Medically reviewed by
Dacelin St Martin, MD
Triple board-certified in Sleep Medicine,
Internal Medicine, and Pediatrics.
Imagine suddenly realizing that you are in a dream where you can now take some control of what happens next. It’s kind of like directing a movie – starring you! It’s not science fiction, and chances are it’s happened to you already at some point.
It’s called lucid dreaming, which has fascinated humanity since ancient times. The cultivation of dream awareness was part of Hinduism and early Buddhism, written by Aristotle and even used therapeutically by Galen of Pergamon – an ancient Greek physician and surgeon.
In modern times, films like Waking Life, Inception, and Vanilla Sky have been at the forefront of pop culture representations of the phenomenon.
What are the Frequency and Features?
Lucid dreaming events happen rarely and are most common during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a state of deep sleep marked by heightened brain activity. However, it’s because of their uniqueness that they are so fascinating.
A recent study showed that about 55 percent of the general population had experienced lucid dreaming spontaneously at some point in their lives. However, one prominent feature of this dream experience is the ability to train oneself to have it.
Techniques for inducing lucid dreams have become so popular that, according to a recent study, 35 percent of first-year psychology students have deliberately tried to initiate them at least once.
How does one induce a lucid dream? There are some common induction techniques that have been studied.
1) Reality Testing
One may ask oneself through the course of a day if they are dreaming or not and then try to perform a relatively safe feat (such as putting a hand through a solid object).
In reality, the hand would be stopped by a solid object, but it may pass right through in a dream.
2) Reading Text
This method involves reading text in a book, poster, or even a billboard. While awake, the text should be the same whenever it’s read over again; however, the text will constantly change in a dream.
3) REM-Sleep Fast-Track
With this technique, the intended lucid dreamer would set their alarm for 5-6 hours after going to sleep. Once awake, the person would remain awake for a while before going back to sleep. This action is supposed to fast-track the person right into REM sleep, where lucid dreaming occurs.
What’s the Benefit or Harm?
The question of whether this manipulation of naturally occurring sleep states is good or bad for our health has risen.
In a 2016 study of 528 respondents, of whom 386 were lucid dreamers, wish fulfillment was the most frequent reason used by 83 percent of lucid dreamers, on 42.8 percent of occasions. This reason was followed by solving waking problems (57 percent, 14.5 percent of occasions), overcoming fears/nightmares (47 percent, 10.8 percent of occasions), spiritual experiences (43 percent, 8.1 percent of occasions), physical/mental healing (40 percent, 11.4 percent of occasions), training motor skills (31 percent, 4.2 percent of occasions), and meditation being the least popular reason (11 percent, 1.3 percent of occasions).
The longer-term benefits reported were increased mental health, self-confidence, enthusiasm, creativity, and psychological resilience.
Chronic nightmare sufferers are sometimes taught induction to gain control over their nightmares by altering the ending of the dream scenarios. Induction techniques have also been used in some forms of therapy; however, this needs to be better studied, and more research is required.
On the other hand, the deliberate disruption of the natural sleep-wake cycle has been shown to blur the lines between the conscious and dream states over time.
Sleep deprivation and worsening existing mental conditions (particularly schizophrenia and other dissociative illnesses) have also been cited as adverse effects.
It’s tempting to enter a state of altered consciousness in which one can perform feats not possible in real life (such as flying, superhuman strength, etc.), so there is no doubt that the experience of lucid dreaming holds an entertainment quality.
Whether taking control of what is otherwise an unconscious activity holds benefits for human health is not conclusive due to some possible adverse health outcomes.
If you wish to experiment with lucid dreaming, please be aware of the potential pitfalls. More research is needed to fully define the effects of this phenomenon on our health.
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