How to Lucid Dream

If you’ve ever wanted to control your dreams so that you can dream about whatever you want, here’s a guide to lucid dreaming.

woman in a red dress swimming holding an orange balloon
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From experiencing the weird and wacky to the terrifying and the terrific, the possibilities are endless when we’re dreaming. Dreams are a place to live out otherwise impossible experiences, like flying.

We can have strokes of genius like Paul McCartney did one night in 1964 when he dreamt of the melody for “Yesterday,” The Beatles’ classic breakup song. Dreams can help heal old wounds, process emotions, or lead us on new adventures.

There is one thing that our waking lives offer but dreams typically don’t, and that’s control. Wouldn’t it be great to actively choose the content of our dreams — to spend a night visiting a tropical paradise or having tea with a favorite celebrity? Well, thanks to lucid dreaming and everything science has shown us about it today, we now know that we actually can control our dreams.

Lucid dreaming is an exciting prospect, but it’s also one that requires practice and dedication. Lucid dreaming also comes easier to some people than others. But don’t be discouraged. About half of the global population has already experienced a lucid dream.

With time and determination, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to know you’re dreaming while you’re in it and maybe even control its content, too. If you’ve ever been interested in how lucid dreaming works or wanted to try it for yourself, here’s a crash course in doing just that.

Understanding lucid dreams: Lucidity versus control

In its simplest terms, lucid dreaming is knowing that you’re dreaming while you’re dreaming. In a lucid dream, you have the realization that what you’re experiencing is actually a dream while it’s happening instead of afterward, when you wake up.

Then there’s the element of control; the ability to impact or change your lucid dream in the moment. A lucid dream is still a lucid dream even if you can’t control it, but the ability to recognize that you’re dreaming and use the experience to do whatever you want is what many people are after in their quest to lucid dream.

“I wouldn’t call controlling a lucid dream a next ‘step;’ it’s more of a continuum,” explains Dr. Deirdre Leigh Barrett, a Harvard lecturer and author of “The Committee of Sleep.” “Control can be anything from wanting something to happen and shifting things a bit in that direction to people who can make walls disappear or bring in characters they’d like to meet with. It’s a continuum of no influence to total influence.”

The good news, though, is that most people land somewhere in the middle of that continuum when they start having lucid dreams.

How to recognize a lucid dream

The thing about lucid dreams is that they’re just as varied as regular dreams. There’s no special kind of dream that signals you’re dreaming while you’re in it. Instead, recognizing a lucid dream is more about noticing sometimes small inconsistencies that wouldn’t make sense in the waking world.

Dr. Remington Mallet, a postdoctoral researcher in the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University, says that recognizing a lucid dream can feel a bit like the experience of solving an optical illusion — finally seeing what’s been there all along but from a different perspective.

Mallett remembers a talk he saw once from Dr. Stephen LaBerge, widely considered to be the father of modern lucid dreaming science. During the talk, LaBerge explained that recognizing a lucid dream is a bit like seeing a fast car speeding down a hill. You don’t question the reality of it until you zoom out and see that it’s a toy car rather than a real car.

“You didn’t question reality. You were just watching it and then all of the sudden your brain gets this huge rush of awareness in a moment,” says Mallet. “This is the closest thing I’ve heard to describing the moment of insight when someone realizes they’re lucid dreaming.”

The key, though, is not getting so excited by the realization that your arousal kicks you out of your dream and back into the waking world. “People who are really working on the practice of lucidity get better at calming themselves down,” Barrett says. “The first thing they do when they realize they’re lucid is calm themselves down rather than say ‘Ooh, I can fly!’ ”

But where, exactly, should you be looking for these kinds of perspective shifts? According to Barrett, two things that tend to work differently in dreams than reality are time and words.

“Most people can’t read very long in a dream. The words blur or you look away, and when you look back the words are different,” she says. “Clocks and watches often don’t display reasonable times or move in a reasonable manner in dreams. Another one is light switches; in dreams, they either don’t change anything or there’s a delay.”

Mallet, who lucid dreams himself, describes waking up from a lucid dream as an awe-inspiring experience. “It hits you that your brain made all of that up. My favorite lucid dreams I’ve had are just being in awe of the situation in front of me, like picking up a cup. It’s like, wow, it’s a cup — true to smell and everything. You know your brain is making this thing up and does an insanely accurate job of representing the reality of the world,” he says. “So when I wake up, the part that carries with me throughout the day is the perspective shift and just being in awe of everyday stuff.”

How to have a lucid dream

As lucid dreaming itself became more widely studied in the 1970s and 1980s, so did induction techniques for sparking lucid dreams. Today, researchers and practitioners have identified a handful of practices that people who want to lucid dream can utilize.

There are no guarantees. However, Dr. Denholm Aspy — a visiting research fellow at the University of Adelaide in Australia who has conducted two of the largest lucid dreaming studies to date — found that nearly half of his participants were able to have at least one lucid dream in a seven-day period thanks to induction techniques.

Ready to get started? Here are some of the most common (and most effective!) lucid dreaming techniques.

Keep a dream journal

Daniel Love, an international lucid dreaming author, researcher, and educator known as The Lucid Guide, says keeping a dream journal is vital. “Imagine your dream journal as a map of the territory of your dreams. Without a map, it’s hard to navigate and recognize landmarks,” Love says.

A dream journal is simply a record of what you remember from your dreams. But that doesn’t mean they have to be written accounts. You can use a voice recording app on your phone and just shout out a few key words in the morning. Ideally, you’ll log your entries as soon as possible after you wake up, but they don’t have to be dry, play-by-play accounts of what happened.

