Can You Learn How to Control Your Dreams?

While 50% of people say they’ve had a lucid dream, only 20% have them regularly. 


A man Controlling his dreams.

An employee poses in front of 'Fratelli d'Italia' (2005-2016) by Matthias Schaller at the Victoria and Albert Museum during a photocall for their Opera: Passion, Power and Politics exhibition on September 26, 2017 in London, England.

Have you ever had a dream so real, you mistook it for reality? This is a state called lucid dreaming. Truth be told, little is known about sleep, a condition we're in for about a third of our lifetime. The average person over age 10 dreams about 4-6 times per night.

By conducting experiments using an EEG machine on sleeping subjects, a body of research has found that three elements must be present for someone to have a dream: they must have an adequate level of brain activity, external stimuli must be shut out, and self-awareness must be shut off. The exception is lucid dreaming, when you're actually aware that you're a bug caught in the amber of your own mind.

This type of dreaming has been something of a mystery to scientists. This state gives the dreamer exceptional freedom. You could fly for instance or visit a loved one who passed away and tell them all the things you never got to. In one well-regarded survey, researchers found that around 50% of people have experienced a lucid dream at some point in life, while 20% have them often. The thing about lucid dreams, they're exciting. Your senses are vibrant. Everything looks and feels so real. You wake up feeling exhilarated.

A sleep deprivation epidemic and a rise in sleep disorders may be limiting the number of lucid dreams we have, by limiting REM sleep. Credit: Getty Images.

There are several online communities who discuss lucid or conscious dreams, help one another interpret them, and discuss how to induce and control them. Could their methods be legit? One landmark 1981 experiment proved you can consciously control your dreams. Participants were able to signal to researchers through pre-arranged eye movements during REM sleep. Though there are a number of different apps dedicated to inducing lucid dreams, there isn't much evidence to back them up.

A German study found that those who are naturally prone to lucid dreams have a larger pre-frontal cortex, and may outpace others in certain cognitive abilities, such as self-reflection and meta-cognition or pondering one's own thinking processes. A few studies have found that focusing on problems within a lucid dream can offer results in the real world. Creative types may also be more prone to lucid dreams.

Those prone to lucid dreams may excel in meta-cognition and self-reflection. Credit: Getty Images.

One way to induce such a dream is simply to ask for one. That's according to psychologist Deirdre Barret of Harvard University. She's the author of the book: The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists and Athletes Use Dreams for Creative Problem-Solving—and How You Can, Too. According to Barret, the best way is to think or say each night, right when getting into bed, "Tonight when I dream, I want to realize I'm dreaming."

You can also make a conscious effort to better recognize when you're dreaming and when you're conscious. To do so, be extra cognizant of your surroundings when awake. The thought is, the more you can separate the dreaming and wakeful states, the more you'll notice and remember your dreams and the better you can control them. How are dreams different from reality? Things are usually a little darker. You can't read. Text looks garbled. You can't see your feet. It feels like you're floating. And if you look in a mirror, your image is fuzzy. Our mind can't get a good handle on our own image in a dream state.

One alarm trick might work, but it won't be fun. Credit: Getty Images.

There's some evidence that you're more likely to have a lucid dream if you're woken up during deeper stages of slumber and then fall back asleep again. Set two alarms with about a half hour in between during the late night or early morning hours, to try to induce the lucid state.

If you have someone on the outside that's willing to help in your sleep bound quest, you could set up a situation where while you're in a deep sleep, they whisper certain important words to you, or spray a little water on you, shine light is shone in your eyes, or play a recorded message, or even exert pressure to one of your limbs. Any of these may induce the lucid state. Or piss you off.

There's another snag. Sleep studies that offer evidence on how to induce lucid dreams often count on participants who already experience them regularly and know how to control them. Another issue is the number of studies on this topic as a whole are limited. Still, it's been proven that you can control your dreams. And there are lots of people who claim they can.

In fact, the practice of dream yoga has been practiced by some Buddhist monks for a thousand years or more. There may even be connections between lucid dreaming, meditation, and the practice of mindfulness. So if you want to experiment, you may be able to enjoy the lucid state consciously and even benefit from it.

To learn more about the science of dreaming, click here:

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