How to have a lucid dream
Lucid dreaming is essentially the state of being aware that you are dreaming while the experience takes place. This absorbing field of discovery began in France in the latter 19th century, when the Marquis d’Hervey de Saint Denis wrote the book Dreams and How to Guide Them. The term “lucid” was first used by Frederik van Eeden, a Dutch writer who in 1913 submitted a paper about this type of dream to the British Society for Psychical Research, and it has stuck ever since.
Until the 1970s, mainstream science had dismissed lucid dreaming as either a fantasy or just a “micro-awakening”, an odd phenomenon in which an individual is awake for a very brief period while believing they are asleep. However, more recently, the objective reality of lucid dreams has been successfully validated.
In 1978, UK experimenter Alan Worsley pioneered the use of eye movement signals to communicate to the outside world the fact that he was in a lucid state. To ensure these were not mistaken for random eye movements, Worsley moved his eyes to the left and right eight times in succession. In other laboratory tests, he was able to provide accurate estimates for the lengths of whole dreams and for parts of dreams.
A second research pioneer, Stephen LaBerge of Stanford University, moved his finger in front of his eyes during a lucid dream while being recorded successfully by measuring instruments. The use of eye movements greatly limits the extent of possible communication, but at present it’s the only available avenue, as during a dream both the body and vocal faculties are paralysed.
About 90 per cent of lucid dreams have been categorised by LaBerge as dream-initiated lucid dreams (DILDs). These occur while dreaming, most commonly when the dreamer is in the middle of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, a state characterised by brain activity and muscle relaxation. For some reason, lucid experiences tend to cluster towards the end of the night, becoming more likely with each successive REM episode prior to awakening. The start of lucidity is marked by pauses in breathing, brief changes in heart rate and altered galvanic (electrodermal) skin response.
The other 10 per cent, known as wake-initiated lucid dreams (WILDs), usually occur suddenly after a period of awareness of having woken from a dream. Many people intuitively feel or know that the borderland between sleeping and waking has more than its share of strangeness. WILDs share similarities with both out-of-body experiences (OBEs) and sleep paralysis — in particular their associated vibrating, buzzing and rushing sensations.
During an episode of sleep paralysis, a person is partially awake but has great difficulty in moving or speaking and often feels they are struggling to pull out of a foggy semi-sleep state. This paralysis is more common at stressful times and, according to some surveys, nearly half the population has experienced it at least once. Most find it somewhat frightening, especially when accompanied by a common sensation of pressure on the chest that in earlier times gave rise to folk tales involving the incubus and succubus, invisible demonic figures that crushed their victims. Perceptions of voices, noises and tactile contact may also be experienced.
Another interesting finding is that sleep paralysis is five times more likely if sleeping face up. Having had several of these experiences in the past, I’m convinced there is a basic link with inadvertently switching to this sleeping position. It may also be significant that many people have nightmares in the face-up position, possibly caused by the temporary loss of breathing known as sleep apnoea. My own experience of dreams while in this position is that, while they have invariably started out normally, at a defined point they all develop a “spooky” or menacing theme.
Entering the twilight zone
As lucid dreams rarely occur accidentally, the way to boost your chances of experiencing one is through a combination of simple training exercises, motivation and persistence. Acknowledging your personal intention to have such a dream also increases its likelihood. A high level of physical or emotional activity during the day has been found to correlate with lucidity at night, although both factors may not always be easy to control.
The best place to begin is to try remembering your dreams. Keep a dream diary on the bedside table and if possible write down all dreams (with a title and date) as a morning ritual, no matter how short or fragmentary they are. If you can’t remember any concrete details, attempt to convey feelings, shapes, colours or sounds. Some people suggest remaining in the same position for a while after waking in the morning will facilitate recollection of a dream from the night before. Whether or not this is effective, going over dreams in your mind before being distracted by the day’s activities will greatly increase the amount retrieved.
A further question is what to do with dreams that are remembered in the middle of the night. Most of us can’t afford to lose substantial amounts of sleep by writing out long dream accounts in the wee small hours. In this case, the best approach is to write down the dream’s key elements plus all remembered dialogue; such exchanges are very unlikely to be remembered in the morning. To avoid waking a sleeping partner, have a torch handy instead of turning on the light.
Maintaining such a dream journal is likely to cause an increase in both the number of remembered dreams and the level of detail recollected. Developing a greater waking familiarity with your recurring “dreamthemes” facilitates a jolt of recognition while dreams are in progress, and reading through the journal at bedtime enhances dream awareness just before sleep.
