Have you ever woken up from a dream, but realize you're still dreaming? This is a lucid dream.
Lucid dreaming is a dream in which the dreamer is aware of dreaming. Got that? As someone experiences lucid dreaming, the dreamer might also be able to manipulate their dream, controlling the characters and guiding the narrative into what they want -- kind of like your very own Inception.
Similarly to normal dreams, lucid dreaming occurs in the REM stage of the sleep cycle. However, lucid dreaming has been connected to activeness in parts of the brain that are usually suppressed in normal dreaming. Therefore, lucid dreaming is best explained as a state between REM dreaming and wakefulness.
Lucid dreaming is actually pretty common. In a 2004 sleep study by psychology students in Germany, 82 percent of participants reported that they had experienced a lucid dream at least once. A different German study found that by age 19, more than 50 percent of participants had experienced a lucid dream. A similar 2008 study in Japan found 47 percent of participants had experienced lucid dreaming, with 19 percent reporting lucid dreaming frequently. Lucid dreams are also more common in younger people, and the frequency of lucid dreaming tends to decline with age.
If you use your lucid dream to practice a skill, will you improve that skill in real life? It might seem like a long shot, but science says there is a definite possibility.
According to The Harvard Business Review, an experiment by Daniel Erlacher, a sleep researcher at the University of Bern in Switzerland, found that yes, if a person practices a skill or sport in their lucid dream, their performance in that activity has shown to improve in wakefulness. In Erlacher's study, participants tossed coins into coffee cups two meters away. Those who said they dreamed about this activity vastly outperformed those who did not.
There are people dedicated to the practice of "lucidity," or dream manipulation, exactly for this reason. But there are other benefits to lucid dreaming as well. Some people claim that lucid dreams hold the power for spiritual growth as well, such as allowing a dreamer to talk to their subconscious, their heroes, reunite with lost loved ones, or provide closure to real-life stressors such as a breakup.
There are less New Age-y benefits as well -- for instance, there are theories that lucid dreaming can simply be a source of artistic inspiration and a safe space to overcome anxieties, therefore reducing the frequency of nightmares a person experiences.
Generally, lucid dreaming is a very safe practice. But there are a few known risks. Sometimes lucid dreaming can lead to a phenomena called "dream claustrophobia," where the dreamer is aware they are dreaming but cannot manipulate the dream's environment or wake themselves up. This can be frightening and stressful for the dreamer, especially in the instance of a lucid nightmare they cannot escape from.
In some instances, those who experience lucid dreaming can divulge into an episode of sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is when a dreamer leaves or enters REM sleep and becomes conscious, but is unable to physically move for up to a few minutes, and at times can experience frightening hallucinations.
If you want to read more about sleep paralysis, read our article "Sleep Paralysis: Everything You Need To Know About Conscious Nightmares."
One of the most popular ways to begin your practice of lucidity is to start a dream journal. Keep it on your bedside table so it is within reach to grab and use quickly and easily. When you wake up, grab the journal and write down everything you remember from your dream.
As you repeat this process, you will start to identify your common "dream signs," which are recurring symbols, situations or events that take place regularly in your dreams. The idea is that if you regularly dream of speeding cars, the next time you're behind the wheel in an out-of-control race you will be able to recognize that you're dreaming and not in reality, and will therefore be able to practice manipulating your dream instead of being a yielding passenger.
As you go about your day, stop and ask yourself a few times, "Am I dreaming?" Then "check-in" to reality with a little ritual, whether it's pinching your nose, studying your hands or feet, or checking the time on a clock. With enough practice, you will start these practices in your dream state as well, which will make you recognize that you are dreaming and become lucid.
Some dreamers believe that there is a link between meditating before bed and having a lucid dream. But instead of clearing your mind, during this meditation you want to focus on your goal of lucid dreaming. Taking 10 to 20 minutes before going to sleep to clear your mind of everything but this one goal will improve your level of relaxation and increase your chance of bringing on a lucid dreaming experience that night. You can also find other ways to help bring on sleep in the article, "How To Fall Asleep Fast."
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