How To Lucid Dream
Picture this: You’re running away from a shadowy figure, down an empty street that seems oddly familiar. You turn a corner and face an alley. As you run down the alley, you hear your pursuer’s echoing footfalls coming closer. There’s no way out — until you realize that you’re having a lucid dream. Giddy with excitement, you lift off of the ground and fly away.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines a lucid dream as “a dream in which the sleeper is aware that he or she is dreaming and may be able to influence the progress of the dream narrative.” Most people rarely have spontaneous lucid dreams, with an estimated 40-50 percent of people never having the experience. Still, lucid dreaming is a sought-after — and accessible — state for many dreamers.
Experts agree that people can train themselves to lucid dream, and that the results can be illuminating and even healing.
What, exactly, are the benefits of lucid dreaming? And is it possible for someone to hone their dreaming muscle to experience this state more frequently (or ever)?
The History Of Lucid Dreaming
Ancient and classical history document experiences of lucid dreaming, including in the texts of Aristotle. However, the phrase “lucid dreaming” is usually attributed to Dutch psychologist Frederik van Eeden, whose article, “A Study of Dreams,” detailed his own experiences with lucid dreaming beginning in 1896.
In the 1980s, German psychologist Paul Tholey established seven “awareness criteria” for lucid dreams. These include clarity that one is dreaming, clarity about freedom of choice, clarity of consciousness, and clarity about waking life.
Once a controversial topic, the rise of modern research into the practice is attributed to Stephen LaBerge, who began physiological investigations of lucid dreaming in 1980 by studying eye signals. Since LaBerge began his work, more research has been done on lucid dreaming, including into cortex activation patterns during the lucid dream state.
Current research into lucid dreaming also includes work in the psychotherapeutic realm. This includes the healing potential of such dreams for people diagnosed with PTSD and in working with nightmares.
Studies have found that lucid dreaming differs from REM sleep because of increased activity in the frontal lobes of the brain in the former state. The experience also activates “frontal cortex components.”
Both lucid and non-lucid dreams can involve varying degrees of “thinking” versus “experiencing“ or “perceiving,” but lucid dreams are typically characterized more by “thinking,” as well as by factors like insight, subjective control, intention enactment, and experienced volition.
Lucid dreaming can still feel significantly different from the waking state. Research points to this being a hybrid state that is “still partially ruled by lower-level consciousness.” It is one reason why people experience lucid dreams as happening, rather than something they are creating.
Dream educator and author Ryan Hurd helps people understand exactly what lucidity in the dream state can look like. He points out that a successful lucid dream is more about quality than quantity. “In actual experiences, lucidity comes and goes,” he says, noting that lucid moments are more common than a completely lucid dream.
He also notes that success largely comes from oneself. “Everyone has their own sleep and dream style,” he says. “We describe our dreams in reports, but only the dreamer knows what the dream world feels like and the emotional architecture of their imagination.”
“We have universes within ourselves,” adds Hurd.
There are certain factors that typically characterize successful lucid dream experiences. This includes a sense of well-being the following day. “Sometimes we can bite off more than we can chew,” he shares. “I’ve had feelings of nausea after waking up, or even the sense that I’ve hurt myself or compromised my boundaries in some way. When it feels good it’s the opposite: I feel energetic and light, and that carries through the day.” Another sign of success: being able to remember dreams clearly. “Anything that builds bridges between the dream world and the waking world is a good thing,” adds Hurd.
He notes that a common misconception he hears about lucid dreaming has to do with a narrative of control versus a narrative of choice. “Dream control is the number one piece of misinformation that is hard-boiled into the Western psyche,” he says, noting that he sees colonialist roots in this narrative.
While some people can control every aspect of their dreams, Hurd notes that those individuals are rare, and that “dream choice” is how he pivots people away from the idea that they should have total control.
“Once I realize that I’m in a dream, I can choose to go up or down a staircase,” he says. “I can choose to pay attention to a character or ignore them and fly off. And I can remember the intention I set beforehand.”
He points out that full control could actually limit the dream experience. “If you ask a question of your dream, you want to make space for the answer,” he explains. “If you’re controlling it the whole time there’s no room for spontaneity, creativity, or dialogue with the dream.”
Benefits Of Lucid Dreaming
It’s also been lauded as a way to deepen creativity, as a practice for awakening (as is the case with dream yoga), and as a way to access spiritual or supernatural planes.
