Walking vertically up the walls of a cityscape flipped on top of itself. Fighting off bad guys while floating suspended in a hotel lobby. Wandering through someone else’s dream to plant a life-altering idea that they’ll never know wasn’t theirs — all while your physical body sleeps in the fancy first-class cabin of a cross-country flight.
While much of what viewers saw in Inception is exactly that — science fiction — the basic premise of Christopher Nolan’s 2010 science-fiction thriller is very much real. Humans can be aware of our dreams while they’re happening, and we can even control aspects of our dreams. This “big screen”-worthy phenomenon is otherwise known as lucid dreaming.
Interest in lucid dreaming skyrocketed after Inception’s release, but it’s hardly new. Lucid dreaming was mentioned in Hindu manuscripts more than 2,000 years ago and has been scientifically studied since the 1960s. Thanks to recent studies and modern science, we know more about lucid dreams than ever before — including how they work and how to have them.
What is lucid dreaming?
In the simplest terms, a lucid dream is one in which you know you’re dreaming while it’s happening. Rather than not knowing that you’ve been dreaming until you wake up, lucid dreams are marked by the clarity of lucidity during the dream. It’s important to note that the ability to control your dreams is something of a secondary element that comes after lucidity. The awareness that you’re dreaming is a distinct but necessary predecessor to controlling your dreams, which then exists on a spectrum.
Some lucid dreamers can only make small shifts and tweaks to their dreams, while others can make walls disappear and teleport to new locations. “There’s a huge continuum from no influence to total influence,” explains Deirdre Leigh Barrett, Ph.D., a Harvard lecturer and author of “The Committee of Sleep.” When you can control your dreams, though, the experience is something like virtual reality for your sleeping mind.
According to recent research, lucid dreaming isn’t as rare as most people might think. About 50% of people claim to have had one or more lucid dreams in their lifetime, and about 23% say that they have one or more lucid dreams each month. While most lucid dreams last for about 14 minutes, their content varies as much as the people who experience them. Just like in traditional dreams, the possibilities are endless — lucid dreams can be about anything, from summiting Everest to brunching with long-deceased historical figures. There are, however, a few common themes. Many lucid dreams include flying, talking with the characters in the dream, and having sex.
Remington Mallet, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University, advises taking these statistics with a grain of salt. “People are often on mailing lists for studies based on their interests in psychology or dreaming, so there’s likely a bias in these populations,” he says. Mallet adds that some people also confuse a hyper-vivid dream with a lucid dream, so just because someone says they’ve had a lucid dream doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve truly had one.
One thing we do know, though, is that lucid dreaming is far from a recent phenomenon.
The history of lucid dreaming
While much of the science around lucid dreaming is recent, the history of it is anything but new. Tibetan Bön Buddhists have been practicing “dream yoga” for millennia. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle described lucid dreams in his work “On Dreams,” which was likely written around 330 B.C.
It wasn’t until 1913 that Frederik van Eeden coined the term “lucid dream” in an article titled “A Study of Dreams.” In 1968, Celia Green began scientifically studying lucid dreaming, declaring it a unique sleep state associated with rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep. But it was Dr. Stephen LaBerge who really brought lucid dream research into the mainstream in the 1970s and 1980s. This was thanks in large part to the help of electrooculogram (EOG) technology, which detects eye movements and enabled dreamers to signal lucidity to the outside world.
Since then, studies have explored everything from methods for inducing lucid dreaming to uncovering what’s happening in the brain during lucid dreams to their potential for mitigating nightmares and other therapeutic uses. Denholm Aspy, Ph.D., a visiting research fellow at the University of Adelaide in Australia, has conducted two of the largest studies to date on learning how to lucid dream. Aspy found that a combination of induction techniques designed to spark lucid dreams worked for his participants regardless of whether they’ve had a lucid dream before.
The state of lucid dreaming research
Despite leaps and bounds of progress in recent years, the nature of lucid dreams makes them a difficult research subject. Unlike reality, “in Inception there’s a metal briefcase with a juice that they just shove into everyone's arms,” says Mallet. “[Researchers] want an easy induction technique like that, and that’s what labs are trying to do.” But right now there’s no solid, guaranteed method for inducing lucid dreams.
