Lucid Dreaming 101: A Scientific Guide To Controlling Your Dreams

You never forget your first lucid dream. 

Mine happened in 2010, a few weeks before Inception first hit cinema screens.

I was in film school at the time, and the Inception buzz was tangible.

Desperate for clues about this highly secretive 200 million dollar blockbuster, I read everything I could find.

In one article, I came across an interview where Chris Nolan revealed his inspiration behind it:

I was in university when I experienced my first lucid dream. I woke up, went to get the newspaper, then went back to bed. Ever since I’ve been fascinated with the phenomenon of lucid dreaming and the ability of being able to assert some level of control over your dreams.

I had never heard of lucid dreaming up until this point.

It didn’t matter.

A few days later I had my first lucid dream, and it was like nothing I’d ever experienced…

I can still clearly remember the sensation of looking down at my hand, knowing full-well that it was a construct of my dreaming brain.

I was aware of my sleeping body but was overtook with an urge to explore the world my unconscious was creating.

I zoomed into my fingertips. The blood vessels and fine wrinkles were there along with every other detail.

But as soon as I started to question what my hand was actually made of, my fingers dissolved into sand-like pixels and floated upwards while the rest remained intact.

My experience of having a lucid dream only a few days after discovering them is no weird cosmic coincidence.

Simply finding out they exist is often enough to get started on your first lucid dreaming adventure. Many sleep researchers have their first lucid dream within the same week they discover them.

My goal in writing this article is not to dryly list lucid dreaming techniques for you to glance over.

I want you to have a lucid dream — tonight, or this week.

The more your unconscious is filled with thoughts of lucid dreams, the more you’re likely to have one.

So before I provide you with the best scientific lucid dreaming techniques, I want to tell you quickly about one of the greatest dreamers ever to have lived.

Question: How do you know for certain you’re not reading this article in a dream?

The Great Dreamer

The year is 1835.

Somewhere in Paris a thirteen-year-old boy is on an amazing adventure slaying dragons and surfing clouds. To the rest of the world, he is asleep.

The young Hervey de Saint-Denys upon awakening tries to draw the story of his dream: An understandable endeavour considering the lack of superhero entertainment.

Overcome by the excitement of seeing his dreams in real life, he decides to keep an illustrated dream diary henceforth.

As time passes, Saint-Denys finds that the more attention he pays to his dreams, and the more rigorous he is in recreating them the next day, the more vivid they become.

But not just vivid…

A few months after Saint-Denys starts recording his dreams something strange happens:

In my fourteenth year… I found myself developing a faculty to which I owe most of the observations recorded herein: that of often being conscious of my true situation while sleeping, or retaining in my dreams a sense of my preoccupations from the preceding day, and of then having sufficient control over my ideas to guide their further development along whatever course that suited me.

Hervey de Saint-Denys is of course referring to what we now call lucid dreaming (the term ‘lucid dreaming’ was coined later in 1913 by Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden).

Saint-Denys’s talent for lucid dreaming developed rapidly.

His second came a week later, and within six months he was lucid dreaming on average two nights out of five. Fifteen months after his first lucid dream, they were a nightly occurrence.

Luckily for us, Hervey de Saint-Denys never stopped recording his dreams. In 1867, he anonymously published his favourite dream insights in a book called Les Reves et les Moyens de les Diriger (Dreams and How to Guide Them).

Inside he promises us:

“Through the combined action of attention and will during dreams, you can take the first steps in directing and modifying the course of dreams as you wish.”

With a little effort, Saint-Denys tells us, everyone can have lucid dreams. He even provides the exact lucid dreaming techniques he and his disciples used.

But before we take a look at them, Saint-Denys’s life provides a valuable lucid dreaming lesson in itself.

The Marquis Hervey de Saint-Denys, Lucid dreamer

Hervey de Saint-Denys loved to dream. In his dreams he was always that 13-year-old kid who couldn’t wait to recreate his adventures the next day.

Society has conditioned us to favor realism over dreaming and productivity over sleep. When Saint-Denys died in 1892, at the ripe old age of 70, they found 22 notebooks filled with the details of his dreams.

Dreaming is not a waste of life.

Saint-Denys had two for the price of one.

Question: Could you say with 100% certainty you’re not dreaming right now?

Are Lucid Dreams Real?

It’s easy to get carried away with lucid dream stories like those of Saint-Denys, but it’s always important to keep our critical thinking hats when encountering any extraordinary phenomena.

After all, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

The anecdotes of Saint-Denys and other lucid dreamers didn’t convince everyone. Dreams are messy and subjective. Waking up with the ‘feeling’ of being self-aware in a dream doesn’t prove that you were.

Lucid dreaming has historically stirred up much debate amongst philosophers and psychologists. Norman Malcolm, in his 1959 text Dreaming, questioned the validity of dream reports1)Malcolm, N. (1959) Dreaming. London:Routledge and Kegan Paul, saying:

The only criterion of the truth of a statement that someone has had a certain dream is, essentially, his saying so.

He makes a good point.

How can we scientifically study such a subjective state of consciousness?

A British dream researcher in the late 1970s by the name of Keith Hearne figured out an ingenious way around this problem.

