time on a clock. Text will morph and change in a dream while time on a clock will move quickly or go backward. You can also look at your hands or feet; in a dream, they often appear distorted.
These tricks often take training and practice in order to be able to execute in your dream. Experts suggest assessing your reality throughout the day to train your brain. You can do this by performing reality checks 10 times a day. Common reality checks include:
- Pushing your finger into your palm to see if it goes through
- Look in a mirror to see if your image is distorted
- Pinch your nose to see if you can still breathe
- Look at text several times to see if it changes
- Check the time to see if it moves faster or slower or backward
4. Wake Up
When your alarm goes off, get out of bed and wake yourself up. Stay alert for 20 to 60 minutes by reading or doing something to keep your brain occupied.
5. Go Back to Sleep
Go back to bed and relax. If you’re having a difficult time falling back asleep, perform the MILD technique again, reminding yourself you’ll be aware of your dream.
Other Ways to Encourage Lucid Dreaming
There are additional daily habits you can adopt that will increase your chances of experiencing a lucid dream, like keeping a dream journal and getting more sleep overall.
Keep a Dream Journal
Keeping a small journal to record your dreams each morning is a great way to encourage lucid dreaming. This technique trains your brain to become more involved and focused on your dreams. It also helps to recall them later on, since we typically remember dreams more vividly right when we wake up. The more you recall and log your dreams, the more you’ll train your brain to remember and focus on them.
When writing in your dream journal, be as descriptive as possible. Try to recall colors, shapes, people, places, your location, and the weather. Even your emotions and feelings should be logged as well. Try to also record any dream signs, which are things that recur often in your dreams.
Record and Identify Themes
After you’re in the habit of keeping a dream journal, look back and try to identify any themes or regular occurrences throughout. Key events, people, and places are all important factors to take note of. Not only does this help you understand your dreams more, taking note of themes teaches your brain how to identify a dream while in the conscious state.
Get More Sleep
One of the easiest ways to encourage more lucid dreaming is to simply get more sleep. Lucid dreams typically happen during the REM stage of sleep. The more time spent in this stage, the better your chances of experiencing a lucid dream. Get more REM sleep by practicing good sleep habits including:
- Follow a regular sleep schedule
- Exercise daily
- Avoid caffeine and limit time spent on technology prior to bedtime
- Create a relaxing sleep environment
Potential Benefits and Drawbacks of Lucid Dreaming
Lucid dream research is still somewhat new and the clear benefits and disadvantages aren’t quite known. However, there have been some studies to suggest certain effects of lucid dreaming.
There are a few benefits believed to be gained from lucid dreaming. Sleep expert Alicia Roth, PhD, DBSM, points out that one study by Bourke & Shaw. Bourke, P., & Shaw, H. (2014) showed frequent lucid dreamers are better at problem-solving than non-lucid dreamers. Other research found that lucid dreaming can alleviate recurring nightmares, though the evidence is not conclusive. Some benefits of lucid dreaming include:
- Relieve anxiety
- Improve motor skills
- Solve problems
- Reduce frequency or intensity of nightmares
Since lucid dreaming requires focus, especially when induced, there are many studies to suggest it leads to poor sleep quality. And since lucid dreaming features an unnatural brain state, further concerns arise regarding psychotic episodes. Some potential drawbacks of lucid dreaming include:
- Potentially disruptive to sleep
- May cause sleep paralysis
- May increase depressive symptoms
- May increase deliria and hallucinations
Of course, Dr. Roth also notes, “Lucid dreaming is always a very popular topic of discussion, but there’s still so much we have to learn about lucid dreams and dreams in general”
Can you lucid dream every night?
Most people will experience lucid dreams infrequently. And just a small percentage of people report experiencing lucid dreams several times a week. It’s very unlikely you’ll be able to lucid dream every night.
Is it safe to lucid dream?
Experiencing a lucid dream is considered safe and harmless. However, inducing lucid dreams regularly should be avoided. There is not yet enough research on the effects of lucid dreaming, and current evidence suggests regular lucid dreaming can disrupt sleep, leading to inadequate rest.
What causes sleep paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is a type of parasomnia typically occurring when you’re falling asleep or as you’re waking up. Like other parasomnias, sleep paralysis happens when a sleep and wake stage combine. With sleep paralysis, your body is still in the REM stage of sleep, when your arms and legs are temporarily paralyzed to prevent you from acting out your dreams, while your mind is awake.
Sleep paralysis is harmless and can happen when we don’t get enough sleep. Most people will experience it a few times in their life, however, a regular occurrence may indicate an underlying issue.
What are the stages of sleep?
There are two types of sleep, rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM, which contains four stages of sleep. During a typical night of sleep, you will cycle through all four of these sleep stages several times. With each cycle, the REM stage gets longer.
Stage 1 non-REM is the transition from wakefulness to light sleep. Your heartbeat, breathing, and eye movements slow as your muscles begin to relax. Stage 1 non-REM usually lasts a few minutes and someone in this stage can easily be woken up.
Stage 2 non-REM is a period of light sleep when your muscles further relax, eye movement stops, and your body’s temperature drops. Brain activity also begins to slow.
Stages 3 of non-REM is a period of deep sleep that helps us to feel refreshed and relaxed in the morning. Our breathing and heartbeat reach their lowest levels during this stage, and brain waves slow even more. It’s typically difficult to wake someone from this stage of sleep.
REM sleep is marked by rapidly shifting eye movement. Brain wave activity reaches levels closest to wakefulness and breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure all increase. During this stage, arm and leg muscles become temporarily paralyzed to prevent you from acting out dreams.
What stage of sleep do you dream in?
The majority of dreaming takes place during rapid eye movement (REM), the last stage in the sleep cycle. REM sleep occurs roughly 90 minutes after falling asleep. While most of our dreams happen during REM, it’s possible to also dream during non-REM stages as well, although not as common.
Lucid dreaming is a rare occurrence for most people but with a little bit of practice, it’s possible to induce one. While lucid dreaming is safe, it’s important to attempt it responsibly. Frequently inducing lucid dreams can disrupt your overall sleep and lead to poor rest.
Training your brain to recognize when you’re dreaming is the key to achieving lucidity safely. Performing reality checks throughout the day and keeping a dream journal will help train your brain to consciously differentiate the real world from the dream world. Lastly, getting more sleep will increase your chances of experiencing a lucid dream as well as leave you feeling refreshed and rested.