Is this is the real life? Is this just fantasy? – Decoding the myths of lucid dreaming

Last Updated December 20th, 2021

Lucid dreaming: What is it really?

The oldest recorded meaning of the word “lucid” dates back to 1786, which can be roughly translated as – “easy to understand, free from obscurity of meaning, marked by intellectual clarity”. If you are someone who is somewhat unclear on what the term “lucid dreaming” means, then this is the best place to begin with. Lucid dreaming refers to the phenomenon wherein an individual who is dreaming is thoroughly aware and clear that he/she is in fact in a state of dream, and not in the reality.

In other words, if you have ever been caught in a situation where you are dreaming and yet oddly enough you KNOW that this current state (the visuals and imagery) are a part of a dream and not the actual reality, you were in a lucid dream.

The history of lucid dreaming

Lucid dreaming is much akin to being aware that what you are “seeing” is , in fact, a dream and also that as a narrator of lucid dream, you can make changes and improvements in the dream.  That is to say, the dreamer has, to some extent, control over the dream.

Coined by the Dutch author and psychiatrist, Frederik van Eeden, the term “lucid dreaming” made its first appearance in the 1913 article “A Study of Dreams”.

However, the evidence of people being involved in lucid dreaming can be found in ancient Greek writings which date back to the time of Aristotle. His writings on consciousness and dream-like states often project the idea that even though a person is sleeping, his subconscious mind at some levels knows that he is asleep, and that what he is observing is not reality.

Have you ever experienced such a state? If yes, then its time you understood how or why your brain does it. If no, this would be the right time to know the basics of lucid dreaming and start controlling what happens in your dreams.

You are now entering a “reality-free” zone

So what really happens when you are dreaming in a lucid state? Do you get to control who you are and who are surrounding you? Can you also control what those who are surrounding you are doing? Can you fly like Superman or box like Mohd Ali? These and many other questions often rise in the minds of those who are reading about lucid dreaming the first time or eager to know tips on how to actually dream in a lucid state.

While this article is going to answer all these questions, but first lets begin from the ascent into the state of “dreamhood” – the different stages of sleep & wakefulness, at what point do dreams start appearing, and when does out consciousness kick-in in this whole scenario and tell us “this is all but just a dream”.

When hit the sack at the end of the day, your brain actually doesn’t shut down. It keeps oscillating between two states – NREM and REM.  The NREM (non-rapid eye movement) state comes first – and it is further divided into 3 states. These are:

  • 1st 5 to 15 minutes the moment you close your eyes to sleep
  • The 2nd state following this state is what experts term “light sleep” – this is accompanied by a gradual lowering of your core body temperature and the rate of heartbeat.
  • The 3rd state is when you are whisked away into deep sleep (yes deep sleep is a part of NREM cycle).

90 minutes into this and then your brain enters the REM stage (rapid eye movement). The first REM stage lasts hardly for 10 minutes. Your eyes are closed but they begin moving (one side to the other) involuntarily. Your breathing rate becomes faster and even irregular. Your blood pressure and heart beat changes pace too.  Deep within your sleeping brain, the brain wave activity changes – the frequency is now much closer to that of a wakeful state. Your core body systems begin behaving as if you are awake.

This is precisely where you start dreaming

So how lucid dreaming is related to REM or NREM stages of sleep? It has been hypothesized by many experts that the part of the brain which is responsible for the lucid part of the dreaming (the awareness) is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex, in general, is the logical and thinking part of the brain that constitutes your working memory. In other words, this part is active when you are awake and inactive when you are sleeping.

However, if this region gets activated whilst you are in your REM state sleep – you begin to gain a wakeful or conscious state and this is where lucid dreaming begins.

The science behind “Inception”, aka, your brain in lucid state

When Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece “Inception” hit the theatres it piqued the curiosity of millions worldwide as the number of internet searches on lucid dreams went off the roof.  (Fun fact: The term “lucid dreaming” or “lucid dream” has not been used anywhere throughout the length of the movie).  This brilliant movie focuses on a team of experts who are exceptionally skilled at understanding the difference between reality and lucid dreams.