“Your dream journal should be something you want to read and something you enjoy doing,” says Love. Write poetry, draw sketches, offer colorful anecdotes — whatever feels right to you. “Imagine two dream journals, one with a factual written account and one with poems and art. Which one would you like to read?” he asks.

Do reality checks throughout the day

Reality checks are also known as “critical state tests,” but Love eschews the overly complicated technology and explains them like this: the principle of regularly questioning whether you might be dreaming. The idea is that, in order to question whether you’re dreaming when you actually are dreaming, you have to also wonder whether you’re dreaming when you’re awake. This makes it a well-formed habit.

Beyond just asking yourself if you’re dreaming or not throughout the day, ask yourself how you know whether you are or aren’t dreaming. “Get over your own arrogance of assuming you’re not dreaming just because it doesn’t feel like a dream, because when you’re dreaming it doesn’t feel like a dream,” Love says. Instead, “take a moment to observe your reality and ask yourself simple questions about how you got to where you are, whether or not the time period makes sense (Are you 14 again?), whether or not this does or doesn’t add up to what you know.”

Then, once you’ve drawn a conclusion about whether or not you’re in a dream, do a test. “Try pinching your nose and breathing through it. If you pinch your nose and try to breathe while awake, you can’t because you’re blocking your airways. But if you pinch your nose in a dream and try to breathe, your airways will remain unblocked because your physical body is lying in bed asleep,” says Love.

Other reality tests include focusing on time-based things like clocks and watches. Simply look at the time on your phone, look away, and see whether the time is the same when you look back. In reality, there won’t be much of a change. But in a dream, letters and numbers tend to be unstable and frequently shift. Love adds, though, that analog clocks are tougher than digital ones. “Our brains are good at predicting the behavior of an analog clock, but because digital clocks are newer our brains struggle with them more,” he says.

The MILD technique

MILD, an acronym that stands for Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams, was pioneered by LaBerge. While the name might sound fancy and confusing, it’s actually a fairly simple intention-setting technique. Love cautions that this technique is often misunderstood and mistaught, so proceed with caution if you decide to dive deeper into it.

“In a nutshell, it’s using memory to realize that you’re dreaming,” says Love. The MILD technique for lucid dreaming comes down to this: Before you go to bed, set an intention that, if you wake up during the night, you’ll remember your dream.

“When you remember your previous dream, review it for moments when you could have realized that you were awake, like my friend had two heads or the sky was purple,” Love says. “Then, you rewrite the script of the dream — what you would have done if you realized you were dreaming. Live out that little fantasy, then tell yourself that the next time you’re dreaming you’ll recognize that you’re dreaming.”

However, Love is quick to note that there’s no one-size-fits-all perfect technique that works for everyone. Many people try several incubation methods, sometimes in combination. The MILD technique can go hand in hand with the Wake Back to Bed technique.

The Wake Back to Bed technique

Lucid dreaming happens during the rapid eye movement, or REM, stage of sleep. It can be helpful to think of the night as split into two sections, the first four hours and the second four hours. Most REM sleep happens in the second half of the night during the final four hours of sleep, increasing as we make our way toward waking up. If you wake yourself up during the second half of the night, the chances of falling back to sleep — and into a dream that can then become lucid — increase.

“One of the things that seems to be important is getting out of bed. Get vertical, take a quick stroll around your flat, and maybe do something that increases critical thinking like a puzzle. It could be something as simple as Sudoku or a ‘spot the difference’ puzzle that kids have,” says Love. The idea is to get your mind a little clearer before you go back to bed so that you increase your chances of realizing that you’re dreaming if you do slip back into one.

If waking up in the middle of the night doesn’t sound appealing to you, you can try a different version of this technique that involves getting up in the morning — ideally the early morning — and staying awake for an hour. Then, after those 60 minutes are up, take a nap to see if you can lucid dream. “What I find personally is that maybe a half-hour of wakefulness works for me, but it’s different for everyone,” says Love. Try a few different time frames to see what works best for you.

Love tends to recommend the morning version of the Wake Back to Bed method because it preserves your critically important full night’s sleep. “Sleep is really important. We overlook that it’s probably the single most valuable behavioral train of any living being — we do it for a reason,” he says. “I don’t think that lucid dreaming should be something that disrupts our sleep. We should try to work with our natural sleep cycle.

Drugs and supplements for lucid dreaming

Like most things in modern life, people have looked for shortcuts when it comes to incubating lucid dreaming — and these include using drugs or supplements. Galantamine, a drug used to treat dementia, has been shown to help induce lucid dreams. So has a food supplement called DMAE, although the evidence is sparse. This is the main reason why Love cautions lucid-dreamers-to-be against using these drugs and supplements.

“Anyone making changes to their diet or using any kind of drug or supplement should talk to a medical professional about it. Don’t take the advice you read online,” he says. With galantamine specifically, there’s no way of knowing its long-term impacts on a healthy person who takes it in the middle of the night to help them remember their dreams.

The path to lucid dreaming is a marathon, not a sprint

Naturally, many people who want to start lucid dreaming want to get there quickly. Who wouldn’t want to see what it’s like to dream about flying tonight if they could? But if you’re wondering how to lucid dream in one night, the best thing you can do is readjust your expectations.

While it’s certainly possible to have spontaneous lucid dreams, using incubation techniques to spark them takes time. “If anyone is selling guarantees or super-fast approaches to lucid dreaming, they’re more interested in your wallet than psychology,” says Love. Instead, “Take it easy. You don’t have to have immediate results. Treat it as an adventure and focus on building a relationship with your dreams.”

Lucid dreaming is less about the dreams themselves and more about self-awareness and consciousness, says Love. “It’s less about the specific techniques and more about a curious mindset and engaging the scientific method when it comes to your dreams,” adds Love. “It really is the scientific method in process.”