The Ways to Control Dreaming

The science of lucid dreaming—in which the sleeper is aware she is dreaming—and how it could affect waking life

An artistic rendering of one of the author's dreams (Munkyeong Kim/Dreame)

In 2008, Isaac Katz, a civil service officer, passed away just before reaching his 78th birthday. He had been struggling with cardiovascular problems for some time. His son, Arnon Katz, now a 47-year-old tech entrepreneur, was beside himself with grief, and frustrated by the fact that he would never speak to his father again.

At the time, the younger Katz had been training himself to lucid dream—a phenomenon in which the dreamer becomes aware they are dreaming and can potentially control their actions as well as the content and context of the dream. But despite keeping a dream journal and diligently practicing other techniques, hadn't had any success. All that changed, though, a year after his father’s death.

Katz recalled in a recent phone interview that he was mid-dream when his mother suddenly warned him in a voiceover, "Hey, you're dreaming right now, so don't take what your father is saying too seriously."

Katz told me, "Suddenly everything slowed down and became incredibly vivid and real. I knew I was dreaming, but I felt I was with my father and could choose what to say as if I was awake. When I woke up, I realized that our brains are capable of creating an entire reality apart from waking life." Many other lucid dreamers have said something similar.

Katz said the experience allowed him to finally "close the circle." The frustration he felt in the year following his father's death was gone.

Lucid dreams are generally understood to occur exclusively during REM, the final phase of the sleep cycle that is most closely related to wakefulness and the one generally associated with dreams. Research on the prevalence of lucid dreamers suggests that if you've never had a lucid dream, you may be in the minority.

In a 2004 study of psychology undergrads in Germany, 82 percent of participants reported having experienced a lucid dream at least once. In Japan in 2008, 47 percent of surveyed undergrads had experienced a lucid dream, with 19 percent of participants lucid dreaming frequently (at least once a month). A recent Brazilian study found that 77 percent of those surveyed had experienced a lucid dream.

Another German study attempted to understand lucid dreaming as it relates to age and surveyed students between the ages of 6 and 19. They found that by age 19, more than 50 percent of the sample had experienced at least one lucid dream, with the frequentness of lucid dreams decreasing with age. In a less scientific survey, I was amazed at the number of friends and family members I discovered over the course of writing this article who have lucid dreams.

While it might be possible to broadly estimate how many people have experienced a singular lucid dream, it’s perhaps more difficult to determine how many people are deliberately doing so. Dr. Daniel Erlacher, a sleep researcher and lecturer of sports sciences at the University of Bern who contributed to two of the studies cited above, told me that when we talk about very frequent lucid dreamers—those who have multiple lucid dreams per week—the figure drops to around one percent. These are the people researchers want to get into their labs.

But we needn’t look any further than Facebook pagesblogs, and websites to find a community of passionate lucid dreamers and lucid dreamers in training. Rebecca Turner, now a 30-year-old writer from Kent, England, says she trained herself to lucid dream when she was 14 and has been doing it ever since—up to several nights per week, depending on how much time she devotes to “lucidity practice.” The Facebook page for Turner’s site, World of Lucid Dreaming, has more than 200,000 followers, and on April 12th Turner and some other lucid dreamers are organizing a "Lucid Dreaming Day."

Some people are so good at lucid dreaming, they can indicate to researchers, while they are asleep, that they’ve achieved lucidity. In a method developed in the 1970's by British Psychologist Keith Hearne and in the 1980’s by Stephen LaBerge—a psychophysiologist who did decades of dream research at Stanford and is considered the Godfather of lucid dream research by his fans—sleeping subjects are instructed to sweep their gaze from left to right within their dream twice when they’ve become lucid. Because eye muscles are not paralyzed during REM sleep (unlike the rest of the body’s muscles, which presumably prevents us from physically acting out our dreams, wandering out of the cave and getting eaten by a bear), sweeping your eyes from left to right in dreamland corresponds to doing so in real life.

Researchers can then pinpoint when a dreamer becomes lucid and more accurately track how neurological, respiratory, cardiovascular, and other physiological functions are acting during a lucid dream.

According to LaBerge, his EEG studies from the 1980’s showed that overall, the brain becomes more active at the onset of a lucid dream. His team also observed a physical autonomic reaction—sweating, increased respiration, and heart rate—and a spurt of increased eye movement during the transition into lucidity.

“It makes sense because becoming lucid is a surprise—so your body and brain reacts accordingly,” he said.

