What Is a Lucid Dream?

How to increase your chances of lucid dreaming

Verywell / Nez Riaz

A lucid dream occurs when a person is asleep but aware that they are dreaming. In this state, a person can take control of their dream’s narrative to some degree, essentially guiding and directing the course of their dream.

Because this type of sleep is associated with awareness and the reflection of this awareness, it is often associated with what is known as metacognition. Metacognition involves the awareness and understanding of your own thought processes.

Research suggests that lucid dreaming and metacognitive functions share similar neural systems. This means that people with heightened abilities to monitor their own thoughts may be more likely to experience lucid dreams.

Just like regular dreams, lucid dreaming occurs most frequently during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. REM sleep is a phase of sleep that is characterized by rapid movements of the eyes, lack of muscle tone throughout the body, and a tendency to dream.

History of Lucid Dreaming

Awareness of dream states during a dream played a role in Eastern religious traditions including Buddhism. The first written record of a lucid dream was described by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. In his work On Dreams, he described reaching a state of awareness of his dreaming state.

While the phenomenon was first observed and described thousands of years ago, it was not until the nineteenth century that scientists began to take a more formal look at lucid dreaming. Not until the last few decades have researchers utilized objective scientific methods to actually study what happens during a lucid dream.

Research during the 1960s and 1970s led to the discovery that lucid dreams were associated with REM sleep and the creation of the electrooculogram (EOG) that could be used to detect a pre-determined set of eye movements in order to signal awareness.

The development of technology such as the electroencephalogram (EEG) and other tools that allow researchers to look more closely at what is happening inside the brain during sleep has led to increased research on changes in brain activity during lucid dreaming.

How to Know If Your Dream Is Lucid

During most non-lucid dreams, people are not aware of the fact that they are dreaming. A common characteristic of these dreams is that even when truly strange things happen within the dream, it seems real. It is only after people wake that they realize that it was only a dream.

When having a lucid dream, however, there is a recognition that what is happening is not real and that it is taking place within a dream. This often allows the dreamer to exert some degree of control over what is happening.

How do you know if you have had a lucid dream? Some signs that you might have had this experience in the past:

  • You were aware that you were asleep and dreaming.
  • Your dream was very vivid.
  • You were able to exert some degree of control over the events or scenery in your dream.
  • Your emotions were very intense.

Prevalence

How many people have lucid dreams? How frequently do they experience them? Research suggests that the spontaneous experience of lucid dreaming tends to be fairly infrequent, but many people report having them at least once. Experiencing lucid dreams on a frequent basis, however, appears to be fairly uncommon.

  • Approximately half of all people will have at least one lucid dream during their lifetime. 
  • Around 23% of people have one lucid dream per month.
  • However, only 11% of people report having two or more lucid dreams over the course of a month.
  • The results of one study suggested that lucid dreaming tends to be more common in women and may decrease in frequency as people age.

Lucid dreaming tends to be rare. Even people who are known to frequently have lucid dreams only report having one or two such dreams each month.

Uses

Because lucid dreaming is such a vivid experience, it appeals to those who want to explore their inner dream world with greater awareness. The idea of lucid dreaming is so intriguing to people because, as some researchers suggest, it is “the ultimate form of immersive experience.”

“[Lucid dreaming] offers a (free) unique and fantastic world in which everything may become possible or controllable and feels real without putting the dreamer at risk,” suggest researchers in an article published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. This combination of fantastic sensory and emotional experiences, they suggest, is what makes lucid dreaming so highly desirable.

Aside from the novelty of the experience, could lucid dreaming have any practical applications? While this is an area where further research is needed, it may have some possible uses. Some potential benefits are listed below.

Enhanced Creativity

Because lucid dreaming allows the dreamer to invent or create anything within the dream, it could be an exciting way to explore creatively and safely within the confines of a dream.

Because the dreamer has some degree of control over the characters, scenery, and events of the dream, it could be a way to experience and explore things that a person might not be able to do in everyday life.

People who tend to lucid dream more also tend to rank higher on measures of creativity, but people also report feeling more creative and inspired by the experience itself. 

Fewer Nightmares

Some researchers believe that lucid dreaming might have some therapeutic effects, particularly for addressing nightmares. Bad dreams can interrupt sleep and can play a role in reducing the quantity and quality of sleep.

Lucid dreaming could allow people to take control of their dreams and either prevent nightmares from happening or redirect the events of the dream toward something more pleasant or relaxing. 

Less Anxiety

Some suggest that lucid dreams might be useful for reducing symptoms of anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Because the dream allows people to explore situations with a degree of control, they could do things like practice doing things that normally give them anxiety or learning to relax in situations that would normally cause them stress if they were to experience it in the real world.