Plus, when Mallet runs his studies, they often only get four or five people successfully lucid in the lab. “You can’t trust those results because we need larger samples of people,” he adds. “We would ideally have 20 or 30 people in a study, but we need to get them all lucid and have them stay lucid. So, we’re trying to figure out different ways to make that happen. It mostly has to do with using an external cue system.” One example? Having dreamers move their eyes in a certain way once they reach lucidity like a sort of Morse code.
Until the induction bottleneck is sorted out, lucid dream research has a serious challenge to contend with. But despite these hurdles, research has revealed reliable information on how lucid dreaming works in the human brain and promising suggestions for how it might be used in the future.
What causes lucid dreams?
Lucid dreams occur thanks to activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain; that’s the part responsible for self-awareness and reflection. Think of it as a blurred line between your conscious waking self and your unconscious sleeping self.
“When you’re asleep but not lucid dreaming, the prefrontal cortex — your conscious human thought machine — is basically offline,” says Mallet. “When you’re lucid dreaming, you have some prefrontal cortex ability that’s a bit more ramped up. It’s not at the same level as when you’re awake, but it’s doing something. It’s an active but not fully active state.”
Lucid dreaming technically happens during the REM stage of sleep that takes place an hour or so after we fall asleep. This is when most dreaming happens, so it makes sense that lucid dreaming would occur then, too. But recently, researchers have begun trying to parse out whether lucid dreaming is a unique state and not entirely like “normal” REM sleep.
“During lucid dreams, the brain is closer to waking in terms of activity, but not as active as it is when we’re fully awake,” says Barrett. “The brain does show signs of more activation than it does during typical REM sleep, so it’s likely a slightly different REM state. But if we have to call it REM or non-REM, it’s definitely REM.”
How to lucid dream
If all of this has gotten you interested in lucid dreaming and you’re ready to try it, you’re in luck. A number of reliable techniques can help you either get started or increase the frequency of lucid dreams if you’ve already been having them spontaneously.
One technique is reality checks — asking yourself if you’re dreaming a few times a day. Then, there’s the Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams technique (known more simply as the MILD technique) that essentially has to do with setting an intention for what you’ll dream about that night. Some studies have found that waking up and going back to bed, known as the Wake Back to Bed or WBTB method, can help to spark lucid dreams as well — whether that’s in the middle of the night or in the morning followed by a nap.
Keeping a dream journal can also help get dreamers to the point of lucidity by familiarizing them with the features of their dreams so that they recognize them as they’re happening. For those who want more detail on how to begin using these methods, we’ve got a whole page on how to lucid dream that has the specifics you’re looking for.
Drugs and supplements like galantamine, which is used to treat dementia, have been shown to help induce lucid dreams, but Mallet cautions against using them. “I wouldn’t endorse that; we don’t even consider using it in the lab,” he says. “We don’t know the side effects exactly yet and we have other methods that work better.”
The benefits of lucid dreaming
Despite the challenges that surround studying lucid dreaming in the lab, plenty of promising pilot studies speak to the potential benefits of lucid dreaming.
One of the leading benefits that lucid dreams can hold is their potential to combat and transform nightmares, especially for those who suffer from them chronically. Using lucid dream incubation techniques, dreamers can try changing a nightmare by being intentional about what they want to dream about. “If you’re having nightmares about a witch, let’s say, before you fall asleep you can tell yourself that when you dream about the witch, I want her to turn around and go away,” says Barrett. “Or you can tell yourself that you want her to turn into a good witch or that you want her to tell you why she’s there in the dream.”
Aspy agrees. “During nightmares, your brain is in a more aroused state. Because you’re frightened, you’re more likely to notice that you’re dreaming,” he explains. “A lot of people who have nightmares will use lucid dreaming to control and change their dreams, so lucid dreaming can be used to treat nightmares.”