Linda Mastrangelo, a psychotherapist and the Executive Director for the Institute for Dream Studies, has used lucid dreams for ancestral work, grief work, what she terms “psychpompic work” (healing work with people who have died or who want to transition), and meditative practices. “The potential for lucid dreaming is pretty vast,” she says.
“I do believe that our dreams reflect our waking life and vice versa,” she adds. She points to the philosophy of “lucid waking.” “Bringing intentionality and pure presence into the dreamscape to be aware and conscious is something we can mirror in waking life, holding the idea that it, too, is a dream, and holding the space of consciousness together as we co-create this dream.”
“What would it mean in terms of how we are experiencing life?” she continues. “How would it affect how we take things in, including synchronicities, connections, and things we miss in waking life. Our dream practice will expand that consciousness and the way we see the waking world as well.”
Both Mastrangelo and Hurd see nightmares as useful oneiric territory ripe for excavation.
“I see all dreams not coming to torture us, but rather to do the opposite,” Mastrangelo says. “Dreams come to us because we’re ready to work on whatever is showing up. If that’s working with dark, shadowy stuff so be it. To me it’s just energy. It’s an opportunity for people to access their own healing.”
For Hurd, nightmares indicate “a growing capacity to face what we don’t want to look at.” While he brackets off PTSD and trauma-related nightmares as their own topic (and one that can also be helped by lucid dreaming), he notes that idiopathic nightmares “are not necessarily about trauma but about existential truths, life and being. And tremendous energy can be released in those moments.”
Facing material from his own past nightmares, including sitting with bullies from his past, has helped Hurd have compassion and self-love for his own boundaries. “It’s a spiritual practice and a meditation, because you’re in this emotional landscape — that’s what dreams are — and you can cut to the quick very quickly.”
Mastrangelo adds that those suffering with PTSD and recurrent nightmares may benefit from lucid dreaming. It can offer these people ways to work with such dreams consciously, alongside the support of a therapist.
How To Lucid Dream
Developing and honing a lucid dreaming practice is actually simple, explain Hurd and Mastrangelo.
“Most people can learn how to lucid dream, and studies show that if people do specific behaviors or practices they can learn how to lucid dream in two weeks,” says Hurd.
The necessary components? Working on dream recall is a critical factor.
To accomplish this, consider keeping a journal beside your bed. Having a question or intention you’d like to focus on is another way to ground the practice. Setting an alarm for “well-timed sleep disruption” — particularly in the very early morning (also referred to as “wake-up-back-to-bed”) — results in cortical activation in the frontal lobes of the brain. It also supports both recall and the potential induction of a lucid dream state.
Hurd also recommends journaling before bed. “It takes some lifestyle privilege,” he says. “You have to have the time and flexibility to disrupt sleep and sleep in.”
Mastrangelo recommends a technique used by LaBerge. “He had really neat and simple ways for people to have lucid dreams,” she says. “One is to look at your hands during the day. You might say to yourself as you look at them, ‘This is a dream. I’m dreaming this.’ And hopefully in the dream, if you look at your hands and say that, it can bring on a lucid dream.”
Continuing the practice with a dream community in waking hours is also important. “Having a community of dreamers gives you folks to troubleshoot with,” Hurd says. “It can take a specialized group to get into the nuts and bolts of how to deal with ideas and images coming up, and it’s nice to have a circle.”
Mastrangelo also emphasizes the importance of integration. “As with a psychedelic journey, if you’re not integrating and intentionally working with what you get it means nothing. There’s not going to be an opportunity for growth if we’re only in it for the ride.”
Yes, compounds like galantamine, which is marketed to induce lucid dreaming, work effectively. However, Hurd recommends that people just start concentrating on establishing foundational practices. “Galantamine has proven to be very valuable for lucid dreaming induction,” he says, “but it’s very powerful and not for beginners.”
Mastrangelo is careful to note that any dream — lucid or not — can be rich, generative, and even healing. “I love all kinds of dreaming,” she says, “and it’s important to address that all types of dreams can be valuable. There’s such a wide spectrum of how we dream. People who might struggle with not having lucid dreams can benefit from bringing intention and attention to other dreams.”
“People think lucid dreaming is the highest echelon of dreaming because it’s a popular topic and is becoming more mainstream,” she adds. “But there is an extraordinary array of dreaming.”