We all know how real dreams can seem. Lucid dreams are even more real - and have the advantage that you are in control. They are the ultimate "virtual reality".
What Are Lucid Dreams?
A lucid dream is as vivid and real as the "real" waking life. Yet you know you're dreaming; you can control the dream. In a lucid dream you can go anywhere, meet anyone, do anything. Anything you can imagine, you can experience as real.
Life's too short, we need to live every minute to the full. Lucid dreaming is a technique that allows us to make use of some of those hours otherwise wasted in sleep. In our lucid dreams we can put our dreams to some purpose: analyse our dream symbols, face our challenges and have fun!
People have been having lucid dreams for as long as the human mind has been dreaming. The first known use of the actual term "lucid dreaming" was by Frederik van Eeden in his work "A Study of Dreams" which was published in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research in 1913. (Van Eeden also wrote the novel The Bride of Dreams)
Since then the term has become part of mainstream popular culture. Lucid Dreams have recently been popularized by a number of books and films (including the brilliant Waking Life) along with the work of people such as Stephen LaBerge.
It's important to recognize that lucid dreaming - lucidity - occurs in the middle of true sleep. The imagery you experience on the edges of sleep - the hypnagogic & hypnopompic states - is not lucid dreaming.
Those states, fun as they are, are more akin to daydreaming. Imagine that but a hundred times sharper, more detailed and more real - that's the lucid dream experience. In a lucid dream you are totally conscious yet still asleep. You'll know it when you experience it.
This article will discuss some of the relevant facts and basics of lucid dreaming and introduce a few simple induction techniques to guide you through the process of achieving lucidity. Unless you're one of the lucky few you won't be able to have lucid dreams immediately. It will probably takes weeks or even months of work to learn lucid dreaming. Don't give up - the experience is worth the wait.
If you have any concerns that lucid dreams might not be right for you, or if you suffer from any medical condition, please consult your doctor.
Why Have Lucid Dreams?
Some people are instantly "wowed" by the idea of lucid dreaming. Others don't immediately understand the appeal: "It's just a dream".
Hopefully this article in general will go some way to dispel the idea of "just a dream". However what is the specific value of lucid dreams?
Well, first and foremost lucid dreams are great fun! However for those who want more serious motives, here are a few possible uses of lucid dreaming:
Just about every self-help programme ever devised stresses the power of visualization. Lucid dreaming is visualization taken to the next step.
In a lucid dream you can experience any scenario you want, any challenge you might be facing. Then you can rehearse it - not simply visualizing but actually experiencing your success. This helps to boost your confidence when you face the real situation.
Many creative people know that their best ideas come in dreams. Unfortunately ordinary dreams are often fleeting and don't come "on demand".
In a lucid dream you can summon up the dreams you want. You can play with ideas, combining some elements consciously then letting the subconscious take over.
Many people today are constantly on the go. The alarm clock jars them awake in the morning, they experience the stress of commuting to get to the office where they work late dealing with awkward colleagues and customers.
When they finally get home they grab a bite to eat, do a few chores and fall into bed - ready to do it all again tomorrow.
Sleep is physically relaxing, lucid dreaming can make it more so. After a hard day like this just being able to spend a few minutes in a lucid dream sitting on a warm beach watching the waves can leave you feeling so much better the next day.
We all have aspects of our life that need "closure". Sometimes these involve grief, perhaps due to break up or bereavement. No dream can undo what's been done, however in lucid dreaming at least you get a chance to explore alternative endings to a situation and to articulate the things you never said.
On a lighter note, it can also be a good opportunity to vent our feelings on those people who have annoyed us during the day!
How to Lucid Dream
People have been having lucid dreams since long before the name was coined. Some lucky people seem to know how to have lucid dreams without even trying.
Most of us have to learn lucid dreaming like any other skill.
You can buy various commercial devices to assist lucid dream induction. Some of these are designed to trigger a stimulus during REM sleep (when we do most of our dreaming). Whilst such devices can be an effective aid, most people can learn to dream lucidly without them.
The techniques for lucid dream skills are actually quite simple although they might take weeks or even months to get results. The key is simply to realize that you are dreaming. Then you become "lucid" whilst still asleep. You are conscious yet not awake.
There are essentially two aspects to this induction process:
- Learning to recognize your dreams
- Habitually questioning your state of consciousness
I've broken these two steps down into a few simple elements on the pages that follow, these should guide you through the process.
It doesn't work for everybody, but don't give up too soon. Some people learn lucid dream skills in a week, others take months before they first achieve lucidity. It's worth persevering.
The 4 Steps to Lucid Dreaming
Step 1: Question Your State
"Am I Dreaming?"
To become lucid you have to realize that you are dreaming. The best way to do that is to get into the habit of asking yourself: "Am I dreaming or awake?".
