If you’ve watched “Behind Her Eyes” on Netflix, you might be intrigued with lucid dreaming, the phenomenon of being aware that you’re dreaming while asleep.
In the movie, the main character Adele uses lucid dreaming to explore an obsession with her cheating husband. Her husband’s lover, Louise, uses lucid dreaming to safely confront nightmares.
These fictional approaches suggest that lucid dreaming can be a lot of things: exciting, pathological, even healing.
Lucid dream researcher, author, and educator Daniel Love says the pandemic has led to a new “influx of dream explorers.”
Author and lucid dream researcher Robert Waggoner agrees. He sees a renewed interest in lucid dreaming, speculating that it “may be a function of people working remotely having more time to sleep.”
What’s more, scientists are increasingly making a connection between lucid dreaming and mental health. Could this practice be a healthy way to confront the psyche, or is it treading into dangerous territory?
To answer that question, it’s important to first understand what lucid dreaming is.
Philosophers have been referencing lucid dreaming for thousands of years. It was confirmed by scientists in a 1981 study to be a real phenomenon. They based their findings on study participants’ reports of their dreams.
Lucid dreaming isn’t a natural occurrence for everyone.
About half of all people have had one lucid dream in their lifetime.
Increased connectivity during lucid dreaming allows dreamers to access memories from waking life — and sometimes even control their actions within the dream world.
Lucid dreaming contrasts with typical dreams, which play out as if behind a thick wall, one that separates the dreamer from waking consciousness.
The bottom line
- Scientists have confirmed that lucid dreaming is a real phenomenon.
- It’s considered a hybrid sleep-wake state.
- Not everyone lucid dreams, but about half of all people have had one lucid dream in their life.
- Young people are more likely to spontaneously have lucid dreams.
Does lucid dreaming help you sleep better? The science is mixed.
A 2020 study partially confirmed a connection between lucid dream induction and sleep fragmentation, or shifts to lighter sleep stages or wakefulness. Because the study relied on self-reporting, more research is recommended.
Another 2020 study didn’t find a direct link between lucid dreaming frequency and sleep disturbance, but it suggested particular induction methods and sleep conditions may negatively affect sleep.
Researchers from the International Lucid Dream Induction Study (ILDIS) noted that the success of one technique, known as mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (MILD), depended on participants falling back to sleep quickly after using it.
According to the study, participants’ sleep quality was superior on nights when they successfully induced dreams compared with nights when they failed to induce dreams.
If you’re having trouble lucid dreaming, it may be due to the quality of your sleep.
If you find you aren’t falling asleep easily, or if you wake often, you may want to talk with a doctor about how you can develop sound sleep.
Lucid dreaming may have positive effects on mental health for some people.
An International Dream Research survey questioned 528 respondents about how they used lucid dreaming.
Common reasons for lucid dreaming included:
- problem solving
- overcoming fears and nightmares
- spiritual growth and inner work
- cosmic adventuring
- emotional, mental, and physical healing
Many participants, particularly men and young people, used lucid dreams for wish fulfillment. Older dreamers and women were more likely to lucid dream for inner work or healing purposes.
When it came to how dreamers felt when they woke up, lucid dreaming led to neutral or, particularly in the case of wish fulfillment, positive moods.
Waggoner’s book, “Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self,” describes the transformative results of his own lucid dreaming journey. He’s also communicated with many lucid dreamers around the world.
“Most report wonder and empowerment upon waking,” he says.
Researchers at the Institute for Consciousness and Dream Research conducted a study on lucid dreaming as an intervention for nightmares in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
According to participants’ self-assessments, Lucid Dream Therapy (LTD) had no effect on nightmares. Participants did, however, report lessened anxiety and depression over the course of the therapy.
Researchers concluded that LDT could be a complementary treatment for nightmares related to PTSD.
The ability to control elements of the lucid dream is a factor in whether or not the experience has mental health benefits.
In a 2016 study of 33 combat veterans, researchers found that the frequency of lucid dreaming or awareness of the dream state did not relieve nightmare distress, but the ability to control actions and dream elements did.
In contrast to the above findings, an online study from 2020 found that lucid dreamers who could neither control nor wake up from frightening dream elements remained trapped in “lucid nightmares.”
“Lucid dreaming does not seem [to be] a panacea for everyone,” Waggoner says.
Waggoner advises that people experiencing mental health problems should not induce lucid dreams in case they find the content overwhelming.
Some possible negative effects of lucid dreaming include:
- poor sleep quality, resulting in fatigue and irritability
- subclinical psychosis
- blurred lines between dreaming and reality
Love cautions that “while lucid dreaming holds promise as a therapeutic tool, far more scientific research is needed.”
