What Are Lucid Dreams?
Lucid dreams are when you know that you’re dreaming while you’re asleep.
You’re aware that the events flashing through your brain aren’t really happening. But the dream feels vivid and real. You may even be able to control how the action unfolds, as if you’re directing a movie in your sleep.
Studies suggest that about half of people may have had at least one lucid dream. But they probably don’t happen often, usually only a handful of times in a year.
When Do Lucid Dreams Happen?
Lucid dreams are most common during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a period of very deep sleep marked by eye motion, faster breathing, and more brain activity.
You usually enter REM sleep about 90 minutes after falling asleep. It lasts about 10 minutes. As you sleep, each REM period is longer than the one before, finally lasting up to an hour.
Lucid Dreams Research
Neuroscientists don’t know exactly how and why lucid dreams happen. But they have some ideas.
For one thing, studies have found physical differences in the brains of people who do and don’t have lucid dreams. The very front part of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex -- 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.
One small study in Germany tracked brain electrical activity in volunteers as they slept. Based on these measurements, the researchers say, lucid dreaming may be kind of a “between state” where you aren’t fully awake but not quite asleep, either.
Some sleep scientists believe that lucid dreams may also happen just outside of REM sleep, which many long thought was the only time when you dream.
Benefits of Lucid Dreams
Lucid dreams might help your waking life with benefits like:
- Less anxiety. The sense of control you feel during a lucid dream may stay with you and make you feel empowered. When you’re aware that you’re in a dream, you can shape the story and the ending. That might serve as therapy for people who have nightmares, teaching them how to control their dreams.
- Better motor skills. Limited studies suggest that it may be possible to improve simple things 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.
- Improved problem-solving. Researchers found some evidence that lucid dreams can help people solve problems that deal with creativity (like a conflict with another person) more than with logic (such as a math problem).
- More creativity. Some people taking part in lucid dream studies were able to come up with new ideas or insights, sometimes with the help of characters in their dreams.
Dangers of Lucid Dreams
Lucid dreaming may also cause problems, including:
- Less sleep quality. Vivid dreams can wake you and make it hard to get back to sleep. And you might not sleep well if you’re too focused on lucid dreaming.
- Confusion, delirium, and hallucinations. In people who have certain mental health disorders, lucid dreams may blur the line between what’s real and what’s imagined.
How to Have Lucid Dreams
Small studies have found that you may be able to raise your chances of dreaming lucidly. One way to do it might be to prime your mind to notice unusual details in your dream to alert yourself that it’s not real.
More research is needed to know if any method can actually trigger a lucid dream. Some things researchers have tried include:
- Reality testing. This is when you pause 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 inhale through a closed mouth. Or you can do something that's usually hard to do in a dream, like read a page in a book.
- Dream diary. Some studies showed that people had more lucid dreams when they kept a log of their dreams, because they were more focused on them. Other research found that these journals didn’t help on their own but might be useful when combined with other methods.
- Wake-back-to-bed. You wake up after 5 hours of sleep, stay awake briefly, and then go back to bed to try to enter an REM sleep period.
- Mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (MILD). You wake up after sleeping for 5 hours and tell yourself several times that the next time you dream, you will remember you’re dreaming. This uses prospective memory -- the act of remembering to do something in the future -- to trigger a lucid dream.
- Drugs. Studies have also focused on the effects of several drugs, such as supplements and medicinal plants, on sleep and dreams. But it’s not clear how safe they are or how well they work.
- Devices. Some masks and headbands that have sounds or lights might bring on a lucid state. Other devices can record and play messages used in the MILD technique while you’re asleep.