There are also early suggestions that lucid dream training could have implications for managing insomnia without medicine or drugs. In a similar vein, lucid dreaming could also hold benefits for those suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, about 80% of whom experience nightmares as a result. While lucid dreaming hasn’t yet been shown to alleviate PTSD itself, it has been tied to a decrease in anxiety and depression symptoms in PTSD patients. This suggests that lucid dreaming could potentially provide either an alternate or a complementary treatment for nightmares in people with PTSD, particularly those who experience anxiety and depression symptoms as a result.
Cautions and considerations for lucid dreaming
One of the most important things to know about lucid dreaming is that it’s not easy. “The most basic misconception is that it’s easy to do when it’s actually hard to achieve for someone who isn’t already spontaneously having lucid dreams,” says Barrett. “It’s hard to become lucid in the first place, then it’s even harder to have an additional, specific control within a lucid dream.”
If you come across a website or a workshop that promises to get you lucid dreaming quickly and easily, it’s best to approach it with a healthy dose of skepticism. “There are a lot of people leading workshops or writing books who give the impression that it’s easier than it is, and that people ought to be disappointed if it doesn’t happen easily or soon,” she adds.
Instead, she says, with time and dedicated practice, most people can learn everything they need to about how to lucid dream from YouTube videos, how-to articles, and legitimate workshops. “Whether it’s for a cheap little workshop or some kind of expensive retreat, if people have the money and the interest, it’s not a bad vacation to go off with a lucid dreaming expert and a bunch of people who are interested in it and spend a few days devoting time to nothing but that,” Barrett says. Just don’t think that you’re going to be a lucid dreaming whiz immediately, and steer clear of anyone claiming they can offer that.
Besides scams, another consideration is the potential sleep impact of induction techniques like the Wake Back to Bed method. Nirit Soffer-Dudek, Ph.D., a senior lecturer at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, cautions would-be lucid dreamers to first consider whether the practice might be detrimental to them based on their unique health conditions and family history.
While studying the impacts of lucid dreaming on people experiencing trauma, Soffer-Dudek found that lucid dreamers tend to be more resilient people. Still, she’s not sold on lucid dreaming being good for everyone.
“I’m not against lucid dreaming; I’m just cautious about the initiation of it and the different techniques that require you to disturb your sleep,” Soffer-Dudek says. “The techniques for lucid dreaming might have an effect on the reality-fantasy boundary.” This applies especially to those who experience dissociation and schizophrenia, which already test the boundaries of fantasy and reality. Her 2019 study calls for more research to answer questions like these with certainty.
In addition to potential side effects that can come from any new drug or technique that plays with your physiology, “I think that if you have a tendency for certain types of psychopathology, schizophrenia, dissociation, or epilepsy, I probably wouldn’t try it,” says Soffer-Dudek. “We know that, for people who have epilepsy, if they don’t sleep for a night or do something that impairs their sleep hygiene that they might have epileptic seizures.”
According to Mallet, the jury is also out about the connection between lucid dreaming and the likelihood of sleepwalking and/or doing something dangerous. “It’s kind of weird to say that there are no risks at all because it’s the same with everything — everything has some kind of side effect,” he says. “The one that really stands out as valid right now is the concern about sleep quality and that it’s potentially disruptive. I don’t think it’s a major concern, though, and it’s important to distinguish that it has to do with the induction practices rather than lucid dreaming itself.”
If you want to try some lucid dreaming induction techniques, the best way to go might be trying sleep interruption one day a week — ideally, a weekend day — instead of every night.
The bottom line on lucid dreaming
Like so many things, lucid dreaming is what you make it. Just like every person is unique, each person’s experience with lucid dreaming will be different. Some people naturally have lucid dreams without having to try. Others who have had a spontaneous lucid dream or two might have an easier time experiencing lucidity than someone who rarely remembers their dream.
Plus, the research is ever-evolving. As induction methods improve, so will our understanding of how lucid dreams work in the brain and how we can trigger them. But in the meantime, there are plenty of reliable techniques to help you start working toward knowing you’re dreaming when you’re dreaming — and controlling your dreams while you’re at it.