Have You Ever Felt Like You Could Take Control of a Dream? Here’s Everything You Need To Know About Lucid Dreaming

Photo: Stocksy / Ibai Acevedo
Perhaps the most iconic representation of lucid dreaming in modern media (besides the Sleepy Time episode of SpongeBob Squarepants, IMHO) is the 2010 film Inception. The movie centers around a group of spies who use dreams to tap into the minds of their targets to implant—and extract—important info. Throughout the film, they traverse shared dreamscapes, carefully towing the line between reality and subconsciousness. Whether you’re one of the lucky few who "got" the entire movie or left the theater scratching your head, you may be wondering what lucid dreams are, exactly, and if Inception’s portrayal was accurate.

Experts In This Article

While dream-hopping with multiple people may not be feasible, the idea of tapping into your subconscious mind and manipulating your dreams isn't so far-fetched, at least when it comes to lucid dreaming. Read on to learn about what causes lucid dreams, how to use them to benefit your waking life, and the tried-and-true lucid dream techniques that two dream experts swear by.

What are lucid dreams?

Lucid dreams are vivid dreams in which you become aware of the fact that you’re dreaming. From that point onward, you can typically control at least certain aspects of the dream you’re having.

“Lucid dreams are the holy grail of dreaming, really,” says dream decoder Theresa Cheung, best-selling author of The Dream Dictionary From A to Z. “They are the most astonishing, extraordinary way to enter the dream world.”

Rather than the dream happening to you, it would be more accurate to say you co-create a lucid dream. When we reach lucidity, we’re able to actively seek out answers about ourselves and the world around us via our subconscious mind. “Your dreams are messages from you to you, about you, in order to improve you,” explains dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg, author of Dream on It: Unlock Your Dreams, Change Your Life.

What causes a lucid dream?

When we sleep, we move through four different sleep stages. It’s during the fourth and final phase, wherein we experience rapid-eye movement (REM), that we’re most likely to experience lucid dreams1, according to research. During REM sleep, certain areas of our brains—namely the amygdala and prefrontal cortex—get extracerebral blood flow (the blood circulation outside the brain, supporting overall blood supply to the head and surrounding tissues), which results in a spike in brain activity that can lead to lucid dreaming.

“Usually, you're more likely to get a lucid dream when you have a terrible night of sleep,” explains Loewenberg. (By the same token, sleep deprivation is also known to cause more intense and vivid dreams—with a higher potential for lucid dreams—because the body attempts to catch up on lost REM sleep in a phenomenon known as REM rebound.) “You're also more likely to have a lucid dream closer to the morning [because periods of REM sleep are lengthier then], and you're more likely to hold on to some sense of consciousness as you're about to wake up,” says Loewenberg.

Benefits of lucid dreaming

A growing body of research has proven the positive benefits of lucid dreaming in regard to our mental and emotional well-being. Currently, lucid dreaming is being studied as a potential therapeutic treatment method for those struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder2 (PTSD), recurring nightmares3, and low self-confidence or poor psychological resilience4.

According to Cheung and Loewenberg, some potential benefits of lucid dreaming include:

  • Self-discovery
  • Healing past traumas
  • Overcoming recurring nightmares
  • Tackling fears and phobias
  • Boosting self-confidence
  • Manifestation
  • Deeper understanding of life

Loewenberg shares that lucid dreaming can open the door to untapped self-discovery by allowing us to get acquainted with our subconscious mind, the hidden powerhouse in your brain that controls automatic thoughts, feelings, and actions without your  awareness. “If you're able to lucid dream, it is one hell of a superpower,” says Loewenberg. “When you're lucid dreaming, and you can be aware that you are in a dream, you can take that conversation with the self to a whole new level. You can ask your subconscious very deep and profound questions, and you will get an answer: Your subconscious will respond to you.”

“When you're lucid dreaming, and you can be aware that you are in a dream, you can take that conversation with the self to a whole new level.” —Lauri Loewenberg, dream analyst

Lucid dreaming can also be an effective tool for uncovering the unconscious aspects of yourself that may require shadow work to bring to the surface and integrate.

Similarly, “a lot of therapists will use lucidity, the consciousness within the dream, to overcome trauma,” says Loewenberg. “You actively face whatever it is that has traumatized you in a safe environment because you're very safe in your head. You can confront demons from the past. You can even challenge phobias, [like] spiders or flying in planes.”

And when it comes to improving your waking life, Cheung says that lucid dreaming can skyrocket your self-confidence. Tackling those aforementioned fears and self-doubts in your dreams can give you the power to manifest the life you’ve always dreamed of.

“Dream work is the foundation of manifesting,” explains Cheung. “If you can experience in the dream state what you want, that means unconsciously, you believe it. If you can dream it, you can do it.”

Potential dangers and precautions to take

Choosing to tap into your subconscious mind via dreamland may seem downright terrifying. Luckily, there are a few precautions you can take to ensure that your lucid dreaming experience is a positive one.