If you remember the scene from the movie where Dom Cobb is explaining the young protégé about how dreams work then this distinction becomes easier for you to understand. According to Cobb, unlike situations in real life, dreams do not have a logical/specific starting point. You suddenly find yourself in a random situation with random people around you.  The laws of physics (and rationality) suddenly cease to exist and caution is thrown to the wind.

Reality within dreams

When you are dreaming, you are walking around, talking to people, running, and even flying.  What stops your body from “acting out” your physically? The fact that your voluntary motor system is in the switched off state when you enter the REM state is why you actually don’t start physically running in the real life – when, in fact, in your dream you are doing the exact same. But if, for any reason, any of the voluntary motion signals are activated – you might act out your dreams. This is a common explanation of why some people sleep walk.

Similarly, if a part of the conscious thinking brain (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) is switched on during the REM state, what you are going to experience as a result of this is best described as ethereal or “out-worldly”. You are taken to a state where you consciously know that everything around you is a part of virtual reality created by your brain and that you can control the sequence of events.  Or in other words, you begin lucid dreaming.

Harnessing the power of (lucid) dreams

The next logical question here is – why does the brain behave in such a manner? Does it provide any benefit? Is there any evolutionary advantage to lucid dreaming or dreaming in general? Can this odd phenomenon be useful for some people?

Experts, especially evolutionary anthropologists, have strong reasons to believe that dreaming has provided human beings some advantages. It is often treated as a tool that promoted natural selection; as an adaptation that proved our overall fitness as a species.  When we dream, we are often exposed to virtual threats – being chased by demons,  being in a car crash, falling down from a height (very common), and even losing your loved ones. But dreams often just don’t end here. These go on to play in your mind, different ways in which you can face/experience/overcome those problems.

Think back to the time when you saw in a dream losing someone very close to you in real life. Or failing that exam that you have been tirelessly preparing for. Or, even getting engulfed in a fire.

What happened next?

For a temporary moment, you were launched into a virtual reality state where you had to deal with that dilemma or tragedy. You actually “felt” all those emotions – fear, remorse, guilt, stress etc. And when you woke up, you were not really the exact same person you were when you went to sleep. Now, you could feel another dimension and range of emotions (good or bad) and that, in some way, extended your range of thinking.

Horrible dream or horrible reality?

You actually asked yourself, what would you do if this horrible dream actually played out in reality? Are you current prepared to handle that tragedy? If not, then better buckle up.  This is what experts believe is the core reason why human beings, an intellectually superior race, dreams.  In some way, it prepares us for danger, however improbable they might be, so that we have more chances of survival.

Adding one more layer to this is lucid dreaming. Imagine that in a dream, where you are being chased by a giant 100 feet tall spider, you have the ability to not only realize that you are dreaming but now you can also conjure up weapons of your choice to defeat the mighty creature. Wouldn’t that victory be something! To set up the perfect situation where you can face your biggest fears and losses and have the required ammunition to destroy it.

That is how lucid dreaming can help you

Scientists have been working long to understand the utility of such state and they have firm reasons to believe that lucid dreaming can have therapeutic values.  It can help people overcome the issues of nightmares, phobias, and even anxiety. A lucid dream lets people create a scenario where the fear or anxiety trigger is present, but the individual has control over it. This is the safest form of exposure therapy where you can gradually overcome your fears.

A simple step-by-step guide to lucid dreaming

People who are skilled in the art of lucid dreaming often enjoy the entire scenario. They describe it as going for an adventure ride which gives them a kick their usual mundane life is missing. Many have found this conscious exercise as something that enhances their creativity. In a dream, there are no rules of science and logic. So you can think in any direction and create out of the world scenarios as you are free from restrictions.

Are you are as excited as the next person in knowing how you can lucid dream? The following techniques might help you.

Question and re-question

Keep asking yourself throughout the time you are awake – “Am I dreaming?”  as you few every day things like trying to pass your hand through a wall. This will embed the entire scenario in your sub-conscious mind. When you are dreaming – high chances are that you will do the same thing and ask the same question. In the dream state, your hand might pass through the wall. This is how to start gaining conscious control over your dream.

