What is Lucid Dreaming?

By Loren Bullock

Have you ever been dreaming, and all of a sudden, something in the dream makes you realize that you are, in fact, dreaming? This is called lucid dreaming and is probably a term you’ve heard thrown around quite frequently. People often associate it with day dreaming or sleep paralysis, but in reality it has very little to do with either of these concepts.

Lucid dreaming occurs when the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming and then subsequently takes control of the dream, possibly determining the outcome and events within the dream. Research has shown that around 50-80% of people have experienced lucid dreaming.

Woman dreaming

How Does It Happen?

Lucid dreaming happens in REM sleep or rapid eye movement sleep. This stage of sleep is where the majority of dreaming occurs. For some people, lucid dreaming happens randomly when they recognize that they are dreaming.

One way to tell if you’re dreaming is if your hand is disfigured. Another way to “reality check” is to check the time. Time doesn’t work when you’re in a dream state. If you try to check the time and are unsuccessful, you’re dreaming.

Others have learned to control when they lucid dream, kind of like playing a video game. Check out our guide on how to lucid dream for more information.

Research About Lucid Dreaming

One of the first recorded experiences of lucid dreaming comes from the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. In the ancient east, they thought of the lucid dreamer as simply doing “mind yoga.”

But, it wasn’t until the 1980’s that lucid dreaming itself was heavily researched. Scientist, Stephen LaBerge, did a study at Stanford University that showed time perception during lucid dreaming was the same as time passed in real life. Eventually, he and his team came up with the Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreaming or MILD for short. This is detailed in the book he co-wrote with Howard Rheingold called Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming.

The MILD technique details how to lucid dream through affirmation. An example of one of these affirmations is “Tonight, when I go to sleep, I will lucid dream.” It also details other steps in the mnemonic lucid dreaming technique.

Benefits

While controlling your own dreams frankly just sounds cool, there are other benefits to lucid dreaming as well.

Heightened Creativity

Coming up with dream outcomes allows you to play with life events. And coming up with new things to act on in your dreams requires quite the creative brain; the more you do it, the more creative you are forced to become.

It can also work the other way around. Inspiration from your lucid dreaming experiences can be poured into creative projects: stories, music, art, and dances.

Decreased Nightmares

If you frequently have nightmares, lucid dreaming is something you might want to try to alleviate these frightening dreams. Once you begin to recognize that your dream is quickly turning into a nightmare, you can step in and flip the dream on its head. Start chasing the monster instead of having it chase you; instead of falling off of the cliff, fly.

Lessened Anxiety

Nightmares can also be a source of stress, anxiety, or a by product of either. In your dreams, you can target things that are sources of anxiety in your waking state and fix them. You can have conversations with yourself or act out scenarios you wish had gone differently.

Other Benefits of Lucid Dreaming

  • Get in touch with your subconscious
  • Increase your problem-solving skills
  • Have complete freedom
  • Improve your confidence
  • Conquer your fears

Risks

Though lucid dreaming is mostly safe, with every set of benefits, there is a set of risks. Here are some of the dangers of lucid dreaming.

Lost Sleep

In the beginning stages of attempting to lucid dream, extreme concentration is required. Beginners sometimes concentrate too hard and have trouble shutting off their brain long enough to get some sleep. Some techniques also require interrupting sleep to accurately lucid dream, which can disrupt your sleep cycle.

On top of that, vivid dreaming can be mentally exhausting. If you have the kind of dream where you confront something difficult or emotional, you can wake feeling extremely tired or sad.

Increased Depression

As you are lucid dreaming, all of your emotions are as real as they would be if you were awake. For people who suffer from depression, you may experience dream claustrophobia where you can’t escape a dream, though you are aware that you’re dreaming. Consistently having these experiences could worsen your depression.

Dissociation

Lucid dreaming often requires that you watch yourself experience things; you just control what happens. But, the fact that you know it is a dream can cause dissociation in your waking life. In other words, you aren’t used to being attached to the events and consequences of your dream life and that translates over to your real life.

The opposite could also happen. Your lucid dreams feel so realistic that you are unsure of whether events happened in a dream or in real life—holy Inception!

Sleep Paralysis

As some people learn to lucid dream, they can trigger sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is a sleep disorder in which you are in a state between dreaming and waking where you cannot physically move your body. While this is a normal practice during REM sleep that happens so you don’t physically act out your dreams, it can be scary to be unable to move.

If you experience sleep paralysis you will either wake yourself up or the REM cycle will end, and you can move again.


Dream Journaling

If the risks didn’t scare you away, you probably want to start the cool practice of lucid dreaming immediately. The best way to achieve this is by dream journaling. Dream journals are a great way to enhance dream recall, which is a major step in realizing that you are dreaming. Once you know the things you frequently dream about, you’ll be able to catch and control the dream as you’re falling asleep.


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