To sleep, perchance to dream? While plenty of us leave our chances of a pleasant nighttime adventure — the kind that makes you rush up to the first person you see and exclaim, "I had the most amazing dream last night!" — up to fate, others prefer to take matters into their own hands. Or heads, I suppose.
It’s something I’ve done for as long as I can remember, although I never realized I was doing it. When it comes to bedtime, especially after a bad day, I plump up a pillow, lie down and set to work crafting the most beautiful dream I can think of: flying through a starlit sky or (my favorite) riding on a luxurious steam train as it trundles merrily through the North Pole. I’ll see polar bears, I decide, and the dancing green swirls of the Northern Lights. I’ll drink mug after mug of hot chocolate. Perhaps I’ll solve a murder along the way, Poirot-style, or maybe I’ll just settle back, relax, and take in the view — the finer details are up to my subconscious, after all. I’m just here to set the scene.
It seems I’m not alone in my dreamscaping escapades. I called upon the general public to tell Refinery29 about their own experiences of dreamscaping and they were all too happy to oblige.
"Sometimes I’ll be in my little maladaptive daydream and let that occupy my mind until I fall asleep," says Marianna, who regularly finds herself dreamscaping. "I do so in the hope that my brain will naturally continue the 'storyline,' albeit with whatever twists and turns might randomly crop up."
Michaela says that she always, always, always plans out a dream ahead of time because "it chills me out — until my vivid nightmares take over!"
Harriet, too, admits: "If I’ve had a particularly triggering day, or have watched something that’s unsettled me just before bed, I try to force happy dreams by being really specific in what I’m imagining. So I’d picture all five senses of a scenario — such as being on a beach — and that grounds me enough to settle into sleep."
She adds: "No matter what I try, though, I always have either a vivid unpleasant dream — or at least wake up with the feeling I have."
Finally, Gina says: "Planning my dreams calms me. I set some time aside before bed, journal, and think about what I want to dream about. It often works. But when I’m very anxious it can do the opposite, mind you."
I received many more messages, all of which ran along a similar vein. I found it interesting that so many of us are attempting to use dreamscaping as a means of gaining some semblance of control over our emotions. It was also interesting to discover that our emotions tend to win the battle regardless, waiting until we’ve fallen into a deep sleep to fight back.
And so, with that in mind:
Is it possible to plan dreams?
While it’s easy to dismiss dreamscaping as silliness, experts who study dreams say there is a small yet emerging body of research that shows that we most likely can decide what to dream before we go to sleep.
Therapist and author Kalanit Ben-Ari, PhD, agrees, noting: "Our ability to dreamscape depends on the extent of consciousness and the skill level of the dreamer. There is actually a technique used in therapy called the waking dream process, where the therapist uses relaxation techniques to guide the client to relive their dream in their imagination.
"Through creative, guided visualization and imaginative ways to bypass the mind, one can step into the world of the unconscious — where you can gain clarity about the deeper meaning of your psyche, emotional state, and spiritual guidance."
Are some people more prone to dreamscaping than others?
"People who identify as highly sensitive according to psychological testing are more prone to dreamscaping," says Cheung.
"About one in five people score highly on sensitivity tests, meaning their empathy, creativity, and intuition is highly developed, making them more suited to dreamscaping — but this doesn't mean that those who score lower can't dreamscape. They just might find it feels less natural."
Dr. Ben-Ari believes that, with supportive guidance and practice, "anyone can experience the waking dream process. It's not necessarily about a particular personality type but more about one's openness and willingness to explore their inner world and unconscious mind."
If we are new to dreamscaping, how can we begin planning our dreams?
"The simplest way to begin dreamscaping is to, just before you go to sleep and your brain is very suggestible, tell yourself what you would like to dream about," says Cheung.
"You can write down the dream you want on a piece of paper and pop that under your pillow. Sometimes written words imprint themselves deeper onto your unconscious more strongly than thoughts."
It is best to keep your written intentions brief, as our unconscious minds do not process language as well. Visualize those words in your mind’s eye and try saying them aloud to yourself, like a mantra. It may help.
Can we purposefully return to a dream we’ve had before?
Have you ever woken from a brilliant dream only to hit snooze on your alarm, bury yourself under the duvet, and attempt to claw your way back into it? Me too. Happily, there’s a method that may help us to do just this.