Other Applications

According to the results of one study published in the International Journal of Dream Research, the most frequently cited applications for lucid dreams were:

  • Having fun (81.4%)
  • Changing a bad dream or nightmare into a pleasant one (63.8%)
  • Solving problems (29.9%)
  • Getting creative ideas or insights (27.6%)
  • Practicing skills (21.3%)

Such findings suggest that lucid dreaming may have a number of different uses. Further research is needed to explore whether people can learn to lucid dream and the possible effects that the dream state may actually have.

Research on Lucid Dreams

Lucid dreaming can be difficult to study. Because it is uncommon, it is difficult to find participants who are able to experience this type of dreaming in a lab setting.

How exactly do researchers study lucid dreaming? During REM sleep, people who are experiencing a lucid dream maintain the same brain activity and muscle paralysis that are hallmarks of REM sleep. However, they are able to communicate their experience of lucid dreaming through predetermined eye movements that can be detected and monitored. 

While researchers continue to find new ways to investigate the phenomenon, they still aren’t sure exactly why people have lucid dreams. Research has shown, however, some ways that lucid dreaming may be unique from normal dreaming.

One study found that people who are experiencing a lucid dream exhibit brain activity that seems to be a hybrid of both REM sleep and wakefulness.

Other studies have found that certain areas of the prefrontal cortex appear to exhibit increased activity during lucid dreaming compared to standard REM sleep. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain associated with higher-level cognitive tasks such as decision making and memory recall.

The research shows that the anterior prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with higher levels of self-reflection, is larger in people who report having frequent lucid dreams. The researchers suggest that people who are more likely to engage in such self-reflection during normal waking life are also more readily able to take control of their dreams.

How to Experience a Lucid Dream

There are a few things that you can do to help increase your chances of experiencing a lucid dream. Some strategies that can help include:

  • Get more REM sleep: The best way to get more REM sleep is to increase the amount of quality sleep that you get each night. Improve your sleep habits by following a consistent sleep schedule, avoiding electronics before bed, skipping heavy meals and caffeine later in the day, and maintaining a comfortable sleep environment.
  • Keep a dream diary: Some people report that maintaining a dream diary makes it more likely that they will experience lucid dreams. The act of focusing more on dreams may help you become more aware of the experience when it happens.
  • Mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (MILD): In this technique, you tell yourself repeatedly that you will dream and that you will be aware that you are dreaming. The technique relies on a form of memory known as prospective memory, or the ability to remember future events, to activate a lucid dream state.
  • Practice reality testing: This process involves doing checks while awake and asleep to determine if one is dreaming. For example, you might try pressing your finger against a wall to see if you are dreaming. If you are not, the solid wall would stop your finger. In a dream, however, your finger might simply pass through the wall. Getting used to doing reality testing while awake may help make it easier to do it while you are asleep.

Potential Pitfalls

There are a number of factors that can play a role in whether or not you experience lucid dreaming. While lucid dreaming may have some mental health benefits, there is some evidence to suggest that it may also have some downside. Some things to remember:

  • Negative mental health impacts: Some research suggests that lucid dreaming might actually have a negative connection to mental well-being. One study found that people who have more intense lucid dreams also tend to experience increased symptoms of psychopathology. The study also suggested that the techniques used to induce lucid dreams may also have potential long-term risks, including a higher risk for sleep problems, depression, and dissociation.
  • Sleep interruptions: Because a lucid dream can be so vivid and emotional, they have the potential to interrupt your sleep. Also, some of the methods used to help induce lucid dreams are centered on deliberately interrupting sleep. The MILD technique, for example, is most effective if a person wakes up during the night, stays awake for approximately 30 to 120 minutes, and then falls back to sleep. Such methods may help induce lucid dreams, but they can also play a role in reducing sleep duration and quality. Poor sleep can then have a negative impact on your mental health and well-being.
  • You might be more likely to have bad dreams. Invoking dreams that are both vivid and emotional could potentially make it more likely that nightmares will occur.
  • Your personality might play a role. Some research has suggested that lucid dreaming and certain personality traits may be connected in some way. One study found that lucid dreamers tend to have a greater internal locus of control. They also score higher on measures of a need for cognition and creativity. Another study found that there were small correlations between lucid dreaming and certain aspects of the Big 5 personality trait known as openness to experience.

So while there are things that you can do that may help make it more likely that you will spontaneously experience a lucid dream, it is impossible to guarantee that you will be able to induce the experience.

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