A beginner’s guide to understanding and exploring the uncanny world of lucid dreams
“Are you dreaming right now?” asks science writer and dream researcher David Jay Brown. We are sitting in the ivy-draped courtyard of Laili, next to a babbling fountain and a rowdy dinner party of 10.
“No!” I say, sure of the answer to such an absurd question.
“But how do you know?” he asks.
“I just know.”
“Well, have you tested it?” He picks up a fork and taps the wall. In a dream, maybe the tines would bend, he says. In a dream, the words on the menu would scramble the minute you looked away and looked back again. And if you plugged your nose and breathed out, you’d feel the air leaving your nostrils, even though they were plugged.
“Nope, not dreaming,” I say, through a pinched nose. But there’s an epiphany scratching around inside his point: even when fork tines bend with no effort and landscapes transform at the mere suggestion of thought, we accept what we’re experiencing in a dream as real.
“The most fascinating thing of all, and what most people are so surprised to hear, is that we never appear to go unconscious during sleep,” says Brown. “Sleep laboratory studies demonstrate that the entire night you are thinking, or dreaming, or having some form of mentation. The entire night. You never lose consciousness. What you lose is long-term memory. You lose the ability to memorize what’s happening throughout the night.”
So where, exactly, do we go when we dream? If you ask yourself multiple times a day, “Am I dreaming?” and test your answer—don’t forget to jump in the air and see if you hover a little—you can condition your brain to ask the same question while asleep, says Brown. Yeah, you’re going to look weird doing this. But when the sleeping brain asks “Am I dreaming right now?” the answer can be a revelation that transforms an ordinary dream sequence into a lucid dream, where the sleeper is actually aware of being in the dream state, and (with some practice) able to control his or her actions within the dream. Dreamers like Brown pursue this lucid state because they believe it can be a doorway into exploration of the mind’s unlimited possibilities, and maybe even into a state of higher consciousness.
Dream Journal Excerpt, 10.7.14:
Woke up laughing. Was holding a banana. Sister and brother were there, and we were arguing over whose banana was really a banana. Mine “clearly” was, I had been saying. Jon’s was more for percussion than from a tree. Will not assign meaning to this.
Over the course of several dinner interviews with Brown—which find us, every single time, still deep in conversation even after the last customers have abandoned their crumpled napkins and bread-crumb constellations for home—the term “the most fascinating thing of all” surfaces often. Each time, followed by a dream concept that raises goosebumps, and, in this case, invites glances from neighboring tables: “The number one thing that people do as soon as they become lucid is fly. The number two thing is have sex with an attractive person,” says Brown. “But what I like to do most is seek out intelligent individuals and have conversations with them. And more often than not, I learn something from them.”
Since his early 30s, Brown has been systematically exploring all of the things that one can do while lucid dreaming, from morphing into other people and passing through walls and furniture to experimenting with psychedelics—which he says produced genuine effects—to interacting with the dream itself, by asking it “What does this dream mean?” In 1999, he even killed himself in a dream—a hellish experience he believes provided insight into what happens to consciousness after one takes his or her own life.
In the months that follow that first meeting at Laili, I become an active, though amatuer, participant in the lucid dreaming community, whose online forums stretch around the globe and debate everything from lucid-dream-inducing supplements to the possibility of mutual lucid dreams between people in different parts of the world—a phenomenon that is most commonly reported by twins and people who are very closely bonded.
I start a dream journal—the most important exercise for increasing dream recall and encouraging the brain to become aware it’s dreaming—scribbling with a sleep-puffy hand the segments I can remember upon opening my eyes. But no matter how fast I try to solidify the jumbled wisps, a large portion dissolves from recollection’s shaky reach. If you can’t remember, then write down how you feel, I hear Brown saying. And so I do.
Dream Journal Excerpt, 10.17.14:
Earlier in the night, I drove my car and parked it on a road near the beach. Not recognizable, but similar to the one by 26th Avenue, where the road dips down. Dunes of white sand, however. I was somehow aware that it was noon. And it really felt like noon. The sun was bright. The waves were revealing whales or sharks, something angular, awkward, like the shapes of hammerheads. From the top of the dunes, the water was a beautiful, very clear blue-green. I left quickly to go get my brother, really wanted him to see it, share it. Never came back.
Entire days can be flavored by the mood of a dream receding into the depths of the subconscious. The most potent of our dreams can be remembered for a lifetime. And those, wrote Carl Jung in 1974, “prove to be the richest jewel in the treasure house of psychic experience.” But up until recently, dreams have lived on the margins of science, filed under parapsychology, somewhere between astral projection and out-of-body experiences.
“Dream researchers did not take lucid dreaming seriously, and it wasn’t part of sleep research or dream research until the 1970s,” says Brown. In fact, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and what happens there, was only first suggested by Celia Green in 1968, in her book “Lucid Dream”—which helped spur the research that proved our brains don’t just shut off when we sleep.
