What dreams may come

Lucid dreaming is one more fun thing you can do in bed

Photo/Matthew Bieker

Few experiences in life are as personal and yet universally relatable as dreaming. Whether they reflect our hopes, memories, fears—or make any sense at all—is largely for interpretation, but can undoubtedly have an affect on our waking lives. It’s easy to feel like we are simply along for the ride in most of our dreams, but practitioners of “Lucid Dreaming” are said to have total and consistent control over their dreamscapes, and do so with some basic scientific understanding and plenty of practice.

Loosely defined, a lucid dream is one wherein the dreamer is aware they are dreaming—something most people have probably randomly experienced. Accounts of lucid dreaming have been recorded as far back as Aristotle’s, and “lucid dream” was coined as a term as early as 1913, but science has only recently been able to record instances of lucid dreaming in a clinical setting.

Advances in the 1970s using EEG (electroencephalogram) machines gave researchers the first glimpse into what physiological processes were happening as subjects fell asleep and began to dream—specifically, the relation between dreaming and the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) phase of sleep.

“There are different levels of wakefulness, drowsiness, and sleep,” said Dr. William Torch, a practicing neurologist at Renown Hospital and founder of the Washoe Sleep Disorder Clinic. Brainwaves emitted during wakefulness are categorized as “alpha” waves, and change in frequency as we descend into the four stages of sleep before REM.

“When you go into stage 1 sleep, you start losing alpha, and you go into theta,” said Dr. Torch. “Stage 1 sleep is characterized by waking up at the slightest little noise. Stage 2, more theta and now a little delta coming in … Stage 3 comes along, and you’ve got a lot of delta with a little bit of theta, but absolutely no alpha. In stage 4 you have these slow rolling waves, delta activity.”

After stage 4, the brain enters into the REM cycle, wherein brainwave activity curiously begins to once again resemble alpha waves—those of full consciousness. At the same time, the body enters into an important physical characteristic of dreaming: sleep paralysis.

“There’s a little switch in the brain that goes on and off,” said Dr. Torch. “When you’re in stage 1, 2, 3, and 4, your body is moving, but there’s hardly any brain activity—maybe a little dreaming. When you go into REM, the switch goes on or off depending on how you want to look at it. It turns off the muscles in your arms, legs, neck, tongue, and you become flaccid and paralyzed. Literally no movement whatsoever. The brain wakes up, and it goes into hyper drive. All of your memories and thoughts come into your sleeping unconscious, and you are dreaming, but you can’t act out your dream.”

The earliest studies into lucid dreaming reported that sleeping subjects were able to signal to researchers when they had achieved lucidity by making a series of pre-established eye movements during the REM phase, being otherwise unable to make a physical indicator.

Famous studies by researchers Keith Hearn in 1975, and Stephen LaBerge in 1980 established this research technique, which has been replicated in various studies ever since. In 2009, a team from Frankfurt University was able to measure lucid dream activity in three undergraduate volunteers who had been trained in a method called pre-sleep autosuggestion—or telling oneself to look for specific oddities in order to recognize a dream.

This method is one of several used by lucid dreamers who practice independently. The popular forum site Reddit.com contains a lucid dreaming community of over 140,000 members who gather to share tips on becoming lucid, and share stories of their own experiences.

For beginners, the Reddit community and many online sources stress the importance of keeping a detailed dream journal in order to recognize “dream signs”—or reoccurring themes that one can consciously associate with dreaming.

Gradually introducing consciousness into one’s dreams also requires the performance of frequent “reality checks” during wakefulness. Basically, a lucid dreamer must earnestly question the reality of his or her current situation by asking, “Am I dreaming right now?”

Examples of reality checks include closely examining the numbers on a watch or clock—numbers and other fine details are usually distorted in dreams—or drawing a small dot on the back of your hand and taking a moment to consider your surroundings every time you glance at it. Ideally, this practice will carry into your dream state helping you make the transition into lucidity.

These habits can be used in conjunction with pre-sleep autosuggestion, or what the Reddit community calls MILD (Mnemonically Induced Lucid Dream), which requires focusing your intentions in the moments before falling asleep and willing yourself to stay conscious as you transition into REM. Visualization techniques increase your chances of becoming lucid and also influence the setting and content of your dream.

Advances in sleep science and communal interest in lucid dreaming have produced material about practices to avoid, lucid dreaming as a tool for self-discovery, and even treatment of certain psychological conditions such as PTSD.

“Lucid dreaming techniques or treatment have been used to dampen down PTSD anxiety states and eliminate nightmares,” said Dr. Torch. “If you could bring that state of fear into your consciousness and accept it, and see it as a dream, but now take conscious control over it and realize that is not a real experience while you’re awake, you could tame that fear.”

The scientific community is only just beginning to understand the power of dreams and their influence over our consciousness, but as thousands of sleepers from the general public have shown, anybody with diligence and a place to close their eyes can explore mysteries, and wonders, of their own subconscious.