How to Control Your Dreams
By Serena Alagappan
Ever wish you could ice skate across a winter sky, catching crumbs of gingerbread, like flakes of snow, on your tongue? How about conquering a monster in a nightmare, bouncing between mountain peaks, walking through walls, or reading minds? Have you ever longed to hold the hand of someone you loved and lost?
If you want to fulfill your fantasies, or even face your fears, you might want to try taking some control of your dreams (try being the operative). People practiced in lucid dreaming—the phenomenon of being aware that you are dreaming while you are asleep—claim that the experience allows adventure, self-discovery, and euphoric joy.
Dr. Barrett, a psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School and specializes in dream research, explains that “most people can learn to lucid dream, but it comes much more easily for some people than others.”
“It’s always a continuum,” says Dr. Barrett, author of The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists, and Athletes Use Their Dreams for Creative Problem Solving-And How You Can Too, and “it varies for every individual.”
Some lucid dreamers recognize they’re dreaming but gain no control. Others can control their emotional reactions, but not their surroundings. Still others may “script it completely, as if creating a computer-generated animated film with a program.” Despite the striking differences between people, Dr. Barrett says that the majority of people who can recall their dreams most nights, can also increase their chances of lucid dreaming by adhering to certain techniques.
First, a brief history on the research behind lucid dreaming.
According to Dr. Barrett, two studies conducted in the 1970s, one by English psychologist Keith Hearne in 1975, and another by Stanford University researcher, Stephen LaBerge, scientifically validated lucid dreaming. Dr. Barrett recounts that “they both dreamed up this concept, that everything is paralyzed in your body during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, except your eyes. So, they came up with the idea of people doing eye signals out of a dream to indicate that they were lucid, and they both succeeded.” The act of lucid dreaming had been described for centuries, but before those studies, many dismissed self-reports. Barrett says Hearne and LaBerge proved that people “saying they were aware in their dreams, could indeed eye signal out of what was dreaming sleep,” which was evidence of their lucidity.
Robert Waggoner, the former president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, states that lucid dreams are not only scientifically proven, but also more common than people think: "half the population naturally has an occasional lucid dream, and when it comes to college students in the United States, surveys show up to 71% have had lucid dreams."
The last decade has seen a variety of studies on lucid dreaming. One concedes that there are limitations in lucid dreaming research: “As occurs in the context of psychiatric interviews, external observers cannot access the content of subjective experiences directly, but only attempt to reconstruct them on the basis of a narrative.” Another study demonstrates with brain scans that lucid dreaming constitutes a hybrid state of consciousness with “definable and measurable differences from waking and from REM sleep, particularly in frontal areas.” Yet another study, conducted in 2019, reviews some of the most recent techniques of research into lucid dreaming, particularly methods of artificially stimulating lucid dreams in sleep labs.
Dr. Barrett clarifies that “we have about as much brain activity during REM sleep as we do when we are awake, but it’s more and less in different areas. The secondary visual cortex, which is involved in producing imagery is by far the most active…emotional areas are a little more active. But one of the areas that is greatly damped down is what’s called the prefrontal cortex, and it’s associated with abstract reasoning and reality testing.” The relative inactivity of the prefrontal cortex during sleep is why you might see a 20-foot tall lady-bug in a dream and not think it's impossible. During lucid dreams, the prefrontal cortex is partially activated, leading lucid dreamers to notice the strangeness of a dreamscape and use that knowledge to confirm that they are indeed, dreaming.
Okay, so how do you control your dreams?
Start by keeping a dream journal. Waggoner, who wrote Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self, says “good dream recall is essential.” When you wake up, whether in the middle of the night, or in the morning, it is best to stay in the same position, and note whatever you remember from your dreams. In the morning, before you check your phone or start your day, review those notes, and write down anything else you remember from your dreams.
Then, reality check.