This isn’t to say that some of the mysteries surrounding lucid dreaming are not totally out there in the fifth dimension. The psychological purpose of dreams remains one of science’s most debated mysteries. And in Western society, they are commonly taken for granted, dismissed as insignificant chatter. While many scientists now believe that our sleeping brains are hard at work—processing, coding, discarding, and organizing the day’s data into long- and short-term memories—Brown believes there’s even more to our sleeping lives than this crucial process, and that lucid dreams may provide a portal into better understanding human consciousness.
In the midst of writing a book about lucid dreaming, which will be published next spring by Inner Traditions, Brown has piled his loft high with books about the sleeping mind. But the space also serves as his own personal sleep lab, where he spends hours exploring his dreams in hopes of gaining insight into the human experience, and the psychological value of dreams.
The most fascinating thing of all, says Brown, once more, is when you learn to dialogue with the dream itself. “You begin to realize that there’s no way to control every aspect of the dream—no matter how much you try to influence it, there’s always surprise, there’s always mystery, you’re always interacting with another intelligence that knows more about you than you do,” he says. “The elements of what you imagined will be there, plus all of the other things you didn’t imagine.”
Dream Journal Excerpt, December 2012:
My car careened in a long, slow arc over the Highway 1 freeway divide, toward an oncoming truck in the southbound lane. I was strangely at peace with the imminent impact. I had no choice. There was sunlight edging through my dirty windshield, dust particles floating in it. I truly believed it was the last drop of sweet life. As the dashboard grew closer, my heart wrenched. I saluted my sister, brother, mother and father with unconditional love. Then I awoke. A gratefulness to be alive, a sadness for the shortness of it, a longing to call my mother just to hear her voice.
Roughly 50 percent of the human population has a lucid dream once in their lifetime, and around 20 percent of the population has about one per month, according to estimates in “Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep,” by Tadas Stumbrys and Daniel Erlacher.
Women become lucid in their dreams more than men, and children and young people are more prone to lucid dreams than older adults. The portion of the population that lucid dreams the most is teenage women who practice dance and meditation, says Brown, who adds that those who play video games also seem to have a higher tendency to become lucid.
Only about 1 or 2 percent of the population experiences lucid dreams more than once a week. But every single person has the ability, says Brown. “There are degrees to lucidity; it’s a continuum of awareness and memory across states,” he says. “One can be aware that one is dreaming, that his or her body is lying soundly in bed, but still be bound by unrealized psychological restraints in the dream realms. It takes practice to realize that you have the ability to influence and change the world around you in a dream, and discovering the limits of these superpowers is what all the fun is about.”
Primarily, lucid dreams happen between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. While they can occur during any stage of sleep—not just REM sleep—they are most vivid during REM sleep, when our brains show as much activity during sleep as they do during the waking hours. During the early morning hours, we’re usually entering the second round of REM.
“One of the best ways to lucid dream is to set an alarm clock for about 5 in the morning,” says Brown. “If you go to bed around 11 or 12, wake up after five hours and then do something kind of active. Don’t exercise, but maybe read a book for about half an hour, and then go back to sleep … If you happen to be in a more aware state of consciousness [when you return to sleep], the awareness tends to bleed over into the lucid dream more.”
The most important part of a successful lucid dream practice is to become very conscious of keeping a dream journal—and be diligent about writing them down, says Brown. This includes doing it immediately upon waking; I quickly learned that reading a text message or getting up to go to the bathroom can completely erase what would have been a fairly vivid dream entry. If you don’t remember, write anything—start with how you feel, and your recollection may be stirred, says Brown.
Dream journals are also a valuable tool for identifying “dream signals” in repeating patterns or motifs. When you flip back through your journal, you’ll likely find recurring themes, like a certain city street or scenario. Consciously registering these dream signals will remind the sleeping mind that you’re dreaming the next time you encounter them.
Secondary to mental practices—but definitely effective if used in combination—are the foods and supplements we put into our bodies, especially if they stimulate production of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which correlates strongly with dream lucidity.
“Foods rich in choline and vitamin B5 help the brain produce more acetylcholine, which helps with memory consolidation, dream recall, and achieving lucidity,” says Brown. “These include foods like sunflower seeds, bran and sun-dried tomatoes. For some reason, a lot of people claim that apple juice helps with lucidity, and there is some evidence that it helps to boost acetylcholine levels.”
