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What Is Lucid Dreaming, and How Does It Work?

06/25/2015 11:45 am ET | Updated Jun 25, 2016

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In its simplest form, a lucid dream is any experience in which you become aware that you’re dreaming during the REM stage of your sleep cycle.

“Although [we’re] not usually explicitly aware of the fact that we are dreaming while we’re dreaming,” writes Dr. Stephen LaBerge, one of the first researchers to actively study this phenomenon, “at times a remarkable exception occurs, and we become conscious enough to realize that we are [in the midst of a dream].”

According to LaBerge, lucid dreamers can remember their identities, think clearly and act intentionally within the dream world. Sometimes this dream world is extremely vivid, even lifelike. Within that world, a person — especially one who frequently experiences lucid dreams, or actively works to induce them — may attempt to take control of the dream and manipulate its outcome.

They may even try to use the dream state to push the boundaries of possibility, experimenting with things like flying or walking through flames.

This sounds an awful lot like science fiction.

It may sound far-out, but research by LaBerge and others proves that lucid dreaming is both real and distinct from typical REM-sleep dreaming. The first study recording a lucid dream dates back to 1975.

Later research, using electroencephalograms (EEGs) to record the brainwaves of lucid dreamers, found that lucid dreaming is “a hybrid state of consciousness with definable and measurable differences.”

What can happen during a lucid dream?

There are many possibilities. The only thing that must happen is for the dreamer to realize their experience is a dream. From there, just about anything could happen. Lucid dreamers claim to have flown through space and visited the sun, danced in fire without being burned and had sex with strangers.

How common is lucid dreaming?

It’s difficult to place exact figures on how many people experience lucid dreams or how often they experience them, but some research indicates that more than 20 percent of people have one or more lucid dream per month.

The same study found that nearly 60 percent have experienced at least one lucid dream in their lifetime.

What are the risk (and benefits) of lucid dreaming?

Proponents claim lucid dreaming can improve problem-solving skills, enhance creativity, improve your memory and self-confidence, reduce the number of nightmares you experience and provide you with a more restful night’s sleep overall.

In terms of risk — lucid dreaming has traditionally been considered harmless. But there are stories of lucid dreamers losing touch with reality and even exacerbating pre-existing mental illnesses.

How do I become a lucid dreamer?

Experienced lucid dreamers say it starts with paying closer attention to your experiences while you are awake. By observing the minutiae of life, you’ll be better able to recognize any breaks from reality (which indicate when you’re dreaming). During sleep, you’re then able to spot dreams quickly and, eventually, attempt to take control.

You can also increase your lucid dreaming skills by adjusting your behavior. Before falling asleep, spend some time thinking about what you want to dream. Maybe you want to fly or fulfill a sexual fantasy. Maybe you’re looking for the solution to a conflict.

Whatever it is, focus on that thought as you drift off to sleep. In the lucidity world, this practice is called predetermination, and it will help increase your chances of entering into a dream that you are then able to experience and control in ways you desire.

-- Brian Sabin

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