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Lucid Dreaming: How to Start Controlling Your Dreams, and the Benefits and Risks

Here's how to master lucid dreaming to control your dreams and perform impossible feats.

A woman floating in air in front of a window, with curtains and skirt billowing, and butterflies all around
Lucid dreams are controlled by the dreamer.
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Dreams have always been a bit of a mystery in our lives. No matter how fascinating or terrifying, some dreams can seem extremely real -- they can produce a series of emotions from happiness to fear. 

Most of the time, our dreams are a product of our subconscious. We're not in control: Our brain creates the images we see in dreams, despite how we feel about them. 

However, some people can fully control their dreams or at least control certain variables through lucid dreaming. These people are aware of their dreams (and aware of their awareness). If you've ever wanted to try lucid dreaming, keep reading for information about what it really is and for how-to tips from sleep experts. 

Read more: Is the Coronavirus Giving You Bad Dreams? Here's Why and How to Cope

What is lucid dreaming?

Lucid dreaming is the realization within a dream that it is a fantasy rather than reality, and for some people, the ability to change the story of your dream as it unfolds. "In a lucid dream, which takes place in REM sleep, you can control the narrative inside the dream," says Dr. Abhinav Singh, a sleep physician and the facility director of the Indiana Sleep Center and medical adviser to SleepFoundation.org. But how does it happen?

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"There is a theory that your prefrontal cortex [the brain area behind the forehead], which is responsible for logical decisions, seems to be active more than usual in people with lucid dreaming," Abhinav said. "The prefrontal cortex is supposed to be resting during REM sleep, but it somehow gets activated."

When lucid dreaming, people may alter the setting, characters or other elements of their dream, or even perform superhuman feats not possible in real life -- like flying and time traveling. Some people lucid dream to try to solve problems they're struggling with or to induce creativity for professional endeavors.

Read more: My COVID-19 Dreams Aren't Just Weird, They're Keeping Me Up All Night

How to start lucid dreaming

Not all sleep experts recommend lucid dreaming, but if you do want to test the waters, you can try a few beginner-friendly techniques to get started. Wayne Ross, senior sleep researcher at sleep information website InsideBedroom, recommends the following techniques: 

  • Read, talk and think about lucid dreaming throughout the day.
  • Avoid any screen time an hour before bedtime.
  • Maintain a dream journal. It's best to write down your dreams as soon as you wake up.
  • Recognize your dream signs (any person, place, thing or concept that regularly appears in your dreams).
  • Perform reality checks, such as asking yourself "Am I dreaming?" or checking a mirror to see if your reflection looks normal, multiple times per day. 
  • Set a nighttime alarm, wake up with your eyes closed and go back to sleep with the intention of lucid dreaming. 
  • Try to induce sleep paralysis.

Can lucid dreaming be dangerous?

A woman with red hair underwater and holding a yellow balloon

Experts don't generally view lucid dreaming as dangerous.

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Lucid dreaming typically isn't considered dangerous, because it doesn't put the dreamer or others at any imminent risk. However, Dr. Frida Rångtel, a sleep educator and science adviser at app maker Sleep Cycle, says it's possible that many of the techniques used to practice lucid dreaming can disturb sleep, which can potentially impact cognition and memory if the interruption is prolonged.

But according to the International Journal of Dream Research, lucid dreaming can lead to increased creativity. Lucid dreaming can also have therapeutic benefits like reducing recurring nightmares, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.   

Also, certain populations are more at risk for harm than others, says Dr. Dave Rabin, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at Apollo Neuro, a sleep and neurology company. If people with mental illness such as psychotic disorder, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia spend a lot of time engaging in lucid dreaming, they may begin to feel like they're "losing understanding of what is a dream and what is not," Rabin said. "Like anything, if you spend too much time doing something, it can have adverse side effects."

One final consideration: "Achieving episodes of lucid dreaming to experience an alternative reality can become addictive, similar to using drugs, sex or games to escape reality," said Inside Bedroom's Ross. "If left unchecked, the obsession or desire to spend more time in bed or in the pursuit of an alternative reality through lucid dreaming can have a negative impact on professional life, love life and social involvement." 

Why people purposely lucid dream

There are three primary reasons why people try to willingly engage in lucid dreaming, Singh says:

  • "One, they want to enter a state of altered consciousness by controlling their brain so they can do things out of their social context without using alcohol or hallucinogenic substances. They want to do things they're not able to do in real life.
  • "Two, there's a growing body of evidence showing that well-being, psychological growth, mental health and even PTSD can be improved by lucid dreaming or suggestive dreaming -- that people with PTSD or nightmares could use lucid dreaming to reshape the narrative so the story ends happily.
  • "Three, the idea of using lucid dreaming for wish fulfillment and creative problem-solving. So if you have writer's block, you can play this out again and again in your dream until you find a solution. Think of a musician who wakes up and writes [a] song -- that sort of thing."

But Singh, of the Indiana Sleep Center, said that research on lucid dreaming is extremely prone to bias, and that researchers aren't really able to create a controlled environment for study. "You don't really know who is or is not lucid dreaming," he said. "There's no placebo control. You can't do this on mice or rats. And while you can measure REM sleep easily in a lab, you don't know the content of those dreams." 

Essentially, all of the evidence is self-reported individuals, so it's virtually impossible to study lucid dreaming without scientific flaws. "We are very far from fully understanding lucid dreaming, and enough research hasn't been done," Singh said.

What to expect during a lucid dream

A woman in a red dress floating above a lawn

Lucid dreaming feels very vivid and lifelike -- until you wake up.

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Lucid dreamers have reported drifting into what's best described as hallucinations, Ross said, such as "seeing vivid colors, shapes, flashes of scenery and random people, [or] even hearing sounds." 

However, that list isn't exhaustive. "Lucid dreaming holds infinite possibilities of what an individual can experience during episodes," Ross said. "Dreamers report experiencing flying, teleporting, shape-shifting and anything else imaginable." Beginners in particular often report flying or "swimming" in air, he said.

Singh put it more plainly: Lucid dreamers, especially first-timers, should expect a "turbocharged and very, very vivid dream."

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What if you can't wake up from a lucid dream?

Silhouettes of people in the clouds

Send wakeup signals to your brain from within your dream to get out of a lucid dream.

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It can feel frightening to get stuck in a lucid dream. However, sending wakeup signals to your brain can trigger your brain to fully leave the dream state.

Try these tactics to get out of a lucid dream if you feel stuck: 

  • Repeatedly blink your eyes.
  • Cry out for help.
  • Make yourself fall asleep in the dream.
  • Read a book in your dream or do anything else the sleeping brain isn't capable of.

If after trying these out you have no luck waking up, don't panic – you'll eventually wake up. "The fear of being trapped in a lucid dream does sound scary, despite being able to control the events and aspects of it," Ross said. "However, one cannot get trapped inside a lucid dream indefinitely, as it is biologically impossible to stay asleep for too long a period of time. The dreamer will awaken no matter what, once the sleep cycle is over."

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.