More recent studies also seek to discern how the brain acts during a lucid dream. Sergio Mota-Rolim, a researcher at The Federal University of Rio Grande de Norte in Brazil, has recently observed increased alpha brain waves (the waves associated with being awake with closed eyes) in lucid dreamers during REM sleep and conceptualizes lucid dreaming as a type of “micro-awakening” or sub-phase, of REM. In a 2009 study at the University of Frankfurt, Ursula Voss and her team observed an increase in gamma waves and coherence—a rough measurement of coordinated activity in the brain—during lucid dreams. So though researchers suspect something unique is happening in the brain during a lucid dream, the exact process is still unclear.

While one might use lucid dreaming to act out all kinds of fantasies, researchers think there are applications for lucid dreaming beyond mere entertainment. Psychologists and other researchers are looking for ways it could improve our waking experience. In a 2008 pilot study investigating the effect of physical activity within dreams on cardiovascular parameters, proficient lucid dreamers performed a series of tasks inside their dreams—namely squats and counting—after indicating to researchers they were lucid using the L-R eye signal. Erlacher and Schredl found that performing squats during a lucid dream increased participants’ heart rate. This finding, taken together with other studies that show a relationship between lucid dreamed action and actual motor activity, led the team to conclude that practicing a physical activity during a lucid dream could improve performance in waking life.

Others have also pointed to the potential therapeutic applications for lucid dreaming, particularly for treating nightmares. Incidentally, that’s where my interest in lucid dreaming began. It’s estimated that up to about 8 percent of adults suffer from chronic nightmares, and I am one of them. Psychologists are also particularly interested in nightmares because they are a common symptom of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In a pilot study conducted at Utrecht University in the Netherlands in 2006, participants underwent lucid dreaming treatment (LDT), in which they were versed on cognitive and behavioral exercises designed to help participants link features of a nightmare with the realization that they were dreaming. Participants were also encouraged to come up with alternative endings to their nightmares. While both groups that received treatment (in group or individual LDT sessions) reported a significant reduction of nightmares, only a handful of people were actually able to become lucid and actively alter their dream, demonstrating that some aspects of LDT training, not necessarily achieving lucidity itself, might reduce nightmares.

The research on the applications of lucid dreaming, though still in its infancy, is fascinating in and of itself. But can we really teach ourselves to lucid dream?

Learning How to Lucid Dream

Several people interviewed for this story reported that merely reading and thinking about lucid dreams was sometimes enough to induce a spontaneous lucid dream. (It’s possible then, that you might have one after reading this article.)

But this is usually not the case. The strategy laid out for actively training yourself to lucid dream by LaBerge in his 1991 book, Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming (co-authored with Howard Rheingold) centers around training yourself to identify “dream signs.” It all sounds very New-Agey (and I’ll be the first to admit that at times reading the book felt that way), but what it really boils down to are identifying discrepancies from reality that can help you realize you are dreaming and, hopefully, gain conscious control of your dream. The first step, therefore, is to spend a few weeks recording your dreams and identifying these themes.

Since I’ve had nightmares with varying frequency all my life, I was able to identify my dream signs immediately. They include riding in speeding, out-of-control cars, motorcycles, airplanes, and elevators; snake-covered bridges that I have to cross by foot; flying in slow-motion while being chased by something much quicker than I am, the classic anxiety trope where all my teeth fall out; and cameos by people that I haven’t spoken to in years.

There also exist more universal indicators of dreaming that lucid dreamers point to—for example, watches and clocks tend to be inaccurate or impossible for you to read in dreams, so attempting to read the time may indicate to you that something is off.

The second part of the strategy involves getting into the habit of questioning whether you are dreaming or awake, what some refer to as employing “reality checks.” There are lots of ways people do this, like checking for their wedding rings, counting their fingers, or simply asking themselves at random times whether or not they are dreaming. Regardless of how, the point is to get your mind to think about the possibility of dreaming while you are awake, so that you will automatically do so when you’re asleep.

As there are for everything, there are a host of new smartphone apps related to dream tracking and/or lucid dreaming that can aid in the training. Specifically designed for lucid dreaming, Dreamz tracks your movements during sleep using the sensor in your phone to determine your sleep cycle and plays an audio cue—either music or a recording of your own voice telling you that you’re dreaming—that acts as a dream sign when you’re in REM. (LaBerge says the trick here is to record yourself saying "I'm dreaming" rather than "You are dreaming," because speaking to yourself in the second person will wake you up.) Dreamz developer Adam Siton, a lucid dreamer himself, says that 40 percent of users who used the app three or more nights reported having a lucid dream, though Siton admits that most of his users are already experienced lucid dreamers.