Simple, yes? Well, yes and no. It's easy to ask the question but it's also too easy to automatically answer "of course I'm awake". You need to stop and think.
You will always feel awake. You need to prove it to yourself.
How can you test whether or not you're dreaming? The old idea of pinching yourself doesn't work - you can feel a pinch in a dream.
Here are a couple of alternative suggestions:
- Replay the last few hours or minutes.
How did you get here? Where were you previously? Where are you going? In a dream, the answers to these questions are difficult if not impossible.
- Try reading something.
Reading more than a few words of text in a dream is difficult, the letters tend to flow and mutate. It's especially difficult if you try to read the same sentence or page twice.
- Check for your dream signs
See the dream signs page for more detail.
- Try to fly
Flying is one of the easiest things to do in a dream, yet few of us manage it in "real" life. Be sensible - don't try jumping off the roof. Just stand still and imagine yourself lifting off the ground. If you are dreaming, chances are it'll work.
You can probably think of other ways of testing your state - use whatever works best for you. Don't worry about what other people will think, they won't have any idea what you're doing.
For this questioning to work you need to do it frequently. Get used to questioning whether you're dreaming or awake any time something unusual happens, any time you find yourself in a surreal or bizarre situation.
You might even like to write the question "Am I awake?" on the back of a business card so that you see it every time you open your purse or wallet.
Get into the habit of questioning your waking state frequently and thinking carefully about the answer. You might find that alone habit is enough induce lucid dreams. However most people need to also use the other techniques on this site.
Step 2: Recording Your Dreams
To become aware that you're dreaming, you need to know what your dreams are like. You need to be able to recognize them.
To do this you will need to spend some time recording your dreams. You need to start a dream diary (also called a dream journal).
As always, some people are lucky. They remember almost all their dreams without any trouble. The rest of us tend to remember a few fragments - some people remember nothing at all.
Dream recall can be improved. Like anything else it's a matter of practice.
If you want to have lucid dreams then start a Dream Diary today. Get a notepad and a pencil and leave them by the side of the bed. Don't shut them in a drawer or put them across the room - you need to be able to grab them quickly without thinking about it. For this reason a pencil is probably better than a pen as you won't worry about getting ink stains all over the place!
Every time you wake up - be it morning or middle of the night - grab your notepad and jot down everything you can remember about your dreams. Record in your journal the location, people involved, even just vague feelings and emotions.
The dream memories will initially fade fast. As you write the first few words down the rest of the dream will fade away. This will improve with practice, over time you will be able to recall more of the dream. Sometimes memory of the dream will come back unexpectedly later in the day - write it down!
A good idea is to keep two Dream Diaries. The notebook by your bed will be your "rough" dream journal. Things will be scribbled in here whilst still half asleep and will probably be barely legible. Later on - within an hour if possible - transfer these notes to the "real" Dream Diary.
The very act of reading and writing the dream again so soon will help to encourage your dream recall and can sometimes bring back other fragments.
Some people are happy just to use an ordinary notepad for their main Dream Diary. Others prefer to buy a special journal, perhaps one that is leather bound or personalized, in order to make the dream diary "special".
Make a point of reading through your Dream Diary frequently, especially just before going to bed.
Under no circumstances should you show anyone your Dream Diary. Dreams are intensely personal, some of the things we dream we wouldn't want to share even with our closest loved ones. If you know that your Dream Diary might be read by someone else, you will tend to subconsciously censor it. Make your Dream Diary private - and honest.
A Dream Diary is a fascinating thing in itself, you might find all sorts of insights into your subconscious. In the context of lucid dreaming the purpose of a Dream Diary is to help you recognize your personal dream signs.
Step 3: Dream Signs
We all have occasional "recurring" dreams. On a subtler level, after you've been recording your dreams for a while you'll start to notice certain "themes" recurring. These are your Dream Signs - the clues that you are probably dreaming.
Once you have a few weeks of dreams recorded in your Dream Diary, sit down quietly and reread it all the way through. Make a note of all the recurring themes and images you come across. You'll probably be surprised at how many there are.
You might find it useful to sort these Dream Signs into categories. What categories you use is entirely up to you - the whole business of lucid dreaming is very personal. You might have "people, places and things", or "actions and emotions", or any other organisation.
Common Dream Signs
Some dream signs are common to many people, others will be intensely personal. Here are a few very common dream signs:
- Difficulty reading words: This has already been mentioned under Question Your State
- Flashing lights: Flashing lights are an easy dream sign to spot and some people buy lucid dream induction devices such as the DreamMaker (a replacement for the old Nova Dreamer).
