Some people hardly remember their dreams — but others can control them. You can too. (Photo: Getty Images)
When most of us wake up, our dream recollection is muddled — memories of people or places (out of place, usually) and mismatched occurrences that don’t quite add up. But some people, known as lucid dreamers, don’t just remember their dreams with complete accuracy — they can control them.
“Lucid dreaming is basically when you’re aware that you’re dreaming. Within the dream, you can step outside of it and say, ‘I know this isn’t real,’” explains W. Christopher Winter, MD, medical director of the Sleep Medicine Center at Martha Jefferson Hospital. “I would say some people have an experience or two in their lives. In my own sleep patient population, it’s fairly commonly mentioned.”
The most well-reported survey on the topic suggests 50 percent of people have experienced lucid dreaming in their lifetime, and 20 percent say they experience lucid dreaming frequently.
But for years, the subject has stumped sleep doctors and researchers alike. It’s difficult to paint a full picture of the brain’s activity during dreaming sleep, and the brain parts linked with self-perception and awareness upon waking up have long eluded scientists. But new information is emerging. Researchers in Munich recently discovered that the brain area involved in self-reflection is actually bigger in lucid dreamers than in people who don’t control their dreams. Because of this, lucid dreamers could be more self-reflective when awake, the researchers say. Other research has suggested that lucid dreamers also outperform those who don’t know they’re dreaming when it comes to cognitive tasks.
Although the research on the topic is somewhat limited and indecisive at best, what it does suggest is that lucid dreaming has a strong link to metacognition, or being aware of your own thought process.
The differences in brain activity between someone dreaming and someone wide awake may not be that obvious beyond what the eyes and muscles are doing. The neurotransmitters activated during dream sleep are similar to the ones firing when you’re awake, Winter explains. “This tells us that what is happening during dreaming is not so far removed from what is happening when we are awake. A person who is dreaming is closer to wakefulness than they are to deep sleep.”
But for most of us, exerting control over that dream state seems nearly impossible. “Some people lucid dream naturally,” Winter says. But even if you don’t, you can train yourself to. And once you gain awareness of your dream state, you can go a step further and become more than just a passive onlooker: “You can exert free will,” says Winter
How To Become A Lucid Dreamer
For people who are really into lucid dreaming — a quick Google search reveals countless sites and forums dedicated to the topic, such as LD4all, Mortal Mist, and the World of Lucid Dreaming — dreams become more like a playground for the mind, a place to play with your brain’s ability to render a reality, Winter says.
In fact, some proponents of lucid dreaming even try to “meet up” in dreams — something that’s called shared dreaming, says Winter. Alhough the people may have never met, they plan out a night to lucid dream, decide to meet somewhere (such as the Eiffel Tower), try to have a conversation, and see if both remember it the next day. Unfortunately, science doesn’t quite back up the concept, even though some researchers have tried separately planting words in people’s minds to see if both were able to bring up the word in a dream and remember it. (Inception, anyone?)
Anecdotally, some people are said to have so much control during their dreams that they can actually get work done and analyze parts of their wakeful life with a new perspective. Some small studies have even shown that practicing something you have done in real life in a dream can improve results. And while this all may seem farfetched, training yourself to know you’re dreaming isn’t, says Winter.
Follow these steps to start:
- Gain awareness during the day. Being able to determine you’re dreaming has a lot to do with being able to assess and understand your surroundings in real life, says Winter. The key: Check your reality. Notice the little things. You’re driving to work (are you in your own car?), pulling into your office (that really is your office, right?), and drinking your favorite coffee (this is coffee, right?). These small factors may seem insignificant, but they point to reality — something that’s usually skewed in dreams. And being able to notice them in real life can help you notice when something is off in a dream. (For example, if you’re going to work in a dream, but your car is flying — and it’s not your car — you may realize then you’re dreaming.)
- Pick up a habit. Start doing something every day that reinforces your reality. “I would actually pull my wedding ring off, put it back on, and think, ‘I am not dreaming. This is reality,’” Winter says. If you do it enough throughout your day, you’ll start to do it in your dream. And if you can’t — or if something seems off — you’ll know you’re dreaming.
- Keep a dream journal. Being aware that your dreams have recurring themes can help you identify them when they pop up after you fall asleep. (Being chased again? You may be dreaming.)
Related: 5 Ways To Control Your Dreams
How To Know You’re Dreaming
There are some common shared experiences that you can look out for in dreams. Here are some of them:
- Details are vague. Dreams are confined in their scope, says Winter. Think about it: Usually, you’re in a building, in a room, or outside, but if someone asked you details after you wake up, you’d probably draw a blank. What city were you in? What did you see outside of the building? “Training yourself to pay attention to details like this during the day trains you to do so in a dream,” Winter says. And if you can’t make out these details, chances are, you’re in dreamland.
- Everything’s a little dark. “Dreams tend to be dark: they happen at night or in the evening. It’s unusual for dreams to be bright and sunny, and even if they are, if you look up at the sky, it’s often black,” Winter says.
- There’s a painted sky. Imagining a limitless horizon is difficult for your brain to do while sleeping. If you study the sky in a dream, it may look more like a painted version, he adds.
Cool Things To Do If You Know You’re Dreaming
If you’re able to realize you’re dreaming, “be cool about it,” says Winter. If you freak out too much, you may wake up. “Go with it at first, then try to exercise control.”
- Fight your fears. The interesting aspect of lucid dreaming: It’s not always a free-for-all. “Many people who lucid dream find that they still have to fight against natural morality and choices,” says Winter. “If you’re scared of heights, you’re likely still going to be scared in your dream.” Actively fighting your fears can give you emotional practice for doing so in real life — and help you enjoy the dream more.
- Try to find a mirror. If you can look at yourself, you’ll probably have a hard time recognizing your own face; it may be stretchy or look generally weird. “Your brain does a really poor job of showing you what you look like in a dream.”
- Look down. Your feet don’t usually touch the ground in a dream. Your brain has trouble rendering a three-dimensional body in space, says Winter.
- Try to poke your palm with your finger. You may find that you can actually poke your finger through the palm of your hand in a dream, says Winter. It’s difficult for your mind to re-create touching a finger to your palm, what that feels like when the two meet, and what it looks like in a dream, so your finger my pass through your hand.
- Grab the skin of your hand. Pull on it and you may find it stretches far more than your skin normally would — another brain lapse.
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