What Is Lucid Dreaming?

You're dreaming -- and you know it. That is, you're aware that you're dreaming -- while you're in la la land.

It's called lucid dreaming, and it doesn't happen that often. Some steadfast skeptics still question whether it really even happens at all. However, a growing body of research increasingly indicates that not only do some people have lucid dreams, but that there are ways to induce these dreams, and even possibly use this sort of unconscious consciousness to gain some control over what one dreams about.

Just as we commonly don't recall what we've dreamed about, however, it can be quite difficult to zero in on what proportion of the population might have had lucid dreams and how often. But based on the research to date attempting to track prevalence of lucid dreaming, estimates are that somewhere around 50 to 80 percent of people have had a lucid dream in their lifetime, notes Benjamin Baird, a research scientist at Wisconsin Institute for Sleep and Consciousness at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies lucid dreams. "Some people have lucid dreams more frequently naturally. Some people never have lucid dreams," he says. "For most people, they occur very infrequently."

Still the idea of kind of mixed conscious state where you know you're dreaming has captured the imagination not only of people who try to do this but researchers and even some clinicians. Some report that it boosts creativity and even helps with problem-solving. It's also being evaluated as a possible approach to treat chronic nightmares, for example in those who have post-traumatic stress disorder. However, experts emphasize that more study is needed to determine its potential usefulness and effectiveness in this regard. Still the preliminary nature of data on lucid dreaming hasn't squelched interest in it.

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How to Lucid Dream

"I do get many, many questions about lucid dreaming," says Dr. Raj Dasgupta, a pulmonologist and sleep medicine specialist, and an assistant professor of clinical medicine at Keck School of Medicine of USC. There are even movies, he points out, that speak to our utter cultural fascination with this: from "A Nightmare on Elm Street" (is it possible to escape Freddy Krueger in the worst kind of dream?), to "The Matrix" series (red pill or blue pill?) and "Inception," featuring Leonardo DiCaprio in a dream within, a dream, within a -- sheesh.

Not surprisingly, given the buzz surrounding lucid dreams, some people are interested in DIYing the experience at home. And, in fact, there may be ways to increase the likelihood you'll have a lucid dream, which involve simple lifestyle modifications, Dasgupta says. He advises:

-- To start, know when your REM sleep occurs. This stage of sleep characterized by rapid eye movement (REM) and deep slumber is when you're most likely to lucid dream, experts note. Usually the first REM sleep cycle happens within 70 to 120 minutes of a person falling asleep, and lasts maybe like five minutes in some individuals -- it's pretty short, Dasgupta says. But as you get closer to the morning (assuming you do your sleeping at night), you tend to spend more time in REM sleep.

-- Get more REM sleep. "Easier said than done," he acknowledges. But this can be highly beneficial, particularly for those not getting enough zzz's, whether or not you ever lucid dream. "Actually REM sleep is one of the most restorative stages of sleep, where it helps out with your memory, helps out with your cognition ... it's vital," Dasgupta says, adding that getting more of it will also increase your chances of lucid dreaming.

-- Keep a dream diary or log. Jot down your dreams after you have them. The point of this is to increase so-called dream awareness, including what you notice while dreaming and remember when you wake up. Pay attention to "dream signs," or things within the dream that make it clear that this isn't reality -- you're having a dream.

-- Do frequent reality checks. Essentially, this entails asking yourself: "Am I dreaming?" -- to be more cognizant of whether you are. "Some people actually draw little symbols ... like on the back of their hand -- something really small that they'll keep on looking at to make sure that they're in reality -- or are they dreaming?" Dasgupta says.

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A Lucid Dream Inducer?

There's no lucid dream device, per se, that will ensure you'll have one tonight. However, in addition to lifestyle modifications, researchers and some amateur enthusiasts take more pronounced steps to induce lucid dreaming -- and often try more than one tactic at a time. That ranges from interrupting sleep and then going back to bed to using supplements -- which experts generally advise against outside of a research setting.