Reality check

Try reading and re-reading things over and over again. In a dream like state, words and texts often tend to swirl around and change sequence. In reality, not so much. This simple exercise can tell you if you are awake or dreaming.  Other reality checks could be

  • Observe your reflection in a mirror- is it normal or something different?
  • Keep looking at clocks – the time will change or follow random orders.
  • Look at your hands – do they look normal or something funny is going on?
  • Keep pushing your hands/fingers through solid objects and barriers and see if you find anything passing through them.

WBTB (wake back to bed)

Set an alarm to 5 hours from the time you go to bed. Wake up when the alarm goes off. Remain awake for 30 minutes (you can read a book meanwhile), then go back to sleep. This will help you “stay awake” in your subsequent dream.

MILD Technique

Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreaming works by utilizing something called as a “dreamsign”.  As you are slowly drifting off to sleep, think of something irregular/ abnormal you recently dreamed about. Let’s say it was jumping from a building or floating among the clouds. Think about seeing the same thing when you start dreaming. Assure yourself that the irregular thing will only happen when you are dreaming. Also keep repeating in your mind, “Next time I dream – I dream of …..”

One of the most popular and effective tips among people who lucid dream frequently is maintaining a dream journal. This will help you keep a track of “dreamsigns” and enable you lucid dream better.

What to do if you get stuck in the rabbit hole?

One very common thing people are scared of when trying lucid dreaming is what if someone gets “stuck” in a lucid dream and are not able to wake up or go back to non-lucid state? There are a few proven techniques that you can refer to if you find yourself in such a situation.

  • Shout or call out for help. Try to consciously to make your voice loud.
  • Repeatedly blink your eyes fast.
  • Try falling asleep in the dream (ironically, this tells your brain you are “asleep” in dream world so you “wake” up in the real world).
  • Read a book or try concentrating on something written in the dream. This will tend to activate the entire prefrontal cortex and help you wake up.

Lucid dreaming:  Important pointers to remember

The therapeutic advantage of lucid dreaming has helped people recover from recurring nightmares. These nightmares are often a symptom of an underlying condition such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, insomnia, chronic stress, substance abuse and even side-effect of certain medications. Many therapists have successfully helped people overcome their fears by enabling them to control the fear-triggers in their dreams.  It is also said that disabled people can improve the range of motor skills by lucid dreaming.

Precautionary notes

  • Waking up in the middle of deep sleep (for lucid dreaming) can sometimes aggravate sleep disorders.
  • Not suitable for people with schizophrenia as it can dissociate them from reality. It becomes tough for them to understand the difference between dreams and reality.
  • Many studies indicate the counter-effect of lucid dreaming among patients with depression. It might worsen the symptoms by interrupting REM state sleep.
  • If you are someone who is prone to sleep paralysis, it would be best if you if not attempt lucid dreaming.
  • Additionally, since there is a lot of mental effort spent on practicing and implementing the techniques to induce lucid dreaming, people might have the complaint of insufficient sleep.
  • It unknowingly interferes with your memory and leads to creation of false memories. You tend to feel that what happened in the dream actually happened in reality (since you were awake in your dream) and this might lead to confusions .

Lucid dreaming: Is it for you?

The million dollar question – is lucid dreaming safe for you? Should you start working on those techniques to get more vivid and controlled dreams? On one hand, this state of mindful dreaming closely resonates with the art of mindfulness as taught by Buddhist monks. It gives you more clarity and in-depth insight on who you truly are. It can also be the easiest portal to a more creatively-blessed brain.

But on the other hand, if not practiced properly or practiced by a person who has a history of mental illness, things can go out of hand very easily. Reports reveal that in some cases, the nightmares became even more vivid, scary, and lifelike. Basically, if you are feeling the emotions of love, warmth, and even sexual pleasure on one end of the spectrum, there is an equally high chance that you may get to experience the negative emotions with same intensity.

Addicted to dreaming?

And then there are people who tend to get hooked on or “addicted” to the act of lucid dreaming that it transforms into escapism. Such people gain the satisfaction of living “vicariously” in dreams so they tend to forget the duties and responsibilities of real life.

So, to sum it up, if you have a mental health condition –counting addiction- it would be best to not indulge in lucid dreaming by yourself. However, if you don’t belong to this risk pool, you can give this amazing dreaming hack and see for yourself how high can you fly.



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