Kristian Marlow, the associate director of the University of Miami’s Neuroscience Department’s Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research, and co-author of The Superhuman Mind: Free the Genius in Your Brain, describes patterns in dreams that may clue people into the fact that they are dreaming.
He notes that “numbers,” “lights,” and “text” are especially prone to distortion. He explains, “What happens very often is you’ll look at a clock, and it’ll either have some nonsense number, or it’ll have one time on it, and if you look away, and glance back again, it’ll have a totally different time.” One way to become aware of these incongruities (muddled text in a book, malfunctioning light switches, flashes of color, etc.) is to do reality checks when you are awake.
Marlow adds, “It’s as simple as when you look at the time, you look twice. When you look at the temperature on an oven, you check it twice…If you notice the lights flickering on and off all of a sudden, that’s another signal that you’re dreaming.”
The practice of checking, and re-checking aspects of reality in waking life (your environment, the objects you handle, and figures you see) will carry over into your dreams. And when you reality-check in a dream, the reality-check typically fails, which can lead to lucidity. Dr. Barrett illuminates why this technique works: “Dreams seem at least to be in part about memory and consolidating new learning…any task that you do awake a lot is likely to show up in your dream, but new ones that you’re learning and practicing are even more likely to.”
Recite mantras before bed.
Another way to control your dreams: embrace the power of suggestion. Dr. Barrett marvels that “lucid dreams are a fascinating state of consciousness,” but she warns against the misconception that “you have to do that or should do that to try to influence dream content.” Dr. Barrett explains that it might be more effective to do “dream incubation,” which is essentially telling yourself what you want to dream just before you fall asleep.
As you are falling asleep, you are in a “hypnagogic state,” one that Dr. Barrett notes makes you very suggestible. She recommends picking a simple statement or phrase to repeat to yourself and attaching some mental image to it as you are drifting into sleep.
Dr. Barrett conducted a study in 1993 where subjects told themselves during incubation that their dreams would address problems of their choosing (ranging from interpersonal challenges to homework questions), and within just one week, about 50% of the subjects recalled a dream which they judged to be related to their problem. Dr. Barrett believes that her study yielded higher results than other similar studies exploring problem-solving in dreams, because the subjects chose the problems themselves. Consequently, they were capable of solving the problems, as well as intrinsically motivated.
Before you go to sleep, repeat to yourself, tonight, I will be able to control my dreams.
If you do want to try to achieve lucidity in order to influence your dream content through intentional mantras, before you go to sleep, repeat to yourself, tonight, I will be able to control my dreams. Waggoner, who has logged over 1,000 lucid dreams, shares his personal experience: "the way that I taught myself, each night before I'd go to sleep, I'd look at my hands while telling myself, tonight in my dreams I'll see my hands and realize I'm dreaming...I'd look at the palms of my hands for about five minutes while repeating that to myself, and on the third night of doing this, I'm walking through my high school, and suddenly my hands pop up in front of my face, and I thought, oh my hands, I must be dreaming.”
Believe you can.
Kristian Marlow says that if you’re dreaming yourself at the edge of a cliff, and you want to fly, believe you can fly, and you will (okay, you might). If you know you're dreaming and want to fly, but in your dream think you will fall, you will. If you think the fall will hurt, it will. Marlow underscores that “you really have to believe what you're wanting to happen is going to happen.” His refrain: “it all comes down to belief.” Waggoner echoes this sentiment, declaring, “if you believe something to be true, it will be true.”
How to stay lucid in a dream
It's important not to get too excited. Marlow explains that “just like the sounds in your environment—an alarm clock, or lights that wake your brain up—an extreme stimulus in a dream will tend to wake you up also.” So, if you realize you’re dreaming, stay calm. Waggoner suggests you “rub your hands together…touch a nearby table, or the wall,” to achieve a “kinesthetic sensation of being there more solidly in the dream.”
Waggoner says it's helpful to repeat to yourself in your dream, this is a dream, because you always run the risk of slipping back into a non-lucid dream state. In sum, Waggoner prescribes three techniques for having a long lucid dream: reduce your emotions, enhance your awareness, and maintain your focus.
