I never had a lucid dream, but I’d like to start. Every night my eyes grow tired and my passive consciousness reaches this ethereal realm without a lick of action. I saw Inception in a theater forever and remain fascinated by the concept of dream control, despite its personal elusiveness.
What exactly is lucid dreaming? The experience is a metacognitive state in which you become aware of your existence within a dream and sometimes take the reins from Morpheus to control aspects of what is happening.
Rafael Pelayo, a physician and professor of sleep medicine at Stanford University, says that as a teenager an unforgettable lucid dream sparked his initial fascination with sleep. “It’s the kind of experience where, if it’s ever happened to you, you know it’s true,” says Pelayo. “If it’s never happened to you, you’re very skeptical that it can happen.” Many experts we interviewed described this state of clarity as something many people can achieve with continued practice.
Whether you’re trying to have your first lucid dream or trying to increase their frequency, remember these tips the next time you show up naked at your high school reunion and you’re desperate for something to cover it up. (Hypothetically. It’s not like that’s ever happened to me!)
Build your dream recall base
Before you can control your dreams, you need to remember them. “You can think of it as building a repertoire of skills that reinforce each other,” says Benjamin Baird, a research professor at the University of Texas at Austin who focuses on human cognition. “At the core of this is the training of recalling your dreams.” The first step to dream recall is very simple: Have a wish to make it happen.
When you’re all snuggled up under the covers, right before you fall asleep, focus your intentions on remembering the dreams that come to you overnight. When you wake up in the morning, instead of reaching for your smartphone to check for notifications, grab a pen and paper to jot down the remaining fumes of information still swirling in your head from la-la land. “Make it a routine to wake up and write down whatever comes to mind,” says Rebecca Robbins, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and a sleep scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. You don’t need to buy a fancy dream journal or write anything specific, you just need to stick to it. With repetition, you may begin to remember more of your dreams.
Discover Trends to Raise Awareness
After starting a free-form dream journal, the next step is to look for strange patterns or general themes in your dreams. Do you fight giant squids in Times Square several times a month? Sprint across the Pacific Ocean while a rabid Tom Brady is chasing you? Or maybe you spot a bunch of blue balloons, or blue iguanas, or indoor waterfalls. “When you recognize these common themes, then it gives you a specific target for your memory,” says Baird. Once you notice an odd number of blue balloons appearing in your dreams, the next time you see a blue balloon, take a second to think about whether you are in a dream. Can you run it?
Recognize the signs of dream logic
Stairs that go nowhere. A sink in the living room floor. Lava pouring from your lover’s mouth. Although it may be hard to notice in the heat of the moment, dreams rarely follow the logic of reality. “We don’t question the reality of these things because the rational part of our brain is less active at that point,” says Pelayo. In addition to identifying dream patterns, use the reality-bending nature of experience to your advantage. Try to openly recognize the experience as unreal whenever a dream begins to violate reality.
Wake up early and go back to bed
Still struggling to achieve clarity in your dreams? Baird recommends waking up an hour early in the morning, staying awake for 30 minutes, then going back to sleep. In the short window you are awake, spend that time writing in your dream journal and focusing on what you want to achieve. “After you go back to sleep, you’re much more likely to have a lucid dream,” she says. “We don’t fully understand the reasons for this, but we know it’s effective.” While it’s not ideal to frequently mix up your sleep schedule in this way, the wake-up-and-return-to-bed trick can help you get a significant moment if other strategies aren’t working.
Read a landmark book on the subject
For a more in-depth look at lucid dreaming induction techniques, take a look Exploring the world of lucid dreaming by Stephen LaBerge and Howard Rheingold. While seminal work published decades ago may seem a bit dated, LaBerge was one of the first academics to fully explore lucid dreaming as a trainable skill and laid the groundwork for much of the modern research on the subject.