Practicing good sleep hygiene habits such as not drinking alcohol before bed, exercising regularly, and falling asleep at your normal bedtime can all improve the experience. If your lucid dream takes a dark turn, or if you uncover some scary truths about yourself in the dream, try not to get overwhelmed, says Loewenberg. Remember that you are the one in control and that you get to dictate what happens next.

“It’s important to remember lucid dreams usually don't last long,” adds Loewenberg. “If it gets scary, just remember it's a dream, and that you can still use the scary to get answers.” In this realm, you may be dealing with a lucid nightmare, which occurs when you realize that you’re having a nightmare while still in the dream state. While nightmares are never fun, achieving consciousness while in the middle of one can help you get out of it. If you’re able to recognize that your nightmare is just that—a nightmare—you may be able to shift the dream’s outcome in a more positive direction.

“When you're in a nightmare, fear can trigger awareness,” explains Loewenberg. “Remember, in a lucid dream, you can take control and do anything. If your dream starts in a war zone, you can say ‘I want to be at a Taylor Swift concert,’ and the dream can change.”

If you’re concerned about certain traumas lucid dreaming may dredge up, however, Loewenberg suggests attempting it while under the supervision of a sleep or dream specialist. This person can watch and wait for physical signs of distress that can occur when you’re experiencing a nightmare and can wake you up, cutting the bad dream off. That said, if you're aiming to use lucid dreaming to work through a less traumatic concern or roadblock in your unconscious mind—as in, to overcome a certain fear, or figure out how to better get along with your mother-in-law, you can certainly try it yourself, says Loewenberg.

As with riding a bicycle or learning how to play the trombone, practice makes perfect. “Lucid dreaming can be overwhelming at first,” says Loewenberg, “but the more you do it, the better you're going to get at it.”

How to lucid dream in 6 steps using the "Wake Back to Bed" technique

If you’re aiming to try lucid dreaming for the first time, both Cheung and Loewenberg recommend using what’s commonly known as the "Wake Back to Bed" technique. This technique involves waking yourself up before you usually wake up, staying awake for a brief period of time, and then falling back asleep before your usual alarm goes off. (A word of caution: Because this technique will shorten the amount of sleep you're getting, it's best to avoid this if you're currently struggling with getting enough sleep.)

1. Set an alarm for five to six hours after bedtime

Before going to sleep at your usual bedtime, set an alarm to wake you up in five to six hours. “So if you go to bed at 11:00 p.m., set your alarm to wake you up at 4:00 a.m,” advises Cheung. Set a second alarm to wake you up at your normal time.

2. Stay awake for 20 minutes

When the first alarm goes off, stay awake for 20 to 30 minutes. This period serves to bridge the gap between your dream world and reality and increase the likelihood of you achieving consciousness mid-dream.

“You'll have enough consciousness because you were just awake," says Loewenberg. "This raises the odds tremendously that you'll be able to remain conscious.”

You can use this time to meditate, practice deep breathing, or journal about what you’d like to get out of this dream. Once the time is up, allow yourself to drift back to sleep.

3. Set intentions and go back to sleep

As you begin to fall back asleep, set intentions for what you want to dream about and what you want to be able to do in your dream. You can also set intentions about what area of your life you’d like to get answers about (your relationship, for example).

“Put yourself there, play it out in your mind,” advises Loewenberg. “That'll raise the odds of your dream beginning that way.”

4. Ask questions during your dream

Upon entering your dream, try asking yourself and the characters in your dreams questions about what is happening in your dream. Ask yourself: In the real world, can alligators speak English? In the real world, would I forget to dress myself before going to school? These questions can help you verify whether or not what you’re experiencing is real.

Alternatively, try doing something in your dream that you know for a fact is not possible in the real world. You can try flying, singing with colors, or teleporting to a different scene.

“Do something impossible in real life to ensure that it's a dream, and then take it from there—have fun,” says Loewenberg.

5. Write down your dream

Upon waking, immediately write down what happened in your dream; you can use a dream journal, a notebook, or a note-taking app on your smartphone to record your experience. Write down the moment you realized you were dreaming. Reflect on the events leading up to that moment of realization. Did you notice something specific was ‘off’? Were you able to fly? Did Pedro Pascal propose to you?

Record what prompted you to realize it was a lucid dream. You can use this moment of realization to help you quickly recognize that you’re dreaming in the future.

Writing down your dreams—even the non-lucid ones—can help you uncover messages from your subconscious. Record any strange or notable characters, objects, and events, and reflect on what the deeper meaning of the dream may be. Consistently keeping a dream journal can also help you recognize scary recurring dreams, which you can then challenge in your next lucid dream state.

6. Apply what you’ve learned to your waking life

After recording your lucid dreams, reflect on what you’ve learned from them. What did you learn about yourself? Did you get any answers to your questions? How did it feel to control your dream? Apply this information to your waking life, and trust in the power of your subconscious mind to help you navigate your real-world conflicts.

“It's very deep, but if you can do the work at that level, your personal and spiritual growth will take such a leap forward,” says Cheung. “If you are blessed with a lucid dream, celebrate it. Even if you do wake up and the dream collapses, just celebrate that, wow, you can do this. Isn't that exciting?!”

