My first experience of lucid dreaming was, like many nighttime visions, both exceptional and banal. I was standing at Haggerston Overground station in London and as the train glided into the platform, I noticed that it moved more gracefully than usual. The wheels didn’t screech along the track and the carriages were sleek and silver. This can’t be real, I thought. I must be dreaming. As the doors opened, I gently raised my heels and floated onto the train. After several nights of trying to train myself to gain consciousness within a dream, I had finally done it. And then I woke up.
What is lucid dreaming?
"Lucid dreaming happens when you become aware that you are dreaming and have the ability to control what's happening in your dream," says Dr Shelby Harris, a clinical psychologist specialising in behavioural sleep medicine and director of sleep health at Sleepopolis. "They may feel different for everyone but it's common for lucid dreams to feel very real and be vivid." The phenomenon was named by Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden in 1913 but Tibetan Buddhists have long practised lucid dreaming as a form of meditation. It was even observed by Aristotle, who noted: "When one is asleep, there is something in consciousness which declares that what then presents itself is but a dream."
With all the control of being awake but all the escapism of being in a dream, I’ve always wondered if learning to lucid dream could be beneficial for an anxious person like myself. I’m not the only one who is intrigued by the practice: the TikTok hashtag #luciddreams has over 915 million views, with creators sharing tips for instigating lucidity. Over on Reddit, there are 475k subscribers discussing their experiences in the r/luciddreaming subreddit. It seems that, in the current climate of soaring costs and political turmoil, spending our nights learning to fly or travelling to incredible places on demand is an appealing prospect.
What happens when you have a lucid dream?
"While lucid dreaming, certain areas of your brain start to work similarly to when you’re awake – even though you’re still sleeping," Dr Harris explains. "Your frontal cortex – the part of your brain that handles memory, emotions and problem-solving – is also active, which may contribute to your awareness and ability to self-reflect during a lucid dream."
Besides getting to play the main character in a fantastical scenario, there are several potential benefits for lucid dreamers. "Lucid dreams could contribute to problem-solving when dealing with creative rather than logical tasks," says Heather Darwall-Smith, a psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy who specialises in the relationship between sleep and mental health.
She also lists improved motor skills and resolving bad dreams as possible outcomes. "The therapeutic potential of knowing that you are dreaming and being in control during the dream is an effective process for resolving issues with nightmares," says Heather. I decided to spend two weeks trying to learn how to lucid dream and find out if I could use my sleeping time to improve my waking time – the ultimate self-improvement hack for a lazy person like me.
I downloaded the Shape app on my phone and worked my way through the lessons, which taught me to set objectives and get into a relaxed state in preparation for sleep. Reality checks became part of my everyday life. Every time a notification flashed up on my phone screen, I would question if I was awake in the hope that this habit would carry over into my subconscious.
Dr Harris also recommended keeping a dream journal. "Making journal entries about your dreams the moment you wake up can help you keep track of details and recognise dreams more easily," she says. I began diligently noting down my visions each morning before I got out of bed. For a few nights, nothing much happened. One night the only object I remembered was a spreadsheet, a not-at-all subtle manifestation of my deadline worries. But then I had the train dream, and the experience of willing myself to disobey the laws of gravity renewed my determination to become an expert lucid dreamer.
A few nights later, I managed to perform a reality check for the first time during a dream. I was standing in a coffee shop and looking up at the menu: Latte, Cappuccino, Americano… As I read the names of the drinks, I remembered the advice that I should use text to determine if I was dreaming. I looked away for a few seconds and looked back at the menu to see if it had changed. Right in the middle of the list another item had appeared: "Bejewelled Latte: A frothy mix of milk, matcha, and coffee, topped with whipped cream and real diamonds." So it was a dream after all. I did as any self-respecting Taylor Swift fan would do, and ordered it.
The drink appeared in my hand instantly and I told myself that a sip would transport me to a tropical island. I lifted the cup and instantly woke up, disappointed. However, when I dropped off again, I found myself on a sandy beach, looking out at a seemingly never-ending archipelago covered in cypress trees. I stayed there for what felt like a long, lazy afternoon but according to my alarm clock was only around 20 minutes.
I’ve now spent two weeks learning to lucid dream and although I haven’t quite mastered the art yet, my dreams are becoming clearer and more vivid. My motor skills are no better – I’m still as clumsy as ever – but I haven’t had any nightmares for a few weeks. I set intentions before I close my eyes and I’ve been able to tell myself that I’ll have fun, happy dreams. As a chronic bedtime procrastinator, I am also learning to go to bed at a reasonable time and with a sense of purpose, as I remind myself of the potential for nocturnal adventures.
Keeping a dream journal has also intensified my imagination and the ritual is a good addition to my morning routine. Rather than checking my emails as soon as I wake up, I do some quiet reflection on my dreams and my past night’s sleep before thinking about the day ahead. And the reality check reminders make me pause – I’ve come to see the notifications as a reminder to take a breather and check in with myself. I not only ask if I’m dreaming but also see how I’m doing more generally. Am I cold, hungry, overwhelmed?
It’s important to remember that lucid dreaming isn’t going to be beneficial for everyone, especially those with sleep anxiety or psychosis. "Sleep is such an important factor in mental health and wellbeing that anything you do that disrupts it can significantly affect emotional regulation, memory consolidation and other aspects of day-to-day life," says Heather. "Lucid dreams combined with fragmented sleep may start to blur the line between what's real and imagined in people with certain mental health disorders." If you’re in any doubt about whether the practice is right for you, speak to your doctor before trying it.
Maybe one day I’ll be able to levitate at will and explore ancient civilisations as I sleep. Until then, I’m happy to be getting to know my subconscious self a little better, and creating a sleep routine that helps to soothe my busy mind.