If you’ve ever considered using lucid dreaming as a way of harnessing the power of your sleeping brain, you’re not alone. The first step for aspiring oneironauts is to let your mind know that your dreams do matter. As part of Lifehacker’s Lucid Dream Workshop, here’s some background about the risks and benefits of lucid dreaming, and exactly what happens to your brain while it’s happening.
The benefits of lucid dreaming
So why bother with lucid dreaming? First and foremost, lucid dreaming is fun. Like, really fun. My first lucid dream occurred when I was a teenager. I had just started reading a book about lucid dreaming and beginner’s luck struck me in a hotel room while on a family vacation:
I found myself talking to a dream friend—who wasn’t real but was convincing in my dream state—while standing on the football field at my high school. While we conversed I came to an eye opening realization: I’m on a trip with my family right now, so how could I be at school? Suddenly, everything stopped and became more vivid. The grass felt real, the sun on my skin warmed me, and I became very aware that I didn’t know the person I had been speaking to. “Am I dreaming?” I wondered allowed. “If I’m dreaming, then I can fly.” I felt my feet leave the ground and I hovered gently above the dream friend. “I can fly. I can go anywhere!” I thought as the exhilaration of flight pushed me higher and higher. Soon I was in the clouds planning to see the world from the comfort of my bed.
The dream didn’t last much longer, as I couldn’t maintain my lucidity, but I woke up ecstatic. It was the most fun I’d ever had sleeping and I couldn’t wait to do it again.
But lucid dreams can provide other opportunities as well, if you’re willing to put in the legwork. Your dreams can be a sanctum for personal reflection and deep meditation; a place to chat with your true self and mull over big decisions without the distractions of the waking world. Dreams can also be a place to practice real-life activities. Think of the dream world as a mental rehearsal space, where you can go over your big presentation for work, concentrate on your athletic routines, or even further your studies before a big exam.
If you’re a creative type, lucid dreams can be an endless source of artistic inspiration. The dream world is your canvas and you can create anything in it. Lastly, dreams are a safe place to experiment and overcome anxiety. You can stand up to a bully, practice being social, find the courage to ask your boss for a raise or conquer your fear of public speaking.
The risks of lucid dreaming
Lucid dreaming is generally very safe for those who are mentally stable, but it’s important to go over some of the potential risks associated with the practice.
Sleep paralysis occurs for almost everyone at night during the REM cycle—to keep you from physically acting out your dreams—but some people experience a state that’s in between dreaming and waking when they try lucid dreaming. This can be frightening since you can’t move, you’re aware that you’re awake, but still may be experiencing hallucinations from your dream. This kind of sleep paralysis is uncommon, but it’s definitely a possibility while experimenting with lucid dreams. Fortunately, there are ways to either wake yourself up from this state, or induce a full sleep/dream state, but we’ll cover those later on.
One of the best perks of lucid dreams can also be one of the worst pitfalls: realistic feelings. The lucid dream state can offer euphoric feelings of sight, motion, happiness, and even sex, but that means feelings on the other side of the spectrum can happen as well. Fear, sadness, and pain are all possible in a lucid dream too. That said, negative feelings like that are still more likely to occur in the waking state since, unlike the dream state, you have less control over the world. And no, you don’t die in real life if you die in a dream. Trust me, I’ve died many times in my dreams.
There’s also the possibility of “dream claustrophobia,” which is when people become lucid in a dream scenario they are unable to manipulate or awaken from. But those aren’t that different from normal dreams—they’re just more vivid. And lastly, some fear that using lucid dreams as a form of escapism will force them out of touch with reality. After all, why would you want to spend time in the normal world when you can be in your own personal world where you have unimaginable power? Well, lucid dreams only last as long as your REM cycles occur while you sleep, and training to be lucid at any time you choose takes years and years of training. In short, your dream escapism sessions won’t be any more harmful than watching a movie or playing a video game—except perhaps a bit more enlightening.
If any of these mild risks do scare you, however, lucid dreaming may not be right for you. Also, if you happen to suffer from borderline personality disorder, or any other mental disorder that makes it difficult for you to know what’s real and what isn’t, you’re better off sleeping the old-fashioned way: lucid dreaming could cause you to suffer from dream-reality confusion and exacerbate your condition.
But again, while these scenarios are a very real possibility, they’re all still unlikely occurrences for those in relatively healthy mental states who work their way up to lucid dreams with gradual, deliberate practice. Lucid dreams are a lot like a swimming pool; it’s a place where you can struggle and drown, but if you learn how to swim, there’s nothing to fear and you’ll have a blast splashing around.
Assignment: start and maintain a dream journal
Learning how to wake up in your dreams doesn’t matter until you can develop your dream memory. You must learn how to stand before you can walk. In fact, you may have had a lucid dream already, but don’t know it because you don’t remember that it occurred.
Your brain usually tries to forget your dreams automatically. It knows that those experiences aren’t real and, as you wake up, tries to push them to the back of your mind to make room for immediate memories from the waking world. But there’s an easy way to disrupt this: a dream journal. Keep a pen and pad next to your bed at all times. It should be easy to grab and use immediately. Don’t put it in your nightstand drawer, don’t toss it under your bed, and don’t use a writing tool that takes a lot of effort to use (fancy pens, quills, etc.). You need to be able to reach over, grab, and write. Also, don’t use your phone for this. The act of writing it down, like taking notes in class, will only help you commit the dream to memory. Or if you have artistic skills and can draw them out, that’s even better.
Getting a good night’s sleep—at least seven hours’ worth—is also a big help during this exercise, as well as throughout your foray into lucid dreaming. Without consistent, restful sleep, lucid dreaming will be almost impossible. You don’t get stronger by spending less time in the gym.
Additionally, don’t keep your alarm clock too far away from your bed. You only have a few precious moments to commit your dream to memory when you wake up, and chasing down an alarm will waste that time window. If possible, go to bed early and try to wake up without an alarm. When you awaken, take a few seconds to go over what you just experienced, then grab your journal and write it all down as fast as possible. Do this as often as you can and your brain will gradually reconfigure its normal wakeup protocol to match your newly declared memory needs.
“Oh, did you want to hold onto this?” Your brain will say as you awaken from a wonderful dream, and you’ll grab your dream journal with a resounding “Hell yeah!”
Okay, oneironauts: sleep tight and dream on.
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This story was originally published on 6/2/17 and was updated on 6/10/19.