Despite its seemingly bizarre quality, “reality testing” is another helpful lucid dreaming aid. This involves asking yourself several times a day the question, “Am I dreaming?” and testing the answer via what are known as “reality checks”. If this is done habitually, it will eventually be carried over into your dreams and can provide an effective dream self-awareness trigger. The main challenge is to find a way of remembering to do this when getting sidetracked by other tasks (one option is to stick up a prominent note).
Reality checks are also useful as means of identifying “false awakenings”, occasions when the dreamer initially thinks they have woken up but are actually inside a further dream. Sometimes, disconcertingly, several of these can occur in succession, as if the dreams were arranged in layers like a set of Russian dolls.
In case an initial reality check fails to work, it’s useful to have one or two backup tests. Here are some examples:
- Reading some text, taking note of a few words, looking away, then looking back again to see if they have changed at all. If you are dreaming, they will probably have altered, sometimes into symbols instead of letters. Alternatively, try to make them change while looking at them.
- Look at a clock, take note of the time and look back again. In a dream the time will have changed.
- Look at your hands. Do they look fuzzy or strange?
- Look into a mirror. If you can’t recognise the reflection, or if it looks odd, you are obviously dreaming.
Similar to reality testing, “dreamsigns” are anomalous events or objects in a dream that can be used as a springboard to dream awareness. Highlighting these in a dream diary leads to greater attunement, enabling them to be identified more regularly and facilitating lucidity. Such events often involve malfunctioning electrical or mechanical equipment. For example, in a recent dream, I was driving along the road when the engine cut out, but instead of slowing to a halt, the car kept on moving — a typical dreamsign absurdity.
Being alert to dreamlike events in waking life enhances the skill in spotting dreamsigns, as does a mindful awareness of everyday events. Instead of going through life on autopilot, the challenge is to try to become conscious of every action. In one lucid dreaming workshop, participants were asked to touch every doorframe they passed through as a self-awareness ritual.
Tests have found a greatly increased frequency in lucid dream incidents when subjects woke up two hours earlier than the usual time and then went back into the last two hours of sleep either 30 minutes or an hour after waking. It can be helpful to spend this 30- or 60-minute interval reading about dreams. Other advice from the oldest Tibetan Buddhist text on Dream Yoga suggests sleeping on your right side. At a more high-tech level, headset units such as the NovaDreamer send light and sound signals to a sleeper at intervals, and with familiarity these can be identified by the mind as dreaming prompts. Some people report good results with such tools, but if they require sleeping face up, then nightmares are always a possibility! Keith Hearne, a laboratory technician who has worked with Alan Worsley, created a “dream machine” that works by applying a mild electric shock to the wrist.
As an artistic movement, surrealism was essentially an attempt to convey material from the unconscious while bypassing the rational mind and, unsurprisingly, the original surrealists were deeply interested in dreams. Watching films in the evening such as those by Spanish director Luis Bunuel is one way of attempting to tune into the dream world’s unconscious currents. More recent work in the same vein includes Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001), a film in which a dream-immersed figure wanders around Austin, Texas, while engaging in far-reaching philosophical discussions with other characters about the nature of existence.
Entering a state known as pre-lucidity is a sign you’re on the right track. You’re aware something isn’t quite right, or you ponder the nonsensical quality of an event without making the crucial link. Alternatively, a dream character may be talking about dreams, reading about them or writing one down. Common among novices is a condition of low-level lucidity, where a brief lucid interlude may revert to a normal dream. Unfortunately, being aware you are dreaming does not imply a condition of full rationality. Beginners’ lucid dreams are often short; they tend to become overexcited, causing them to wake up soon after entering a lucid state. The solution here is to remain calm.
With increased practice it’s possible to reach a far higher level of mastery, to the degree that while dreaming you are aware of being asleep in bed, that everything in the dream is a byproduct of your mind and that there is no possible danger. Sensory input, especially touch and smell, becomes far more vivid. Some adepts have even learned to recognise they are dreaming at the onset of each dream.
Once you’ve embarked on the lucid dreaming path, the fundamental question is what to do when faced with infinite choice? The next step is restricted only by the limitations of your imagination. Some people have used lucidity to create transcendent spiritual experiences, while other scenarios have a greater semblance to everyday life.
One way to familiarise yourself with this novel situation is to slowly walk around observing the surroundings. Soon, lucid practitioners realise they are able to carry out activities that would be impossible while awake and are unlikely to happen in a regular dream. There is no need to worry about the social consequences of your actions or the risk of feeling embarrassed. In particular, flying seems to be one of the most liberating experiences and many people like to test it by jumping out of a window in their dream, while erotic encounters with dream inhabitants are also popular. Other options are to change the dream scenery or morph the people into objects and vice versa.
