What if you could take control of the things you dream about? Within the imaginative confines of your sleeping mind, you might be able to fly like Superman or hit the world’s greatest blackjack streak — or practice tomorrow’s speech or ease traumatic memories, if you want to get practical.
Being aware that you’re dreaming is called lucid dreaming, and more and more research is looking into how we can use this fascinating phenomenon to our advantage. But first, we have to make it happen reliably. In 2017, an Australian study took a big step in that direction, and what they found out can help you lucid dream, too.
According to a 2016 meta-analysis, about half of people have had at least one lucid dream in their lifetime, and a quarter experience them once a month or more. Since 1975, when the first lucid dream was confirmed in a lab, researchers have learned more and more about how to make them happen and how they can help the dreamer. Studies have suggested that lucid dreaming could help ease nightmares, be used to practice physical skills, and uncover mysteries about consciousness itself.
That’s why researchers from the University of Adelaide in Australia recruited 169 people to put three lucid-dreaming technique to the test. Those included:
Reality testing: participants were told to ask themselves “Am I dreaming?” 10 times throughout the day, every day. Each time, they had to examine their surroundings for anything out of the ordinary, and perform a reality test by trying to inhale through their closed mouth. (When you’re dreaming, you can inhale through your closed mouth because the real you likely has your mouth open.)
Wake Back to Bed (WBTB): participants set an alarm to wake them up after five hours of sleep, then read a 700-word document about what to do if you have a lucid dream. (It said that after performing a reality test, they should “stabilize the dream by rubbing the palms of their hands together vigorously and focusing on the physical sensations while repeating ‘this is a lucid dream'”). Then, they were free to go back to sleep. Lucid dreams happen during REM sleep, and REM sleep happens more easily after you’ve already been asleep a while.
Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (MILD): as they lay in bed to sleep, participants were told to repeat the phrase “next time I’m dreaming, I will remember that I’m dreaming.” They had to focus intently on the phrase so that it was the last thing they were thinking about when they finally fell asleep.
Rather than using each of these techniques individually, the study had one group use only reality testing, one group use both reality testing and WBTB, and the final group use all three: reality testing, WBTB, and MILD — in the last case, the participants used MILD to get back to sleep after their five-hour WBTB alarm went off. To get a baseline measure of dreaming, the participants were asked to just record the dreams they had over one week before practicing their assigned techniques in the second week.
The three groups had vastly different results when it came to their dreams. In the first week — the week where they didn’t use any lucid dreaming techniques — the participants reported that about eight percent of their dreams were lucid. In the second week, the reality-testing-only group actually had slightly fewer lucid dreams, whereas the lucid dreams experienced by the reality testing and WBTB group bumped up slightly to 11 percent. But the group that used all three techniques? Just over 17 percent of their dreams were lucid, and the people in that group who fell asleep within five minutes while using the MILD technique reported that nearly 46 percent of their dreams were lucid.
We’re still a long way off from a world where everyone lucid dreams on command, practicing guitar and studying for their midterms while they slumber. But it’s a step in the right direction. If you’d like to see what you can do in your dreams, give these methods a try. You might be able to “Inception” yourself.
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