When you sleep, your whole body is paralysed apart from your eyes. Hearne hypothesised that a lucid dreamer, aware that he is in a lucid dream, should be able to communicate with observing researchers using eye-movements.

To test this, Hearne plugged his best lucid dreamer up to a polysomnograph and asked him to move his eyes left-to-right eight times when he was inside his dream.

When his star subject was deep in REM sleep, sure enough, his eyes moved back and forth exactly eight times. 2)K. M. T. Hearne (1978). ‘Lucid dreams: an electrophysiological and psychological study’. PhD thesis, University of Hull.

Further studies were done giving lucid dreaming scientific credibility. At around the same time as Hearne, a Stanford psychologist called Stephen LaBerge was also investigating lucid dreaming.

Prior to his studies he had never experienced a lucid dream. He eventually went on to become so good at them, he could control his eye movements and breathing patterns while fast asleep.

Lucid dreams exist.

But why would anyone want to have one?

Question: If you were dreaming right now, how would you actually know?

10 Random Lucid Dreaming Facts

Paul Martin in his book Counting Sheep defines lucid dreaming as follows:

A lucid dream is a special sort of dream in which the dreamer is fully aware at the time that he or she is dreaming. Indeed, the lucid dreamer is both aware of dreaming and aware of being aware of dreaming (a state of consciousness that psychologists refer to as meta-awareness).

An interesting definition, but it doesn’t provide any incentive or reason we’d want to experience lucid dreaming in the first place.

Below, I’ve cherry-picked from his book ten random facts about lucid dreaming to change that.

1) Lucid dreams are more vivid, memorable and life-like than ordinary dreams.

2) You are more rational and aware of your waking life inside a lucid dream.

3) Scholars who catalogue typical REM dreams find that around two-thirds of them are more unpleasant than pleasant. In contrast, lucid dreams rarely contain any unpleasant sensations or negative emotions.  Pain is rare, pleasure is common.

4) Lucid dreamers find it very difficult, if not impossible, to injure or kill themselves in lucid dreams, even when they try hard to do so.

5) The most common lucid dream theme is sex. Other common lucid dream subjects include seeing deceased loved ones, flying, daredevil acts, meeting famous people and experimenting with the dreamscape itself.

6) Lucid dreamers who have written about their nocturnal adventures have stated that certain lucid dreams have been the most enjoyable and satisfying experiences of their lives.

7) Lucid dreams are a rare treat. Even to those who get accustomed to having them.

8) You can exert some control over your lucid dreams but each has a life of its own. Often deliberate efforts to insert sex into lucid dreams fail.

9) Lucid dreams last between one and six minutes; the average time is 2.5 minutes.

10) Lucid dream orgasms are often physiologically real.

Lucid dreams are a safe, free, legal hallucinogenic drug. 

So now that you know lucid dreams exist, and why you might want to have one, let’s make them a reality.

Lucid Dreaming Techniques Part 1: Induction

Lucid dreaming techniques come in two complimentary categories. The first category is called induction. This encompasses the things you can do in your waking life to prime your mind for lucid dreams.

The information in the following sections are based on the suggestions in Stephen LaBerge’s ‘Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams‘, Richard Wiseman’s ‘Paranormality‘, Paul Martin’s ‘Counting Sheep‘ and Saint-Denys’s ‘Dreams and How to Guide Them‘.

1) Interrupt Your Sleep At Specific Intervals

Set your alarm clock to wake you up about four, six and seven hours after falling asleep. This will increase the likelihood of you being woken up during or straight after a dream.

If the alarm clock wakes you during a dream, spend ten minutes reading, writing down information about the dream or walking around. Then go back to the bed and think about the dream that you had before waking up.

Tell yourself that you’re going to have the same dream again, but this time you will be aware that you are dreaming.

This is the lucid dream technique Chris Nolan used, without knowing it.

2) Keep A Dream Journal

Saint-Denys found that the more attention he paid to his dreams and the more he practiced recalling them, the more clearly he remembered them the next day.

Paul Martin says:

Experiments have shown that people are more likely to experience lucid dreaming if they frequently recall their ordinary dreams, and they can increase their chances of experiencing lucid dreams by paying more attention to their ordinary dreams.

3) Make A Dream Totem

In the movie Inception, each character has a specific dream totem to help them differentiate the real world from the dream world. The main character, Dom Cobb, had a spinning top. Because physics is different in a dream, it never toppled.

If you build the habit in your waking life of questioning whether or not you’re in a dream, you’ll take this habit with you into your dreams.

Richard Wiseman in his book Paranormality suggests a practical dream totem:

Draw a large letter ‘A’ (for ‘awake’) on one of your palms and the letter ‘D’ (for ‘dreaming’) on the other. Whenever you notice either of the letters, ask yourself whether you are awake or asleep. This helps you get used to the ritual and therefore asking the same question when you dream. Also, as you prepare to nod off each night, lie in your bed and take a minute to look at the palms of your hands and quietly tell yourself that while you dream you will look at your hands.

I’ve tried this method and after a while it gets annoying because of the ink on your hands (it would make a good tattoo.)