- Ill-defined light sources: Excluding flashing lights, the ambient light in dreams usually seems to come from nowhere. There's always enough light to see by. In fact turning light switches on and off rarely works in dreams. That leads on to:
- Problems with mechanical objects: Mechanical objects either don't work or work in an overly simplified or complex manner. For example, the cord from electrical devices either runs directly into the wall without a plug or goes via a spaghetti-laden junction box that looks like something from a 1950s SF film!
- Dead people: Very often dead people are alive in our dreams. If you find a particular person appearing frequently then this is a good Dream Sign to note. Obviously you won't see that person in the "real" world, however you can train yourself to question your state every time you think of them.
Personal Dream Signs
Here are a few of my own personal dream-signs:
- Running for a train: This is a standard "anxiety" dream of mine. Usually I am on one platform of the station and the train is about to leave from another platform the other side of the station.
- Lost shoes: For some reason I frequently realize in a dream that I have lost a shoe - usually only one not both!
- Birds: Lucid dreams for me sometimes include birds. Dreams like this often begin as unpleasant ones, possibly a result of early exposure to the Hitchcock film "The Birds"! Lucid dreaming allows me to take control of an otherwise unpleasant experience.
The best Dream Signs are actually those that also occur in "real" life. That makes it easier to train yourself to recognize them.
Step 4: Noticing Dream Signs
By now you've learned how to question your state, you've kept a Dream Diary and analyzed it to learn your personal Dream Signs.
You're almost there!
In fact, you might already be dreaming lucidly. If not there's just one step left to lucidity.
You need to start noticing your Dream Signs in the waking world. Depending on how many Dream Signs you've identified, you might want to start by concentrating on just the most common or you might want to look out for all of them.
Remember, Dream Signs don't have to be spectacular. In fact the best ones are those that you might normally not even notice.
- Light bulb blown? Has it really, or is it just a mechanical light source not working?
- Car won't start this morning?
- Late for the train?
Every time something happens that could be a Dream Sign, stop. Take a deep breath then ask yourself "Am I awake or dreaming?" Remember to think carefully about the answer.
Sooner or later the answer will be "I'm dreaming!". At that moment you'll become lucid.
Have fun! If you wake too soon, try the spin technique. You might also like to consider creating a dream guide for yourself.
Best Lucid Dreaming Techniques
1. Wake Induced Lucid Dreams
Most lucid dreams come during the depths of sleep, in the middle of REM sleep. However some people have lucid dreams where the switch from waking to sleeping appears almost instantaneous. Rather than "waking up" in the middle of a dream and becoming lucid, they go into the dream already conscious.
Such lucid dreams are called WILDS - Wake Induced Lucid Dreams - as opposed to the more common DILDs - Dream Induced Lucid Dreams.
Very often WILDs first occur spontaneously. After waking up, the sleeper will suddenly find themselves "back" in the dream world with no break in consciousness.
Some people can induce WILDs at will - others find it impossible. Some experience of "normal" (DILD) lucid dreams is certainly desirable before attempting to consciously initiate WILDs.
The basic method for WILD induction is to relax in a dark, quiet room and simply will yourself into the dream state. The process is in some ways akin to deep meditation or self-hypnosis. Some people have reported success using one of the various light / sound machines you can buy.
Out of Body Experiences (OOBE)
Moving into the WILD state is often associated with a feeling of leaving one's body. For this reason WILDs are frequently associated with Out Of Body (OOB) Experiences and are sought out by those who take a psychic approach to lucid dreaming.
At least one technique for inducing OBEs has also been reported as useful for inducing WILDs: whilst relaxed, close your eyes and visualize the room you are in. Visualize yourself, sitting or laying down. Make sure that you can really see every detail. Open your eyes, check the accuracy of your visualization, then close your eyes again and repeat. Once you have the room fixed, visualize yourself moving out of your body, out of the room and into the desired dream.
2. Mnemonic Induced Lucid Dreams (MILD)
The MILD technique is a system originally developed by Stephen LaBerge to assist in dream recall and in having lucid dreams. Unlike WILDs, the MILD technique is solely intended for use when sleeping.
There are now many slightly different modifications to the technique around, what follows is the one I use. As always, do whatever works best for you.
MILD stands for Mnemonic Induced Lucid Dream, which is rather a mouthful. All it really means is conditioning your mind to make it more likely that you will become lucid. It's a little like self-hypnosis or affirmations.
The MILD technique is usually used when going to bed and reinforced if you awake during the night. Some people have used it during the day before a nap - though there is a danger here of confusing true lucid dreaming with hypnagogic/hypnopompic imagery.
To start, prepare for bed and get yourself comfortable and ready for sleep. Now simply relax. Let your mind drift away, peaceful and comfortable.
Think about dreaming, feel that warm, peaceful sensation.
