The Allure of Lucid Dreaming

Sounds like the stuff of movies, but some people can realize they’re in a dream while they’re still having it. Find out about this unusual phenomenon called lucid dreaming.

You’re standing somewhere that you only vaguely recognize. Maybe it’s your second grade classroom or a temple from ancient Greece. All the sudden, five tigers descend directly on you. Fear starts to make your breathing stop and your hand flail. But wait — you try to jump and suddenly you can fly and escape. And that’s when it hits you — this has to be a dream.

What you do in that split second when you realize that the tigers won’t hurt you and maybe you can get out of this is lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming is when the dreamer is aware that what’s happening is actually just part of a dream.

You can teach yourself how to enter lucid dreaming. Then, as you get better at it, you actually can begin to shape your dreams and do things that are improbable or impossible in waking life — from the physical, like flying, to the emotional, like spending ‘time’ with a deceased loved one. Lucid dreaming is actually a form of waking awareness that occurs during sleep.

Lucid dreaming expert J. Allan Hobson, MD, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said that when he was a young man, he often enjoyed taking wing during his dreamtime escapades.

“Lucid dreamers typically like to fly,” said Dr. Hobson. “Of course, we can’t really fly, but we know how flight is achieved. We see it all the time so we know flight is possible. So we just go ahead and fly. That’s one of the reasons why I loved my lucid dreams, because I could fly.”

How Lucid Dreaming Works

Lucid dreaming occurs when your mind occupies the states of waking and dreaming at the same time. It’s likely caused by the odd interaction of parts of your brain that take charge when you’re awake and when you’re dreaming. Basically, you’re interpreting the dream during the dream itself.

People usually dream when they are in the rapid eye movement, or REM, stage of sleep. There appears to be a shift of brain activity as a person becomes lucid within REM. Brain regions associated with waking thought that are normally inactive during REM sleep, like the prefrontal cortex, start to activate. Brainwave frequencies normally associated with conscious thought increase. In essence, you wake up just enough to realize you are dreaming.

“It’s crucial to activate the frontal lobes to be awake,” Hobson said. “It’s also clear that the back of the brain — the brain stem and posterior forebrain — are involved in imagination, and that’s what is involved in lucid dreaming.”

Hobson believes that research into lucid dreaming and dream interpretation could lead to a better understanding of how the human mind works.

“It allows you to sort out the part of the brain that is responsible for waking and the part of the brain that is responsible for dreaming,” he said.

Ways to Achieve Lucid Dreaming

In general, there are two approaches to bring on lucid dreaming: cognitive techniques, in which you mentally prepare yourself to wake in the middle of dreaming, and external stimulation techniques, in which an outside cue prompts you to partially wake inside your dreams.

Hobson said he tended to use a cognitive technique called autosuggestion to prompt lucid dreaming. “You give yourself a pre-sleep autosuggestion,” he said. “It’s a form of hypnosis. You say, ‘I’m a perfectly normal person, I’m going to have these wacky dreams, and the wackiness is going to alert me to the fact I’m dreaming.’ “

Other cognitive techniques that allow active dream interpretation include:

  • Rehearsing a dream before you fall asleep. Visualize becoming lucid in that dream, while focusing on the intention to remember that you are dreaming.
  • Asking yourself regularly during the day whether you are dreaming or not, and checking out the world around you to see if there are any oddities of the sort you’d find in a dream. This prepares your mind to check out your dreams in much the same way.
  • Teaching yourself to re-enter a dream state shortly after wakening from a dream. This is usually done by remaining still and focusing on an activity like counting until you lull yourself back to sleep

External stimulation uses sensory stimulus to jar the mind into partial consciousness, allowing for active dream interpretation. The stimulus might be a gentle light or sound, a slight vibration, or water lightly splashed on your face or hands.
Whichever technique you decide to try, you should start as young as possible. The ability to enter lucid dreaming peaks at about age 11. People begin to lose their ability to lucid dream in their teens, and past age 30 it can be very difficult to enter that state, Hobson said.

By Dennis Thompson Jr.