Galantamine, a drug used to treat Alzheimer’s disease and other memory impairments, is a very effective and well-known lucidity trigger as well, because it enhances acetylcholine levels. More naturally, calea zacatechichi, or “Mexican dream herb,” can increase the vividness of dreams, and if you drink it before bed it has a mildly psychedelic effect as you slip into hypnagogia—the first stage of sleep, when you start to see visions and images. Mugwort, another herb that can be found at Go Ask Alice on Pacific Avenue, is said to induce astral projection, flying dreams and psychic abilities. The tea tastes very bitter, but it is one of those herbs that is also said to be effective if you put it under your pillow.
Once lucid, holding onto awareness is one of the greatest challenges, and it’s always just a matter of time before it ends. Brown recalls the loving, party-like environment of a dream years ago that he didn’t want to end. Rushing around, he began asking everybody in his dream, “How can I stay?” A beautiful African woman in a bright orange patterned dress pointed to her pregnant belly and said, “You have to be born here.”
For us mortals, Brown recommends holding onto lucidity by staying active in the dream—studying a single object too closely will often end lucidity, he warns.
Dream Journal Excerpt, 12.6.14:
Became lucid this morning. On a bus, in a city I didn’t know. Possibly Mexico. The bus was lurching. All I could think of doing was shout “Lucid dreaming! Lucid dreaming! Lucid dreaming!” Girl with red hair and very light skin was closest to me and looked at me blankly. Then I felt everyone was looking at me, perplexed. Nobody said anything to me. Shortly after, I lost lucidity, although I am sure the bus hurtled on.
The difference between a dream and a lucid dream, says Brown, is a meta-awareness that is similar, if not exactly the same, to the meta-awareness achieved through meditation—so it makes sense that people who meditate have more lucid dreams. Tibetan buddhists, sufis and other spiritual groups use lucid dreaming as a path toward spiritual awakening—practiced as a way to not only wake up in dreams but also to wake up in the physical reality, through the revelation that both dreaming and waking reality are illusions of the mind, says Brown
“You can eventually learn, not only that reality and dreams are both models in your mind, and that leads to insights and realizations about the nature of reality, but also you learn how to manifest things better,” says Brown. “I mean, you learn how to sort of model things and create situations that you can then live out.”
While about 80 percent of non-lucid dreams are said to be negative, or worst-case-scenarios, according to G. William Domhoff, a psychology professor at UC Santa Cruz, becoming lucid often shifts them into positive experiences.
“I would say 95 percent [of the time] or more—there’s never been an actual study done, but just from reading or talking to people—when someone becomes lucid, it’s an immediate feeling of happiness and elation, and freedom and liberation,” says Brown. “And there’s usually no sense of fear, because it’s all happening in your mind.”
That said, nightmares are actually one of the most common triggers of lucidity for people not actively practicing lucid dreaming. Intense fear or danger in a dream often sparks the dreamer’s realization that they are dreaming.
That dream fear can be used as a tool. Stephen LaBerge, psychophysiologist and leader in the scientific study of lucid dreaming, recommends confronting the dream figure that’s threatening you, and actually being friendly to it—asking it what it wants, and maybe even hugging it.
“From reports that I have read, almost all of the time that works,” says Brown. “Usually they will become less threatening, they will become more comical looking, they almost become friendly.”
Journal Entry, November 2011:
I dreamt of Nick [dear friend of mine who passed away a few days before] this morning. I felt his presence, saw him clearly. He said something about my voice, teasing, but the encounter was very loving. I hugged him. Awoke on a bed of his laughter. Tried to return to the dream, but couldn’t find my way back.
Grief often manifests itself acutely during dreams. A common dream to have about a family member or close friend who has passed away is that you’re going to meet them somewhere, but they never show up. According to Brown, we have the power to call on anyone we want to in our dreams, and they will appear—even if it’s years later and our memories of them have faded.
“It helps a lot of people reconcile grief. Almost everybody who has done it says, ‘I can’t tell if it’s just my mind or if it was really them,’” he says. “When you meet somebody in a lucid dream, they are reproduced identically. There is no way to differentiate.”
I have yet to have success with it, although I’ve been trying to “call upon” deceased loved ones. If you’re having a recurring dream of a deceased loved one, let that be a dream signal for you to become lucid.
But staying “awake” during the sleep process might have positive impacts on our waking life beyond the spiritual sense. People have reported improved performance in sports by visualizing their activities during sleep, says Brown. And this can be applied to any number of activities. It’s also a technique used by a lot of psychologists to help people overcome nightmares and phobias by facing them in the dream reality.
“If you have social anxiety, and get nervous speaking in front of groups of people, practice in a dream,” says Brown. “I’ve done it many times, given talks in front of people in lucid dreams, and I find myself strangely, unbelievably articulate.”
While he can’t explain this articulate dream ability, Brown believes that the confidence gained during the dream carries over into waking life, and helps him at the time of the waking-life speech. When you’re lucid, “It’s almost like a real memory, it’s not like a fading dream. You feel like you really did this, you feel like it really happened,” he says.