One recent study published in PLOS One found that in combination with techniques aimed at inducing lucid dreaming, the supplement galantamine -- which is normally used to treat things like mild to moderate confusion, or dementia, related to Alzheimer's disease -- significantly increased the frequency of self-reported lucid dreaming in participants. While it's not clear how it does this, "it's very clear that it does work. It's a very strong effect," says Baird, who was the senior author on the paper.

On three consecutive nights, participants awoke approximately 4.5 hours after lights out, recalled a dream, ingested the galantamine capsules and stayed out of bed for at least 30 minutes, the researchers noted. They then returned to bed and -- while going to sleep -- practiced a technique pioneered by psychophysiologist, lucid dream researcher and study lead author Stephen LaBerge, called the Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams, which relies on what's known as prospective memory. So a person learns to recognize things that happen in that person's dreams frequently, and then sets his or her intention "such that the next time, 'I encounter this person, place or thing that happens in my dreams, I want to remember to recognize that I'm dreaming," Baird explains. The percentage of participants who reported a lucid dream was significantly increased to 27 percent for those given 4 milligram doses of galantamine and to 42 percent for those given 8 milligram doses of the supplement, compared to 14 percent for the placebo group.

Still, despite the findings' promise, clinicians like Dasgupta and other experts caution against individuals using supplements of any kind to try to induce lucid dreams on their own. "I think we need more research on the safety profile of the substance before people are doing it recreationally," Baird adds.

Dangers of Lucid Dreaming?

Most incidental lucid dreams happen with little notice, and the dreamer isn't affected in any way after waking up. "People always ask me ... is it dangerous to lucid dream?" Dasgupta says. "There's nothing dangerous about it."

Lucid dreams are generally thought to be safe, and some concerns are truly more science-fiction-based than grounded in reality. "People always ask another question -- because they watch too many movies -- which is if I die in my lucid dream, will I die in real life?" he adds. "I try to keep a straight face and say that, 'No, that is totally false.'"

Apart from what should be an obvious answer to this "safety" question, and advice not to take supplements to induce lucid dreams -- due to the potential for risks and side effects associated with any supplement -- there may still be reason to be circumspect about trying to induce lucid dreams. In particular, a study published earlier this year indicates that it might be worth approaching other concerted efforts, like scheduled awakenings in the middle of the night, to induce intense lucid dreaming, with caution as well.

The research published in Frontiers in Psychology in March found that use of such techniques to deliberately induce lucid dreaming was associated with increased mental health symptoms, such as depression, anxiety and dissociation, as well as sleep problems. Researchers note lucidity could have a positive or negative impact on a person's well-being. If you deliberately stimulate lucid dreaming, sometimes it can increase dissociation -- a kind of a dreamlike state during wakefulness, says Dr. Vijaya Ekambaram, an assistant professor of psychiatry and sleep medicine at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, who wasn't involved in the research. That can leave people feeling disconnected from reality when they're awake.

It's important not to assume lucid dreaming will bolster well-being, while also taking into account if a person is already dealing with mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, Ekambaram says. What's more, there are other ways to tackle problems people have in their dreams -- even if lucidity is shown to be helpful as well.

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"Currently, in our practice if somebody has nightmares, who had PTSD, what we usually recommend is the technique called image reversal therapy -- that is IRT -- that has proven to be effective in individuals with PTSD," says Ekambaram, a psychiatric sleep medicine specialist at OU Physicians, which is located on the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center campus in Oklahoma City. If, for instance, an individual is dreaming about somebody attacking them, they can essentially write a new, less frightening outcome for the nightmare as part of this cognitive-behavioral treatment: "like going from running away from an attacker to confronting the attacker," she says.

Michael O. Schroeder has been a health editor at U.S. News since 2015. He writes health stories on a wide range of topics from mental health to medication side effects, and he manages the blog For Parents. Michael has reported on health and wellness since 2005, and he's also covered everything from business news to governmental affairs for various newspapers. His stories have also been published in HuffPost, MSN, Yahoo!, WTOP, The Washington Post and The Indianapolis Star. He's also an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists. Michael has a bachelor's degree in English from Wabash College and a master's degree in journalism from Indiana University. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at mschroeder@usnews.com.