Although no one knows the exact purpose of dreaming, the phase of sleep during which you dream seems vital to your functioning during the day. During dreams, you experience Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, when your eyes move behind your closed lids. REM sleep is also known as paradoxical sleep, because your brain stays “awake,” while your body stays “asleep.” After REM sleep, you may wake up completely for a brief period of time as your brain ramps up its activity, and then you return to deeper sleep stages. It’s possible that during that brief waking moment, you remember your dream or dream fragments, but you might forget it altogether. In a lucid dream, however, you know you’re dreaming. You not only remember your dream, but you actively participate in the activities taking place within it. You might even determine its content.
The topic of lucid dreaming tends to exist somewhat on the fringes of sleep psychology, but advocates believe that by becoming more engaged in your dreams, you will sleep better and be more creative in your waking life. University of Adelaide (Australia) psychologist Denholm Aspy and colleagues (2017) note that anecdotal reports of the phenomenon date back 2,000 years. It wasn't until 1975, when people in a sleep lab were first observed to move their eyes purposefully from right to left while in REM sleep in response to a pre-arranged instruction. In the decades following this discovery, lucid dreaming was used as a technique to reduce nightmares, improve physical abilities through rehearsal while dreaming, solve problems creatively, and to understand further the changes in consciousness that occur during the sleep cycle. This research was limited by the lack of effective lucid dreaming-induction techniques. The Australian team believe that they found a reliable way to do so, and reported on the success of their method. By learning what they did, it’s possible for you to incorporate this technique into your own life.
Using their example of a lucid dream from the study can help elucidate what it’s like to have one:
“‘I was in England talking to my grandfather when I remembered that (in real life) he had died several years ago and that I had never been to England. I concluded that I was dreaming and decided to fly to get a bird’s-eye view of the countryside.’”
This example shows how in lucid dreaming, you are aware, while dreaming, that the events you’re experiencing are in fact a dream.
Aspy and his collaborators believe that rather than teach people to go directly into the dream state from the wake state, it is preferable to provide instruction in going to the lucid dream state from the state in which the individual is already dreaming, in what is known as Dream-Induced Lucid Dreams (DILD). People can be sent into DILD via external stimulation, such as lights, sounds, or even a mild electric shock, which then become incorporated into their dream. When these stimuli are woven into the dream, the dreamer becomes aware that he or she is dreaming. From that point on, the lucid dream state can take place. The more practical approach is to use cognitive techniques, which don’t require any specialized equipment and can be more readily taught.
The Australian research team developed a cognitively based lucid dream instruction protocol as a way to provide data on how best to measure dream recall. By teaching their participants to go into the lucid dreaming state, they could better guarantee that participants would generate dreams they could then remember when awake. The sample of 169 participants was divided into 3 groups receiving different lucid dream instructions. For Week 1 of the study, participants kept logs of their dreams, and in Week 2, they received the set of instructions corresponding to their experimental group assignment. Prior to the experiment, participants answered a series of questions about their dreaming in general and their prior experience of having lucid dreams. They were also asked to indicate whether they’d ever tried to induce a lucid dream state in themselves on their own. The outcome variables in the study included recall of dreams in general, recall of lucid dreams, how much time they’d spent sleeping, their sleep quality, how tired they felt after awakening, and how sleep deprived they were on the previous day.
Before getting to the lucid dream techniques evaluated in the study, let’s see whether the participants who in fact engaged in lucid dreams showed any benefits compared to those who did not. Although they didn’t differ in the time spent asleep, the lucid dreamers felt they slept better, were less tired on awakening, and were less sleep-deprived from the previous day. Perhaps the largest difference was on the measure of the length of time it took to return to sleep after having a lucid dream. On the nights that participants reported having a lucid dream, it took an average of 10.6 minutes to fall asleep, but when they awoke after a non-lucid dream, it took them an average of nearly 27 minutes to return to their somnolent state. Given that these measures were self-report, the findings do suggest some advantages to learning how to be a lucid dreamer. It does seem, then, that there might be benefits to learning how to induce lucid dreams, especially if you’re a light sleeper, or someone who awakes feeling tired after spending what should be enough hours in bed.
Not all lucid dream induction methods were equally effective, and it seemed that the best way to ensure entry into the lucid dream state involved a combination of approaches. Furthermore, the one-week duration of the study may have been insufficient to allow participants to become fully accomplished in lucid dream induction. The most encouraging news is that lucid dreaming can be taught with written instructions, rather than through extensive laboratory training. People who wish to experiment with this technique can at least give this a try without committing to an expensive or time-consuming intervention.
Now let’s look at the interventions themselves with examples of how each might be used:
1. Reality Testing.
In this method of instruction, you actually work on your lucid dreaming while awake. This “daytime lucid dreaming” technique involves asking yourself, at least 10 times a day, whether you're dreaming or whether what's happening to you is real. The question is intended to be asked in a serious manner, and involves checking your surroundings for anything out of place or odd. As the authors note, “Reality testing is important because of the strong tendency for the dreaming mind to explain away the most obvious indicators that one is dreaming” (p. 208). Being able to know when you’re not dreaming will help you, they reason, know when you are, and therefore be in the lucid state.
2. Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (MILD).
In this method, you take advantage of prospective memory, when you tell yourself to do something in the future. In the MILD lucid dream method, you tell yourself that the next time you’re dreaming, you’ll remember that you’re dreaming. At the same time, you imagine yourself being lucid in a dream.
3. Wake Back to Bed (WBTB).
This method of learning how to have lucid dreams may seem a bit masochistic, but the Australian authors claim it is highly effective and can boost other lucid dream-induction techniques as well. For this method to work, you commit to waking yourself with an alarm after only 5-to-6 hours of sleep. You then force yourself to stay awake while you practice the MILD method. By engaging in this method, you should be more mentally alert, but also more likely to be able to follow your own instructions to be aware of your dreams while you're having them.
The combination of all three methods proved most effective in promoting lucid dream states in participants. That this could occur at all is remarkable, since nearly half of all adults report never having experienced a lucid dream in their entire lives. (There are dangers to lucid dreaming, and some people would be best advised to steer clear of the procedure.)
However you achieve it, being able to make your dreaming more accessible to your conscious mind could be what you need to improve your sleep quality, develop your uninhibited thoughts, and just enjoy the experience of being aware of the many fantastic images and stories that your unconscious mind can create.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017
Aspy, D. J., Delfabbro, P., Proeve, M., & Mohr, P. (2017). Reality testing and the mnemonic induction of lucid dreams: Findings from the national Australian lucid dream induction study. Dreaming, 27(3), 206-231. doi:10.1037/drm0000059