Now start to tell yourself that you will become lucid in your dreams. Tell yourself that when you awaken you will remember your dreams. You don't have to do anything, it will just happen, it is the way it will be.
Imagine yourself dreaming, see yourself in a dream, move into the dream. If you have any established dream signs, imagine them in your dream. Fully associate with being in the dream, with recognizing your dream signs, with becoming lucid. And know that you will remember your dreams when you awaken. It will just happen.
Let yourself dream about dreaming and dream about waking and drift gently into a peaceful, relaxing sleep.
If you're lucky you might become lucid in your next dream cycle. If you wake during the night, try to remember the dream you had, recreate it in your mind and step back into it. Imagine yourself recognizing the dream and becoming lucid as you slip back into sleep.
That's the basic principle, obviously you need to adjust the details to suit you.
Frequently Asked Questions About Lucid Dreaming
Can I Get Stuck in the Dream World?
Many people worry that they might become "stuck" in a lucid dream. This fear is probably fuelled by the number of stories and TV shows that have used this device.
In fact it's far more likely that the shock of becoming lucid will wake you too early.
Experiments have shown that time in dreams seems to flow at the same rate as time in the "real" world. If that's so then how come some of our dreams seem to last hours, days or even longer?
The answer seems to be that dreams are "cinematic".
A Broken Arrow
Cinematic? That just means that - like a film - our dreams tend to concentrate on the interesting bits of the story and leave out most of the boring, mundane stuff. Films almost always cover a period of time longer than the two hours you spend in the cinema.
Imagine you're watching a movie and the main character wants to drive from home to the office. You'd probably see a shot of them getting into the car, maybe a couple of shots of the journey with scenery or traffic jams to set the mood, then a shot of the car pulling up in front of the office. A trip of half an hour or more would probably be reduced to around fifteen seconds screen time.
Dreams work the same way.
This can cause problems for some lucid dreamers. Imagine you are dreaming that you are in your apartment. You look out of the window and see a party in the street below. You want to join in.
Many people would automatically walk out of the room into the hallway, to the front door, open it, walk down the stairs, out into the street... By which time they might have woken up!
The way round this is to practice having your lucid dreams work in the same cinematic fashion as ordinary dreams. Get into the habit of just saying to your mind "make it so"!
Simply will yourself to be out of your apartment and in the middle of the party, without all that tedious mucking about in normal space in between. If you really have trouble with this then you could try imagining some form of teleportation effect.
Life is short. Dreams are shorter. Don't waste them.
What are False Awakenings?
False awakenings are often confused with lucid dreams, perhaps because learning lucid dream techniques seem to make one more prone to false awakenings.
A false awakening is very simple: it occurs when you believe that you have woken up but in fact are still asleep. You in effect dream about having woken up.
Literature and the movies have used the concept of false awakenings to great dramatic effect. Often in a film someone will wake from a nightmare situation and believe themselves safely in bed. Then, a few seconds later, the monster will leap out of the cupboard or whatever.
The reality is often more prosaic. Certainly in my case false awakenings just see me going through my normal waking routine. A cup of tea, breakfast, possibly even travelling to work - and then I wake up for real.
For me at least false awakenings are more common when I have something in the day ahead that I am either strongly looking forward to - or really dreading!
Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of false awakenings is that they often seem to repeat themselves.
In such multiple false awakenings, you believe yourself to be awake, go about your routine, then find yourself back in bed. You think "Oh, I was still dreaming", get up and go about your routine... then find yourself back in bed. This can repeat several times and the concept of being trapped in an infinite set of false awakenings has inspired much fiction.
False awakenings share the "clarity" of a true lucid dream and to an extent the dreamer has control over the environment. The crucial difference is that unlike a true lucid dream, in a false awakening you do not realise you are still asleep. As such you don't achieve true lucidity and your control of the dream world is limited.
How Can I Avoid Waking from My Lucid Dreams?
Some people fear that they will be "trapped" in a lucid dream and never wake. In reality, most people find that they wake from the lucid dream state far too easily. This especially true when you're new to lucid dreaming; the sudden realisation "I've done it!" can shock you awake.
The spin technique is a widely used method to prevent lucid dreams from ending - or at least to delay the moment.
If you feel yourself beginning to wake from a lucid dream, the spin technique is very simple to use. Just stand still, extend your arms, then start to spin on the spot.
Start slowly then gradually speed up. As you see the world around you spinning and the colors flowing, think of the dream location you want to see when you stop. Then slowly stop spinning and with any luck you'll be back in lucidity.
Why does this work?
One hypothesis is that when a dream starts to fade the visual effect is very similar to spinning - colors and shapes start to run and mix. By spinning, you are incorporating this visual factor into the dream, making it part of the dream. That somehow persuades your brain to stay dreaming.