Interestingly, becoming lucid does not always remove the bizarre elements from dreams. To a degree, lucid dreams have a life of their own that evades conscious control and, as such, they can be a uniquely fascinating zone of interplay between the conscious mind of the dreamer and the subconsciously generated dream. Alan Worsley has found some actions difficult, particularly turning on a light in a dark room to the desired level of illumination, and also flying high above the ground. In a group experiment where numerous dreamers switched on dream lightbulbs, one bulb slowly filled with thick black tar. In another case, the outside porch light came on instead, leaving the room in darkness.
Dream mirrors are particularly interesting, as they offer much scope for the mysterious and unexpected to occur. The figure in the mirror is usually substantially different from the waking reflection and may often change shape while being observed, perhaps reflecting the dynamics of the unconscious mind.
Lucid pioneers usually try passing through solid objects, and mirrors are a favourite, suggesting echoes of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1872) in which Alice finds a different world on the other side. One option is to float horizontally towards the mirror, as if diving into a vertical lake. Sticking a dream finger into a mirror apparently creates a tingling feeling, which is also experienced when walking through walls.
In the future, it may be possible to completely control dream scenes and objects, in effect creating a kind of virtual reality world. However, that time may be a long way off, and if all the unpredictability were removed from dreams they would become far more boring, leaving Jungian dream analysts at a loose end!
It’s fairly easy to tell when a lucid dream is about to end. Clues include loss of visual brightness, clarity and three-dimensionality. Fortunately, in this situation all is not lost; several strategies have been devised to prolong lucidity. One is to look at the ground, while another is Don Juan’s famous advice to Carlos Castaneda that he should look at his hands. If successful, the fuzzy sausage-like protuberances you will see may or may not be pink in colour.
However, because the visual component is usually the first to vanish from a dream, Stephen LaBerge has developed two alternative techniques that avoid this dilemma by focusing on motion rather than vision. One involves spinning around like a dervish with your arms outstretched until you have either re-entered a dream or woken up; usually this results in the creation of an entirely new dream scene — an interesting prospect if you love the unpredictable. (It’s suspected spinning works by stimulating the brain’s motion centres.) With the other technique, the dreamer rubs their dream hands together, overriding the growing awareness of their physical body that usually pulls their attention out of a lucid dream.
Both of these prolonging exercises appear to be very effective. In a test conducted by LaBerge involving dozens of volunteers, spinning continued the lucid dream 96 per cent of the time, rubbing was successful in 90 per cent of cases, while for a “business as usual” approach where no special action was taken, the rate dropped dramatically to only 33 per cent. LaBerge encourages dreamers to voice their intention while engaged in these activities, continuously repeating the words, “The next scene will be a dream.”
The lucid environment can be used for a wide variety of beneficial purposes. Nightmares, especially recurring ones, can be resolved with the inner knowledge that nothing can do you harm. Some people choose to fly as a means of evading scary scenarios, viewing them from what in the dream appears to be a “safe” distance.
When pursued by a dream monster, the key is to turn around and face it, a metaphor for confronting your fears instead of running away from them. Then the lucid experience can be utilised to turn the bogeyman into something far less frightening. Such an approach will often resolve the underlying issue that gave rise to a recurring dream, causing it to cease.
For some, the lucid world is a perfect place for practising sports or other challenging activities. For others it can be a useful tool for rehearsing in order to reduce the risk of stagefright, overcome phobias and reduce social and sexual anxieties. When dealing with dreams involving unresolved grief for departed relatives, much healing can be achieved through the lucid avenue. These confidence-building and therapeutic dimensions are under-explored and represent fertile territory for further research.
Some people are convinced that a few characters they encounter in lucid dreams are real people who have found their way into the same dream construction. Apparently, these people can be differentiated from the anonymous mass by a higher level of “realness”, and if they vanish suddenly, it means they have woken up. In an attempt to confirm the reality of shared dreaming, a UK website forum called Lucid Crossroads (www.lucidcrossroads.co.uk) aims to serve as a meeting place for people who may cross paths in this way. It suggests you pass on to the other dream figure the website’s name and an unusual code name, in the hope they will remember both when they wake up, log on and make contact with you in waking life!
Dream Views, www.dreamviews.com
Lucid Crossroads, www.lucidcrossroads.co.uk
Lucid Dream Exchange, www.dreaminglucid.com
The Lucidity Institute, www.lucidity.com
Yahoo! Group, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/lucid-dreaming
Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore, northern NSW.