Lucid dreaming, when one becomes aware of the fact they are dreaming while still asleep, is a sought-after experience because the dreamer can choose what they would like to experience and attempt to steer the dream to their desire. Lucid dreamers often are able to do things that are impossible in the waking world, like flying.
However, the actual level of control available in lucid dreams varies widely: Sometimes it is difficult even to control one’s body or to maintain lucidity, whereas other times individuals can actually make people or places appear in their dreams on command. Anecdotally, many techniques have been reported to increase one’s ability to control aspects of a lucid dream, but only recently a research study was conducted to systematically survey these "lucid dream control strategies."
A recent study collected surveys from a sample of 107 adults who reported having at least one lucid dream per year. Importantly, the survey asked about strategies to increase "high-level" control, which means being able to control the dream in a way that would be impossible in waking life, e.g. flying, going through walls, controlling the dream scene, making objects or characters appear or disappear, etc. This type of high-level control is more difficult to master than normal dream control, which can include making choices of how to act in a dream and controlling one’s own thoughts or bodily behaviors—for example, picking up an object, opening a door, speaking with a character, etc.
The survey contained a variety of questions, but most critical was the following open-ended question: “In the past 12 months, have you used one or more strategies that allowed you to exert a high-level control in a lucid dream or lucid nightmare? If yes, describe in detail.”
The researchers then completed a content analysis of the responses provided, describing five different categories of lucid dream control strategies reported by participants. These five categories included:
- Verbal strategies. Verbalization could be directed toward other characters, the dream, or even the subconscious mind. For instance, a lucid dreamer might tell another dream character "you are my guide, right?" or the dreamer could call out for a specific character to appear, such as a friend or family member. Other lucid dreamers reported stating expectations or yelling commands, like "around the corner I will find…" or "Pause… Freeze!"
- Dream object or environment strategies. Dreamers reported using portals or opening doors or going through walls to change dream settings. Another dreamer reached into their pocket to pull something out, or a dreamer could use a magic wand to make objects appear. This strategy could be inspired by movies or TV shows the dreamer has seen, where similar magical objects or portals appear.
- Bodily strategies. This included one report of "making jumps higher and higher," which gradually leads to the ability to fly, and another dreamer reported flapping their arms repeatedly, which led to dream flight. Other dreamers reported using hand motions to move objects as if by telekinesis.
- Emotion management strategies. This is a common strategy used in bad dreams, where the dreamer generates positive emotions to control the dream narrative. Some reported sending positive emotions towards threatening dream characters, hugging characters, or confronting a threat without any reaction. A couple of participants mentioned that using this control strategy led to the resolution of recurring nightmares.
- Other strategies. Several strategies mentioned did not exactly fit into the above categories. Some participants used imagination/visualization, e.g., "I was in an informal party and I added invitees just by thinking about them. I would think and they would pop up through the door." One participant reported just pretending to be an animal in order to transform into it fully.
In addition to the above control strategies, respondents also reported techniques to stabilize lucid dreams, and techniques used in waking life that they said helped to enable subsequent lucid dream control.
- Stabilization Techniques. 13% of participants reported using techniques to stabilize the dream or to maintain lucidity. These included focusing on stimuli in the dream, such as by visually inspecting dream objects, or focusing on the flow of breathing.
- Waking Strategies. Finally, several participants reported setting clear goals before sleep and rehearsing the desired goal in visualization prior to sleep. Additionally, 10% of the sample said having faith was important: "The more you are authentically convinced that it will work… the more it works easily and naturally."
Overall, the study is the first to collect such a large sample of lucid dream control strategies. Having control allows lucid dreamers to use their lucid dreams as they desire, perhaps simply for having fun (e.g., flying, having sex) or for psychological well-being (e.g., overcoming nightmares). It will be important to test whether lucid dream control strategies can be taught, for instance in the context of lucid dreaming therapy for nightmares (see this previous post). Even for frequent lucid dreamers, controlling the content of a dream can be difficult if the dreamer is not prepared with a goal and strategies for realizing that goal. Thus, having a variety of lucid dream control strategies on hand may enable individuals to harness lucid dreams for personal purposes.
Lemyre, A., Légaré-Bergeron, L., Landry, R. B., Garon, D., & Vallières, A. (2020). High-Level Control in Lucid Dreams. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 0276236620909544.