Before we dive into lucidity-boosting strategies, though, it’s worth noting that while lucid dreaming may be elusive, there’s nothing magical about it. “Despite all the mystique, lucid dreaming is something completely natural that we’re all capable of doing,” says dream decoder Theresa Cheung, whose work in dream decoding inspired her book, The Dream Dictionary From A to Z. She cites the release of the film Inception in 2010 as the source of the uptick in general fascination with lucid dreaming, which also prompted her to spend the past decade researching and experimenting with several lucid dream techniques.
“Despite all the mystique, lucid dreaming is something completely natural that we’re all capable of doing.” —Theresa Cheung, dream decoder
A couple of the most popular lucid dream techniques—the "Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams" (MILD) and "Senses Initiated Lucid Dream" (SSILD) techniques—emerged as successful (at a rate of about 17 percent) in a 2020 study of 355 people analyzing different lucidity-prompting strategies over a two-week period. While the first involves setting an intention to experience a lucid dream by saying something like, "Next time I’m dreaming, I will remember I’m dreaming," the second involves shifting your attention to sights, sounds, and physical sensations immediately before falling asleep.
However, both techniques used in the study were practiced alongside a third strategy called "Wake Back to Bed," meaning the participants woke themselves up after five hours of sleep, practiced either approach, and then went back to sleep.
“The idea here is that you may be more likely to have a lucid dream after you return to bed because your brain pushes you directly into REM sleep, the stage most associated with dreaming,” says Cheung, “and because your sleep is typically lighter toward the morning, you might be more aware of that dream state.” Cheung mostly cautions against this approach, though, suggesting to only try it out when you’re on vacation or don’t have daytime obligations, as it can seriously interrupt your sleep schedule.
And in her eyes, there’s no need to force a lucid dream through unnatural measures anyway, when you could bring on lucidity by shifting into the right mindset. “I think of dreams like birds,” she says. “Yes, you can put them in a cage and they look beautiful, but it's much more beautiful to see them flying in the sky.” In other words, instead of hacking your sleep to fast-track lucidity, Cheung recommends a slower approach—one that involves greater mindfulness and intention.
4 tips to get into the right mindset to experience a lucid dream
1. Keep a dream journal.
“Trying to experience lucid dreaming before you can recall your dreams is like learning to run before you can walk,” says Cheung, which is why she recommends developing a regular practice of recording everything you can remember about a dream upon awakening, whenever you have one. This will help you get more mentally in touch with your dreams, given that you’ll be thinking about them more often during your waking hours.
2. Look for symbols in your dreams.
“I always say, the best dream decoder is you,” says Cheung. “Your dreaming mind uses other people, places, and things to teach you something about yourself.” For example, when you dream about your mother or your friend, she says, you might consider how you’re mothering yourself or whether you’re being a good friend to yourself. As you grow more conscious of what your dreams are trying to tell you, you’ll become increasingly more capable of interacting with them in real time, adds Cheung.
3. Be more mindful during the day.
More awareness while you’re awake can summon more awareness while you’re asleep, says Cheung. “We know that dreams are a continuation of your waking life in symbolic, psychological language,” she says. So if you’re repeatedly noting and noticing your surroundings while you’re awake using what Cheung calls mini "reality checks"—simply asking yourself throughout the day, "Am I awake, or is this a dream?"—you’ll also be more likely to be mindful of a dream whenever one happens, she says.
4. Engage in fantastical media.
Like dreams, fantasy worlds portrayed in movies, TV shows, and video games reflect alternate realities, where restrictive rules of the universe, like logic and physics, don’t apply. Engaging with these types of media is more likely to spark your imagination and creativity in a way that can be just as transporting as a lucid dream, says Cheung: “When you immerse yourself in the alternate reality of, say, a video game, you’re essentially practicing the dream state.”
All of the guidance above will help move you into the right headspace for a lucid dream, but if one doesn’t come naturally, don't give up hope. Try the following safe (non-sleep-restricting) techniques:
4 techniques that can help you achieve a lucid dream
1. Set an intention.
You can adapt the core element of the MILD approach noted above without having to pair it with a timed middle-of-the-night wake-up, says Cheung. To do so, simply set an intention to have a lucid dream at any point in the day, framed as a note to your future self. Just as you might say, “I must remember at 3 p.m. to go back to my house and walk my dog,” you could also say, “I will have a dream when I fall asleep tonight, and I’m going to know that I’m dreaming.” The idea is simply telling your brain what you want it to do, just as we often set reminders for other things in our life, says Cheung.
2. Tap into your senses before going to sleep.
Similarly, you could use certain parts of the senses-based SSILD approach outlined above, but without having to do them in the middle of the night. When you get into bed and close your eyes, Cheung suggests focusing on whatever images or colors you can see behind your eyelids, and then moving down your body, cycling through the sensations of each body part until you fall asleep. Drawing this level of attention to your physical self can help you better retain awareness, even when you move into the unconsciousness of sleep, says Cheung.
3. Anticipate lucidity, so you don’t wake yourself up from it when it happens.
One of the biggest roadblocks to achieving the full extent of a lucid dream is waking up just before it really gets going. “When we see something fantastical like a dinosaur, we’re often like, 'That can’t be real,’ so we catapult ourselves awake, but if we can just trust it and embrace it, we’ll have a better experience,” says Cheung. She recommends accepting from the jump that lucidity may happen and planning to remain calm if it does, in order to more effectively ride the wave.
4. Stay still for a few seconds upon waking up.
The brain is in a receptive place right after you wake up—which is typically why we can recall dreams in vivid detail upon awakening only to forget them minutes later. As such, one of the best ways to embrace that receptivity is to keep your eyes closed when you first wake up from any dream (if you don’t have to rush to work, that is), and stay in the same position.
“Any physical movement puts you back into the conscious world, but if you stay still for 90 seconds with your eyes closed, that’s as close as you can get to the dream state as possible,” says Cheung. (Then, just relax and see what images come, and in classic dream-journaling fashion, write them down right afterward.) Once you make a habit of this stay-still approach, you’ll become increasingly more likely to return to that semi-conscious state in your sleep—and to achieve a lucid dream as a result.
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