All of us have things we would love to do but can’t. Either society won’t allow it, we don’t have the physical capabilities or monetary means, or it’s just physically impossible. And this is why ‘sandbox’ computer games that let you roam around freely and do whatever you want are so popular; the freedom that those afford you, with no repercussions for your actions and the benefit of amazing physical abilities is just incredibly liberating even if what’s possible is still limited by the imaginations of the game designers.
But as it would happen, there actually is another way you can experience that kind of freedom and experimentation without picking up a game controller. It’s called ‘lucid dreaming’ and simply put it gives you the ability to act out anything that you could possibly dream of… Literally.
What Is Lucid Dreaming?
So what is lucid dreaming? Essentially lucid dreaming is when a person is asleep and having a dream that’s like any other, only at the same time they be a) aware that they are in fact in a dream, and b) able to control the content of that dream and do anything they can think of. Want to visit the moon? No problem. Want to try flying? Go for it. Want to sleep with that hot girl/guy from your office? There’s nothing stopping you in a lucid dream!
And before you write this off as some new-age nonsense, this is actually a very real phenomenon that has been demonstrated in a number of studies. In one study carried out by a Dr Stephen LaBerge from Stanford University for instance, subjects would identify to the researchers that they were conscious by moving their eyes in a pre-agreed pattern. They were attached to an EEG, so the researchers could see that they were in REM sleep, but because it’s still possible to move our eyes during a dream participants could signal to the researchers in this way thus confirming the reality of lucid dreams. There are detractors of this study and of others like it, but generally lucid dreaming is considered to be a real phenomenon – and there are countless advocates of it who swear by its use (including Tim Ferriss, Albert Einstein, James Cameron and many other well-known names).
How to Do It
So now you know what lucid dreaming is and have some evidence for its existence, you may find yourself wanting to give it a go. So how do you induce lucidity in your sleep?
There are a number of methods, with different strategies proving more effective for different people. It would seem as well that some individuals are more inclined to manage lucid dreaming states easily, while others (myself included) are destined to struggle.
Either way, there are some different strategies that can help you to increase the likelihood of a lucid dream. The first and most important is to learn to remember your dreams. Contrary to popular belief, it is generally accepted that everyone dreams every night. The only difference is how well you are able to recall those dreams afterwards.
Interestingly though, practicing dream recall seems to improve it. Dream recall is also best first thing in the morning after you wake, so keep a notepad or ‘dream journal’ by your bed and make a concerted effort to write into that the fleeting memories of your dreams as soon as you wake up. It’s easy to forget this, so consider setting a reminder on your phone alarm.
The more dreams you remember, the better you’ll become at accessing that part of your brain and at recording your experiences while you sleep. But what if you never remember that first dream to get yourself started? Something I’ve found to help here is to spend a few minutes when you decide to start pursuing this to write down all of the old dreams that you can remember. As you do this you’ll again be accessing the particular part of your brain where those memories are stored, and you’ll find it’s easier to remember new dreams in future.
Remembering dreams is also easier in general when you are ‘drifting’ in and out of sleep. Try setting an alarm and then putting it on snooze a few times before waking up. You’ll be in a light stage of sleep from which you’ll possibly find it easier to remember your dreams and in which you’ll be better able to walk that fine line between consciousness and sleep.
All this will help you to improve your dream recall and your awareness of and in your own dream states. However this isn’t necessary sufficient to start noticing you’re sleeping, so you should also look into using another method that lucid dreamers swear by: ‘reality checks’.
Essentially a reality check is when you mentally check whether or not you’re sleeping by just asking yourself… is this real?
It’s hard to do this in a dream if you aren’t consciously able to control your own actions yet, so to encourage yourself to do this while sleeping you’ll want to make these reality checks a habit by doing them regularly while you’re awake. Ask yourself right now… is this a dream?
Also useful is to ask the same question when you’re watching films or playing computer games, with some even suggesting that playing computer games in general can help make lucidity easier as it helps the brain to tell when it’s perceiving reality and when it isn’t.
With the practice above you will have primed yourself to become lucid while dreaming. Now to actively set about doing it you can try using the MILD technique.
To perform the MILD technique you need to wake yourself around 3AM-9AM in the middle of the night by setting an alarm. Now you are going to quickly review your last dream and write it down, while at the same time consciously reminding yourself to ‘realise you are dreaming’ (apparently it’s a bad idea to tell yourself to become lucid – avoid that term).
