There's a recurring dream that I just can't shake, and it haunts me: I've been called to step into a ballet performance last-minute, but something gets in my way. Usually, I forget one pointe shoe. Or I can't find my costume headpiece. Or I literally can't drive to the theatre. This dream taps into my general anxiety about being late to events or unprepared, so I'm usually paranoid the next day after that my dream is going to come true.
If I could just realise that it was a dream during the dream and do something to change the outcome, then my nights would probably be way more exciting and less anxiety-inducing. (Imagine all of the fun I could have dancing in my dreams!) Well, lots of people are able to consciously manipulate their dreams at night — or at least, they say that they can — and it's called, lucid dreaming.
There's a good chance that you've had a "lucid" dream before, but didn't realise there was a name for it. In studies, about 70-80% of people report having a lucid dream before, and even kids say that they've had them. According to the National Sleep Foundation, lucid dreaming tends to be more common in people with narcolepsy. "It's something that happens to a lot of people, but because we don’t talk about dreams very much, a lot of people have never heard of the term lucid dreaming or don’t understand what it means," says Robert Waggoner, president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, and author of Lucid Dreaming - Gateway to the Inner Self.
Essentially, lucid dreaming means that you realise within a dream state that you're dreaming, Waggoner says. "You literally stop in the dream and think, Wait a second, this is a dream, because in most dreams we just accept whatever happens," he says. In a lucid dream, you have conscious knowledge that you're dreaming, which allows you to decide what to do and how you respond, plus conduct experiments, he says. "You can do most anything; sky's the limit," he says.
To newbies, lucid dreaming might sound fake — or at the very least, out of touch with reality. But there's neurological evidence that lucid dreaming is a thing. Specifically, there have been studies that examine brain activity through an EEG machine while people lucid dream. During a normal dream, the cerebral cortex is usually dormant, or there's hardly any activity, Waggoner says. But during a lucid dream, the parts of the brain associated with self-assessment and decision-making suddenly become active and light up, he says. This means that lucid dreaming is a "hybrid state of consciousness," because you're not waking or dreaming, you're at an in-between state, he says.
It makes sense why people are so into the idea of lucid dreaming; who doesn't want to control their subconscious and have superhuman abilities? Anecdotally, people on Reddit say that they can change their dreams mid-dream, plan to have lucid dreams, and even play games during their dreams. But there's also a more practical application for lucid dreaming. Some therapists have used lucid dreaming to help people with recurring nightmares or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Waggoner says. Or in some cases, people have conquered phobias using lucid dreaming, he says.
If you want to try lucid dreaming, Waggoner suggests a technique that he's used for years, and it involves your hands. Before bed, look at your hands and tell yourself, Tonight in my dreams, I'll see my hands and realise I'm dreaming, over and over like a mantra until you fall asleep. After a few nights of doing this, you might notice your hands during your dream, which is a signal that you're lucidly aware, he says. You can use the "power of suggestion," and make your mantra more along the lines of, Tonight I'll be more critically aware. When I see something strange, I'll realise this is a dream, he suggests. Also, writing down your dreams in the morning is a good strategy, so you have better "dream recall," he says.
Look out, anxiety dreams, you're about to catch these hands.