Due out in April, SHADOW, which The Atlantic wrote about in September and which had a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign, is an alarm clock that gradually wakes up users and transcribes their voice-recorded dreams. Dreams can then be contributed to a global database of users, which co-founder Hunter Lee Soik says is mainly for entertainment value.

"It'd be interesting to know that someone in Japan had the exact same dream as you did in California," he said.

Due to be released later this year, Dreame simplifies the dream-recording process by offering users a mosaic of elements one might find in a dream, (such as a dog, car, or forest) in a series of categories to click on when they wake. The app also seeks to incorporate the therapeutic nature of dreams—linking users up with psychologists and dream interpreters who can help analyze their data.

Lucidity In Macau

When I achieved lucidity, it was undoubtedly because of one of my pre-identified dream signals. At 3:20 in the morning in a Macau hotel room during a family trip merely two weeks after starting my lucid dream training, I wrote: “I suddenly found myself panicking on a roller coaster that was out of control and realized this was a sign that I was dreaming. I closed my eyes (in the dream) and made the entire scene disappear. I was thinking to myself, ‘You’re lucid! Hurry up and think of something new to dream about before you wake up!’”

What I wanted to see, evidently, was my future with my long-term boyfriend. When I opened my eyes again I was watching myself on a boxy 80s-style TV set. I was in the hospital and had just given birth to a baby, whom my boyfriend (husband, in the dream) and I named George. I had a false awakening from the dream, and was weeping tears of joy. I woke up a moment later, and recorded the dream in detail. I wrote that, “the whole episode felt like it lasted less than a minute.”

An illustration of my dream was created through Artify, another project by the founders of Dreame that links users up with artists who turn descriptions of dreams into illustrations, is the picture you see below.

Incidentally, my dream was also prophetic—my boyfriend proposed three days later. For me then, the verdict is in: It is possible to teach yourself to lucid dream.

But just because we can, does that mean we should?

Why We Dream

That depends, partly, on why you think we dream. While sleep is clearly related to rest and regeneration, as indicated by the repairing hormones we secrete during deep sleep, typically the second and third phases of non-REM sleep, the purpose of dreams is much less clear.

Ancient civilizations recorded their dreams and applied them in various ways. Dream books were popular in Mesopotamia and Egypt for example, and the Greeks considered dreams to be messages from the gods that could foretell the future or cure illness. They also regularly employed dream interpreters, oneirokritai, who would sometimes seek interpretations for other people’s dreams within their own.

Freud thought that our dreams are where we express our suppressed desires, while Jung saw dreams as places in which our psyche provides symbolic clues to our conscious problems. He also emphasized the creative nature of our dreams, citing the German chemist Friedrich August Kekule, who was said to have discovered the molecular structure of benzene in a dream and author Robert Louis Stevenson, who came up with the plot for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hydein a dream. If Jung was alive today he might also point to James Cameron’s dream of a robot-man, which eventually became The Terminator; and Paul McCartney’s unconscious composition for the melody of "Yesterday".

More contemporary theories conceptualize dreams as a cognitive process related to the past (as a way to process memories), present (as a unique state of consciousness) and/or future (as an evolved process for simulating potential threats).

Though recent lucid dreaming research tends to focus on potential real-life benefits for lucid dreaming, there are potentially negative ramifications. Training yourself to lucid dream is something that takes effort, can be distracting during the day, and can disturb your sleep, especially if you’re getting up in the middle of the night to record your dreams or use the wake-up-back-to-bed technique, which requires getting up prematurely, staying awake for an hour or so and taking a morning nap. I for one was so excited after my lucid dream in Macau that I couldn’t sleep again until the following evening.

And some people might not like the experience. One woman in her late 20s who I spoke with told me that she has spontaneous lucid dreams fairly frequently, but finds them unsettling. Another said she often realizes that she’s dreaming, but is unable to control what happens, and described the experience as terrifying.

But these possibilities may not be enough to keep people from attempting to lucid dream, especially given the intriguing new apps and tools being developed. We track, quantify, and micromanage everything from our workouts to our coffee intake to our sleep—it might just be the next logical step to hack our dreams.

And though I don't expect it to last, I haven't had a nightmare since Macau.