Now as you’re falling asleep you should visualise the last dream you just had, while also remembering that it is a dream. Now try to imagine yourself doing particular things in that dream – flying or going to meet a famous historical character. If you are lucky and everything has gone well, then you may find yourself eventually emerging into a dream that you can fully control.
Some people who are very serious about lucid dreaming will attempt to encourage success by using supplementation. Popular supplements for lucid dreaming include:
Huperzine A: This is a chemical that helps to maintain acetylcholine, a crucial neurotransmitter that is used in the communication between the brain and muscles and which some believe helps with control of the ‘dream body’. It is also a nootropic used to enhance learning and memory which might further aid the experience and recall of memory. Choline is a nutrient found in our food that is a ‘precursor’ (building block) for acetylcholine, so it may also be worth using a choline supplement, or increasing your consumption of eggs (which contain a lot of choline). Huperzine A is generally only recommended for short term use however, so do your research before messing around with this supplement.
DMAE: DMAE works similarly to choline/huperzine A. A direct precursor to acetylcholine, it is also particularly effective at crossing the blood-brain barrier which may make it more effective than a choline supplement.
Nicotine: Nicotine isn’t the supplement I’d recommend using to achieve lucidity as it’s addictive and not particularly good for your brain in the long term. However that said, many people do claim that nicotine can help encourage particularly vibrant dreams and again this is because nicotine can help to encourage the formation of memories – nicotine can mimic the effects of acetylcholine at the nicotinic receptor sites and as such is also used as a study aid.
Using DMAE or Huperzine A will be more effective in dream recall and less potentially harmful, but if you happen to be using nicotine patches to quit smoking anyway, try using them just before sleep to gain additional benefits.
Melatonin: Melatonin is the neurotransmitter that is naturally produced in the brain to send us into deep sleep. Deeper sleep = more REM so this is a great way to increase your likelihood of having vivid dreams that you then remember.
If melatonin is naturally occurring though, then why would you need to supplement with it? Well put simply, melatonin is controlled by two factors: external zeitgebers and internal pacemakers. These basically describe outside cues such as light, and internal cues that we call our ‘internal body clock’.
The former of these relies heavily on light – when there is no light this tells our body that it’s night time and that we should be going to sleep. Unfortunately as most of us sit in light rooms and spend all evening staring at computer screens, our bodies don’t get this message in quite the same way. Thus it can help to supplement with melatonin.
The other reason to supplement with melatonin is to counteract some of the effects of the other supplements on this list – like nicotine – which can actually make it harder to get to sleep.
Stabilising the Dream
The first time you become lucid in your dream, prepare to be disappointed. All too often the sheer excitement of achieving a lucid state will jolt people out of sleep and back to the waking world. To ‘stabilise’ your dream then you should try to remain calm and focus on something dull until you get used to it.
You can also use one of two techniques to help cement the dream further: rubbing your dream hands together or spinning around quickly on the spot. No one knows why, but apparently this can prevent waking.
What to Do
If all that worked and you’re now able to achieve lucidity in your dreams without waking up, then congratulations! The only question is… what now?
Well, there are obviously some particularly popular options which most people will want to try first… there’s sleeping with people you fancy and celebrities for instance, there’s flying, and then there’s having awesome kung-fu battles that you are guaranteed to win… all good stuff.
At the same time, there are also some ‘deeper’ and potentially more impactful uses for lucid dreaming. For instance one popular use is to try and discover more about yourself by asking questions of the characters in your dreams. While the answers will often be nonsensical, apparently they can sometimes contain useful insights into your psyche. Ask passers-by whether they think you should quit your job/propose to your partner/go on a diet and you may just get some useful insight – almost as though you were talking to your own unconscious mind.
Others use lucid dreaming states as a way to test ideas – particularly creative ideas. Many creative works have apparently been inspired by adventures that creators had in a lucid dream state. Those interested in self-development and productivity may also be interested in using lucid dreams as a place to practice a skill or ability. While this may not be as effective as practicing in real life, it is apparently still very useful as a tool for enhanced learning and can also be useful for combating stress/improving confidence and performance while giving speeches or competing.
This is an exciting new world to explore and ultimately what you do when you get there is up to you. Entirely up to you in fact – in a more literal sense than even reality can provide. Start experimenting with lucid dreaming and you may just start to look forward to going to bed more than ever before…