Here's how to master lucid dreaming to control your dreams and perform impossible feats.
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
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?
"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
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:
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."
There are three primary reasons why people try to willingly engage in lucid dreaming, Singh says:
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.
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."
Read more: Best Mattresses for 2022
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:
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."