This “live action” form of dreaming is called a lucid dream. And it may be possible to train yourself to have one, or at least make it more likely.
Humans have been describing lucid dreams for millennia, as far back as ancient Greece.
You’re conscious that the events flashing through your brain aren’t really happening. But the dream feels vivid and real. You may even control how the action unfolds, as if you’re directing your own movie in your sleep.
Studies suggest that about half of the people may have had at least one lucid dream. But they probably don’t have them often, usually only a handful of times in a year.
Neuroscientists don’t fully understand how and why lucid dreams unfold. But they have some ideas.
For one thing, studies have found physical differences in the brain of lucid dreamers and those of others. Specifically, the front-most part of the brain -- called the prefrontal cortex, which is the site of high-level tasks like making decisions and recalling memories -- is bigger in people who have lucid dreams. That suggests that folks who are most likely to have lucid dreams tend to be self-reflective types who chew over thoughts in their heads.
Researchers believe that lucid dreams happen several hours into your sleep, in the “deep” rapid eye movement (REM) stage.
One small study in Germany tracked brain electrical activities in volunteers as they slept. Based on measurements taken during the volunteers’ lucid dreaming, the researchers theorized that it may be kind of a “between state” where you aren’t fully lucid but you aren’t quite asleep, either. Some sleep scientists believe that lucid dreams may happen just outside of REM sleep, which many long thought was the only phase where dreams can happen.
Benefits of Lucid Dreams
The sense of narrative control you feel during a lucid dream may spill over into your waking life and make you feel empowered. When you’re conscious that you’re in a dream, you can intentionally shape the story and the ending. That might serve as therapy for people who have nightmares by teaching them to how to control their dreams.
Limited studies suggest that it may be possible to improve simple motor skills like tapping your fingers more quickly by “practicing” during your lucid dream. The same part of your brain turns active whether you imagine the movements while awake or run through them during a lucid dream.
Train Yourself to Dream
Small studies have found that you may be able to raise your chances of dreaming lucidly with certain tactics. One way might be to prime your mind before going to bed to notice bizarre details in your dream to alert yourself that it’s not real.
But more research is needed to know if any strategy works reliably to help you dream lucidly. Some of them include:
Reality testing. This is when you stop at different times of the day to see whether you’re dreaming. You can try to do something impossible, like push your finger through your palm. Or you can try to do something that's usually hard to do in a dream, like read a page in a book.
Wake back to bed. You wake up after 5 hours of sleep, stay awake briefly, then go back to bed to try to enter a deep REM sleep period.
Mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (MILD). You wake up after sleeping for 5 hours and repeatedly tell yourself that the next time you dream, you will remember you’re dreaming. This uses prospective memory -- or the act of remembering to do something in the future -- to induce a lucid dream.
Drugs. Studies have also focused on a number of drugs, from supplements to medicinal plants, to see their effect on sleep and dreams and to find out if they could help someone have lucid dreams. But their safety and effectiveness are unclear.
Devices. Different masks and headbands that have sounds or lights might induce a lucid state. Other devices can record and play messages used in the MILD technique while you’re asleep.