Other lucid dreaming techniques to try

1. Question your reality during your waking hours

According to Cheung, a daily mindfulness trick you can use to promote the frequency of your lucid dreams is to question the proof of reality in your waking life. Paying attention to these signs of reality can help you more easily identify a dream as it's happening.

2. Try "anchoring" to make your dream last longer

Lucid dreams are notoriously short and fleeting, but according to Loewenberg, you can try "anchoring" yourself to an object in your lucid dream to make it last longer.

“Find a focal point, like staring at your hands, or maybe a plant on the shelf,” explains Loewenberg. “Stare at that plant. Focus on it, look at it, observe it; that will anchor you in there a little bit longer.”

3. Trust the validity of your dream’s messages

It can be easy to dismiss our dreams as superficial figments of our imagination, but to get the most out of your lucid dreams, you should entrust your subconscious with the authority it deserves. Trusting in your lucid dreams and their ability to reveal important truths about your waking life is key to having more of them in the future.

“If you readily dismiss your dreams, you can't expect lucidity to happen, because your dreaming mind is not going to reveal itself,” explains Cheung. “You've got to fall in love with your dreams.”

Frequently asked questions about lucid dreams

Are lucid dreams good or bad?

Achieving consciousness in the dreamworld may seem terrifying (or potentially dangerous), but many sleep researchers and dream experts agree that lucid dreaming is a positive and potentially therapeutic method for tackling negative recurring dreams, inner conflicts, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Still, lucid dreams can potentially be distressing for those with unresolved mental health issues or who have never experienced a lucid dream before. Because lucid dreaming can muddy the line between vivid dreams and reality, lucid dreaming could potentially be upsetting or harmful for those who struggle with derealization, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.

If you’re worried about how lucid dreaming may affect you, enlist the help of a sleep expert or dream guide who can monitor you for signs of distress—like tossing and turning, or quickened breathing—and wake you up.

Do lucid dreams have meaning?

Just like normal dreams, lucid dreams can reveal your deepest inner thoughts and feelings. You can still analyze and pull meaning from your lucid dreams: Even though you may have been able to control specific aspects of the dream, there are likely characters, objects, or themes within it that can shed light on your desires and fears.

How rare is a lucid dream?

According to a meta-analysis of 34 lucid dream studies, approximately 55 percent of adults have experienced a lucid dream5 in their lifetime, and 23 percent of adults experience a lucid dream regularly, roughly once a month or more. When you take into consideration the fact that all humans dream (even if you think you don’t dream, you do—you just can’t remember them!), 23 percent seems quite rare, indeed.

Don’t let their rarity dissuade you from learning how to lucid dream, though. With a little bit of practice, you’ll be able to reap the benefits of lucid dreaming in no time.

What type of person has lucid dreams?

While anyone can learn to lucid dream, certain types of people are more likely to have them naturally. Creative people who are in tune with their thoughts and emotions tend to experience lucid dreams more than others.

“People who are more right-brained are far more likely to lucid dream than left-brained people,” says Loewenberg. “Your artists, your musicians, your writers, your inventors—these types are more prone to lucid dreaming, and the reason as to why that is the case is because right-brained people are far more emotional. They lean into their creativity and they're more prone to do deeper introspection.”

People who meditate, too, are shown to have more lucid dreams. According to a 2018 study, participants who frequently meditate and have practiced meditation and mindfulness for long periods of their lives had more frequent lucid dreams6 than those who don’t.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Baird, Benjamin et al. “The cognitive neuroscience of lucid dreaming.” Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews vol. 100 (2019): 305-323. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.03.008
  2. Holzinger, Brigitte et al. “Cognitions in Sleep: Lucid Dreaming as an Intervention for Nightmares in Patients With Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 11 1826. 21 Aug. 2020, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01826
  3. Spoormaker, Victor I, and Jan van den Bout. “Lucid dreaming treatment for nightmares: a pilot study.” Psychotherapy and psychosomatics vol. 75,6 (2006): 389-94. doi:10.1159/000095446
  4. Soffer-Dudek, Nirit. “Are Lucid Dreams Good for Us? Are We Asking the Right Question? A Call for Caution in Lucid Dream Research.” Frontiers in neuroscience vol. 13 1423. 24 Jan. 2020, doi:10.3389/fnins.2019.01423
  5. Saunders, David T et al. “Lucid dreaming incidence: A quality effects meta-analysis of 50years of research.” Consciousness and cognition vol. 43 (2016): 197-215. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2016.06.002
  6. Baird, Benjamin et al. “Increased lucid dream frequency in long-term meditators but not following MBSR training.” Psychology of consciousness (Washington, D.C.) vol. 6,1 (2019): 40-54. doi:10.1037/cns0000176

The Wellness Intel You Need—Without the BS You Don't
Sign up today to have the latest (and greatest) well-being news and expert-approved tips delivered straight to your inbox.
Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.

Loading More Posts...