I prefer to use smartphone and desktop wallpapers that prime me to question my state of consciousness when dreaming.

Here’s the desktop background I designed. You can download the full resolution desktop and smartphone wallpaper for free by clicking the purple box below.

lucid dreaming techniques wallpaper

4) Don’t Think Of A Blue Elephant

Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner has come up with a simple yet effective method of controlling your dreams.

Wegner has carried out a great deal of work into ‘ironic process theory’, also known as the ‘rebound effect’. His studies show when you try to suppress a thought or emotion,  it intensifies. He wondered if the same would apply to dreams.

He gathered together a group of participants, gave each of them two envelopes, and asked them to open one before they went to bed and one upon awakening.

The first envelope contained an unusual set of instructions. All of the participants were asked to think of someone that they found especially attractive. Half of the participants were then instructed to spend five minutes trying not to think about this person, and the other half were asked to think about their dream date.

In the second envelope, which they read when they woke, there was a questionnaire asking them to record any dreams they might have had.

Wegner discovered that the group who actively tried not to think of the attractive person, were twice as likely as the other group to dream about them.3)D. M. Wegner, R. M. Wenzlaff and M. Kozak (2004). ‘Dream rebound: The return of suppressed thoughts in  dreams’. Psychological Science, 15, pages 232-6.

The Finding that suppressed thoughts rebound in dreams provides a bridge linking an early insight of psychoanalysis to the discoveries of cognitive neuroscience.

If you want to dream about something. Consciously try not to think about it when you’re lying in bed.

You can experiment with this lucid dreaming technique on a person, fantasy or the act of lucid dreaming itself.

When you’re lying in bed, tell yourself that you’re not allowed to think of the thing you want to dream about. Genuinely try not to.

5) Create A Mental Trigger

The Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov discovered what we now know call ‘classical conditioning’.

When you pair a sensation with a unique trigger, after a while that trigger can reactivate that sensation even when the sensation is absent. Pavlov fed his dogs and rang a bell. After a while, the dogs became conditioned to salivate at the sound of the bell.

Saint-Denys found that he could influence the content of his dreams using triggers similar to Pavlov.

He found that a unique smell or song linked to a particular experience, when triggered in his sleep, could reactivate that experience in his dreams.

If you have a boyfriend or girlfriend you want to have a lucid dream about, place their perfume or cologne near where you sleep to have them in your dreams.

If you have a favourite film, you can figure out a way to quietly play the soundtrack as you sleep.

Lucid Dreaming Techniques Part 2: Identification Tests

The second category of lucid dreaming techniques include things you can do inside an actual dream to help you differentiate the dream world from the real world. We call these identification tests.

1) The Eye Close Test

One of the Saint-Denys favourite identification tests is to imagine  you’re closing your eyes. If you close your eyes in the real world, you’ll simply stop seeing things. In a dream, the darkness will instantly transform into new vivid images.

You have no eyelids in a dream.

2) The Mirror Test

In a lucid dream, your reflection is distorted.

Lucid dreaming techniques: the mirror test

If you look in the mirror and see a blurry face staring back at you, don’t freak out. It’s good news.

3) The ‘Ouch’ Test

You won’t feel pain in a lucid dream. Pinch yourself or bite your arm. If it hurts, you’re not lucid dreaming.

4) The Brick Wall Test

The physics in Inception were all over the place. This is accurate. In lucid dreams, if you lean against a brick wall you’ll fall through it.

The Power of Dreams

All of the techniques touched upon in this article are tried and true methods of achieving lucid dream states. The most important thing you should start doing, however, is simply thinking about lucid dreams when you’re awake and trying to remember your dreams when you wake up.

Lucid dreams are one of the greatest and safest pleasures we can experience. It’ll take a little effort to get going, but it’s worth it.

I’ll leave you with a final message from Saint-Denys:

I am sure many people would admit that they have sometimes experienced in their dreams such surges of affection and warmth, such indescribable states of joy and please, as could never be found in real life. And I would not hesitate to say that if our aim is to experience the ultimate feelings of pleasure and beauty, then the state of dreaming would be the most conducive for them.

Sweet lucid dreams.

P.S. I said at the start of this article that my goal in writing it was to help people actually have lucid dreams. Recently, I shared it on Reddit, and it seems to have worked. Very pleased!

If you liked this post, please take a second to subscribe for future articles below. 

lucid dream reddit testimonial 2lucid dream reddit testimonial 1

Further Lucid Dream Reading:

Counting Sheep by Paul Martin

Paranormality by Prof. Richard Wiseman

References   [ + ]

1. Malcolm, N. (1959) Dreaming. London:Routledge and Kegan Paul
2. K. M. T. Hearne (1978). ‘Lucid dreams: an electrophysiological and psychological study’. PhD thesis, University of Hull.
3. D. M. Wegner, R. M. Wenzlaff and M. Kozak (2004). ‘Dream rebound: The return of suppressed thoughts in  dreams’. Psychological Science, 15, pages 232-6.

Meet the Creator

Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks is the author of ComfortPit and the co-creator of HighExistence. He researches the practical ways art, science, psychology, technology, history, and philosophy can help us live more skillfully.

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