"If you want to return to a dream you have had before, try to visualize that past dream in your mind's eye," Cheung urges. "If you struggle with visualization (aphantasia is a condition which limits the ability to visualize and is more common than you think, but the good news is aphantasia does not limit the ability to dream-recall), then talk to yourself about that dream or think about it. Describe it to yourself in thoughts or words as if you were reviewing a movie."
Practically, she adds: "Consider, too, your sleeping position, as this also plays a part in your dream’s narrative. Back sleepers are more likely to have vivid, creative dreams, while front sleepers are more likely to enjoy erotic fantasies. Side sleepers, finally, tend to experience more cathartic dreams."
Is dreamscaping a good idea? Should we just let our unconscious minds take over?
Some people, when I asked them about their dreamscaping experiences, weren’t just dismissive of the concept; they were horrified. I was warned that by tampering with the fabric of my unconscious mind, I was exposing myself to "all sorts of horrors" — a thought that haunted me into the wee hours of the morning.
When I express these concerns to Cheung, she is quick to reassure me that dreamscaping is and will always be a positive thing.
"Planning or re-entering a dream is strongly advised for the simple reason that your dream world is your unconscious world," Cheung says.
"Anything that happens on an unconscious level impacts your beliefs and what you believe about yourself, and your life tends to be what manifests or what you attract into your life. So influencing a dream in the direction you want (seeing yourself doing things you want to do, having the confidence etc.) convinces your unconscious that something really is possible for you. When you believe something is possible, your waking life changes for the better."
If our dreamscaping attempts fail and we find ourselves trapped in a nightmare, what can we do?
Many of the people who responded to my dreamscaping questions were quick to tell me that, while their attempts usually worked to a degree, they often ended in nightmares.
Why? Well, as Dr .Ben-Ari explains: "As dreams are a window and a bridge to our soul and our unconscious, I would first reflect on its deepest meanings. The meaning is hidden so you might benefit from working with a Jungian psychotherapist to explore the hidden messages."
She continues: "The meanings are usually not about things in your conscious level of awareness. For example, if you are stressed about your relationship and dream about your partner, it is most likely not about the stress you experience on your conscious level. As it is already in your conscious mind, you do not need to dream about it. Additionally, the people, landscapes, and events in dreams are symbols rather than literal representations."
Dr. Ben-Ari goes on to tell me that, once we have uncovered the underlying issue behind our more unsettling dreams, we can practice the therapist-approved waking dream process.
"You can do some meditation practice to relax your mind and body and start to visualize your dream from the start," she says. "Really 'feel' each scene — pay attention to the colors, the smell, the texture, the landscape of the dream. Try to do this as soon as you wake up, when your mind is still in a fluid state.
"Then it depends on the quality and elements of the dream. For example, if your dream sees you running away from a frightening figure, in the waking dream process, you might want to face that figure, to reach out for contact and initiate an intimate conversation. Ask the figure why they are chasing you. What do they want from you? Keep developing the conversation by asking about the meaning of things.
"The meanings are very personal, and the same dream may mean different things to different people. By understanding and working through the issues beyond our dreams, we can grow and heal as individuals. I have witnessed this phenomenon in therapy; once we uncover the hidden messages within dreams and address them, the narrative of the dreams also undergoes a transformation."
What do our dreams really reveal about us as individuals?
"Dreams show us that there is so much more to us than meets the eye," Cheung says. "There is an inner world that is separate from the material, the body, and that world is a source of infinite possibility and creativity. If you fall in love with decoding your dreams, what you are actually doing is falling in love with yourself."
She continues: "Your dreams show you what is important for you to know for your personal growth in your waking life. They show you things your intuition, your heart, notices, but which your ego represses or ignores. And if a dream lingers or repeats, this is because the precious wisdom your dreaming mind wants to share with you is super important for your personal growth. You will keep having that dream or similar dreams until you understand the message it is trying to tell you.
"According to the Talmud [a sacred Jewish text], a dream not interpreted is like receiving a handwritten letter from someone who knows you better than anyone and simply not reading it. Your dreams never lie. They truly are your best friend. Sometimes they use tough love and send you the odd nightmare or two but always with the intention of helping you grow and evolve. Every single dream you recall is a transformative gift.
"It's never just a dream."