A 2020 review of lucid dreaming literature suggested more research is needed into potential risks.
Some research suggested lucid dreamers may experience sleepiness in the waking state when using reality testing techniques, and some arousal or wakefulness may pervade their dream state while lucid dreaming.
According to the review, more research is needed into the relationship between lucid dreaming and “sleep-wake psychological boundaries,” noting that lucid dreaming may be risky for psychologically vulnerable individuals.
A 2018 longitudinal study of 187 self-reporting undergraduate students cautioned that deliberate lucid dreaming induction can blur the lines between reality and dreams, increasing symptoms of “dissociation and schizotypy.”
While wish fulfillment and altered consciousness without the use of substances might sound safe and fun, those exploring induction techniques need to know that lucid dreaming can have unwanted consequences.
This same study found that lucid dream frequency didn’t correspond to psychopathology and lucid dream intensity.
However, positive lucid dream emotions were “inversely associated with several psychopathological symptoms.”
This means that lucid dreaming can’t be considered innately positive or negative. Researchers say its value depends on characteristics of lucidity and mental stability, all of which warrants further research.
It’s important to keep the potential risks of lucid dreaming in mind. However, if you want to give it a try, there are ways to increase your chances of having a lucid dream.
Here are the main methods to induce a lucid dream:
- reality checks throughout the day
- waking up mid-sleep cycle
- mnemonic induction, or remembering a detail from a previous dream
This method involves periodically looking at a familiar sight, like your hands or a clock, to check whether you’re dreaming.
If you’ve got an unexpected number of fingers or the clock reads 99:00, it’s time to ask, “Am I dreaming?”
Reality checks while awake may train the mind to become aware of discrepancies while dreaming.
Wake back to bed
To use this method, set an alarm for 5 hours after bedtime. Wake up and do an activity requiring alertness for 30 minutes, like writing, making tea, or taking a walk.
When you re-enter REM sleep, you may be more likely to have a lucid dream.
Mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (MILD)
The MILD technique involves contemplating something strange in a remembered dream, then setting an intention to return to it.
Hold it in your mind’s eye as you fall asleep, and you may pop right back into your dream where you left off.
ILDIS findings showed that participants with above average general dream recall were most likely to have successful lucid dreams. This was also true of those able to fall asleep within 10 minutes of completing the induction techniques.
Prior experience with lucid dreaming didn’t affect success rates.
Some lucid dream induction techniques didn’t do the job, however. For example, there was no correlation between the number of reality checks performed every day and lucid dream incidents.
This means that recalling and recording your dreams and cultivating healthy sleep habits may help encourage lucid dreaming.
Aside from the significant mental health risks mentioned above, it’s important that your lucid dreaming practice doesn’t interrupt much-needed sleep.
Love worries about the dream induction “hacks” flooding the market since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when interest spiked in lucid dreaming.
He believes these tools are ineffective and may even disrupt your sleep.
“Those [using] such devices are essentially strapping a randomized alarm clock to their body and risking serious sleep disruption,” Love says.
This can lead to cognitive side effects, such as:
- poor concentration
- poor memory recall
- impaired judgment and decision-making
- increased risk for mental health issues
Love advises lucid dreamers to stick to traditional methods. If you find that even these methods are preventing you from getting quality sleep, take a break from lucid dreaming.
If you experience persistent sleep disruption, you may want to speak with a sleep specialist.
Headway has been made in investigating lucid dreaming without having to depend on the flawed recall of dreamers.
In a breakthrough 2021 study, four international teams of scientists used electrophysiological signals to establish real-time dialogue with dreamers during REM sleep.
Dreamers answered math problems and yes or no questions to test their lucidity in real time, using agreed-upon eye movements and facial signals.
This interactive lucid dreaming holds the potential to enhance athletic or creative performance, uncover ways of treating pain, and investigate how dreamers perceive time across sleep cycles.
Lucid dreaming is a phenomenon that scientists are still working to understand fully.
There are popular techniques for inducing lucid dreams, but it might not be a good fit for everyone. It’s best to avoid lucid dreaming if you experience any mental health issues.
Lucid dreaming’s benefits are mixed, but research into the phenomenon may illuminate the nature of consciousness, sleep, and awareness.
Karen Sosnoski’s fiction and nonfiction, most recently in The Temper, explores what happens when people face their limitations through disability, illness, addiction, sports, or other intense encounters, such as art. Her work has appeared in diverse publications including Romper, Culture Trip, The Sunlight Press, Argot Magazine, LA Times, Poets and Writers, Word Riot, Grappling, Bitch, Radioactive Moat, and PsychologyToday.com, and on Studio 360 and This American Life. Berkeley Media distributes her documentary film, “Wedding Advice: Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace.”