According to a study published in Dreaming, a journal of the American Psychology Association, lucid dreamers are significantly better at solving word puzzles than non-lucid dreamers. Patrick Bourke and Hannah Shaw, researchers at the University of Lincoln who conducted the study, believe that awareness while dreaming could be related to the “aha!” moments necessary in problem solving.
On the other side of the spectrum, artists have been known to spur creativity through dreams—like the artist and author Daniel Love, who actually sources his paintings from galleries he visits in his lucid dreams.
Recollection of sleep paralysis, September 2014:
Awoke in my bedroom but could not move, and was not fully awake, although my eyes were open. The figure of a woman stood over me. Panic set in when I tried to call out, but could not make sound. I felt that I was in her death-grip. A terrifying column of dark static arose to my right, near my alarm clock, emitting a horrifying sound, like the rattle of 10,000 snakes, or the rush of water if the stream was made of glass shards. I felt in danger, helpless, consumed by the ineffable feeling that my soul was being gripped by a force outside of my control. After about a minute, I woke up. Turned on my light. Fear is still potent, along with a terrible sense of aloneness.
Across cultures and throughout history, people have reported a similar terrifying phenomenon: waking up in their beds, unable to move, with the overwhelming sense of a menacing presence in their room with them. It’s been described as everything from a sitting ghost or demon to an “old hag” to dark energy, aliens, or an intruder, but the common theme is that the presence is always a threat.
Many people report a feeling of being pressed down into their beds. The experience is completely terrifying, and can be accompanied by auditory hallucinations.
The scientific explanation of the phenomenon is an interruption in our sleep cycles that causes wakefulness and REM sleep to overlap. During the REM stage of sleep, our bodies experience muscle atonia, or paralysis—evolution’s way of keeping us from acting out the most active stage of our sleep cycle, says Brown. And he theorizes that, because we wake up in this state of paralysis, our fear circuit gets activated, causing us to feel threatened. The illusory response is that some thing outside of our bodies is causing it.
About 36 percent of the general population that experiences isolated sleep paralysis develops it between the age of 25 and 44 years of age, according to a study published in Neurology. But as horrifying as the experience is, sleep paralysis can be used as a portal into lucid dreaming—whether you experience it on your way in or your way out of sleep.
“You have to sort of disregard that [fear], and let the power of your mind override it—and you can,” says Brown. “And then, what will happen is that you’ll find that you can literally lift your arms and lift your body out of your body, and it’s like a double body that you have. Initially you kind of have, like, double consciousness where you feel like you’re partially in your body and partially in your dream body or astral body, but eventually your consciousness shifts to your dream body.”
Dream Journal Excerpt, 10.20.2014:
(4 a.m., after drinking Mexican Dream herb tea)
Woke up to very loud waves. Had been asleep three hours. I was flying in my dream, possibly had my physical eyes half-open, because the sky in my dream was the same as it is now—dark blue, clear, very bright stars, dark outlines of trees. I had some control over where I could fly, as high as I wanted, above the tree tops and power lines, which I had to be careful not to get too close to. I was also singing while I flew … I was able to stretch in the air, saw my ‘astral’ leg. I mean, not sure if it was “Maria’s,” it seemed more muscular, and in my dream I reasoned that I had the body of a dancer. Then I was flying again, and I flew down inside a haunted-feeling house and was suddenly aware of some bitter and cruel scheme being enacted on the people who lived there. I was in the attic. This is where my memory dissolves a little. There was a feeling of injustice, and definitely a scared, panicked feeling. Then I was flying again and came down into a house that looked like my mom’s house, but wasn’t. I came into the room and [ex-boyfriend] was sleeping on the couch. He woke up, and was very scared, like he felt my presence but couldn’t see me. There were many kittens there, too. They could see me, wanted to play. [Ex-boyfriend] didn’t have a shirt on. I wanted to connect in some way, but he moved away, I think I tried to speak, but can’t remember what was said … Next time, when flying, look down more. Also, do more flips.
Even while the first scientific studies of lucid dreaming began only decades ago, interest in them is growing, both within the scientific community—which is working on technology that can record and decode lucid dreams by measuring brain-wave patterns—as well as in the general public. “I think that our interest in lucid dreaming is an extension of our planet’s 4.5 billion-year-old evolutionary process, and I see consciousness explorers as the leading-edge of our biosphere’s emergence into new frontiers,” says Brown. The frontiers he speaks of are realms of consciousness we find in dreams or in shamanic states of mind, that perhaps hover beyond death. As the technology develops to lucid dream on command and mutually share lucid dreams, says Brown, these frontiers could become genuine “geographical” realms, where we can, and eventually will, set up transportation and communication systems. “We’re wiring the different realms together, turning our imaginations inside out … and this may be part of what we were designed to do as a species,” he says.