Is lucid dreaming dangerous?
Dr. Barrett asserts that “there is certainly no evidence for it being harmful.” Marlow agrees, but says that practicing lucid dreaming could potentially be dangerous for people who regularly use drugs “that induce hallucinations."
In terms of health benefits, a 2014 study, suggests that lucid dreamers tend to be more effective abstract problem-solvers. But Dr. Barrett admonishes against an illogical leap from correlation to causation: “It’s much more likely that people who have a propensity for more activity in their pre-frontal cortex all the time, are also a more likely to have lucid dreams.”
A possible health benefit according to Marlow is to prevent nightmares, especially in patients struggling with PTSD. More generally, lucid dreaming can allow people to confront their phobias with exposure therapy. Marlow explains, “Phobias tend to be immune to conscious deliberation. So, if you start exposing yourself, even in a dream, it can start to desensitize your brain to that kind of stimulus.”
Some lucid dreamers also report other emotional and cognitive benefits. Waggoner says that lucid dreams tend to be more positive. Marlow proposes “using lucid dreams to revisit times with a loved one that you wish had gone differently. You get to make your peace. Of course, you know that it’s not real.”
Lucid dreaming is an art, not a science.
While the study of lucid dreaming is a science, some argue that the practice of lucid dreaming is an art. Waggoner points out that while you may be able to control your own actions in your dreams, that does not mean that you have control over all aspects of the dream. Waggoner’s metaphor: “The sailor does not control the sea, neither does the lucid dreamer completely control the dream.”
Sailors have to relate to the weather, the waves, the wind, their own skills, and the boat. So must lucid dreamers relate to the dream situation with more awareness in order to exercise control. Waggoner insists that lucid dreaming is a process of learning how to harness “the power of belief and expectations.”
He contends that “scientists can explore some of the outer features, but the actual experience truly is an art.” Lucid dreaming is a creative act, not unlike the interpretation of dreams themselves. As we try to better understand why we dream, and why the content of our dreams is what it is, becoming lucid while we sleep may provide a window into parts of our mind that we cannot access in waking life.
Marlow describes one artist, who would say in a lucid dream, “when I walk into the room, the painting I see will be my next painting.” The artist would study the painting in his dream, and then reproduce it in real life. Waggoner mentions a novelist who had a lucid dream in which he asked his own fictional characters to tell him how their story should end. They did, and he revised his manuscript accordingly.
Remember, not everyone will be able to control their dreams.
As Dr. Barrett explains, levels of lucidity and control vary wildly between individuals. And while that may be disheartening to those committed to controlling the content of their dreams, one may derive value from lucidity, and not masterful control, or even from no control at all. Waggoner says, “If you learn how to relate to your unconscious mind, you can access the creative wisdom of it but if you go around like an egomaniac trying to control everything…you’ll never learn about the beauty and the mystery of your unconscious mind.”
Rubén Gallo, a professor at Princeton University, and author of Freud’s Mexico: Into the Wilds of Psychoanalysis, articulates the importance of embracing a lack of control over our dreams.
He reflects on our desire to direct them, saying that in an era “when we think we have control over everything, there are still areas we don’t have control over. Love is one of them, art is another, and dreams, to me, are part of that package.” This collection of subjects, for Gallo are “the very mysterious productions of human life.” In his view, “dreams escape our volition, and escape our control, and can teach us something about ourselves, precisely because they make us lose control.”
In Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul, Jonathan Lear writes that “Humans make meaning for themselves and for others, of which they have no direct or immediate awareness. People make more meaning than they know what to do with.”
Maybe that is where lucid dreaming can serve us—as a bridge between the meaning we are aware of making, and the meaning of which we still do not have awareness. It is in recognizing the power and possibility of the dream world, and willing ourselves to this world, where our will is not certain, that our most inventive impulses may be realized.