As a child, Beverly D’ Urso experienced re-occurring nightmares where a cabal of witches came from her bedroom closet and chased her throughout the house. They scared her and she wanted them to stop, so she simply decided to ask the witches to leave her alone. The next time she slipped into the nightmare, she looked the witches in the eyes, and said “Let’s get this over with.” The nightmares stopped. From then on, she could enjoy her dreams.
D’Urso is a lucid dreamer, meaning she sometimes knows that she dreams while dreaming.
"[I could] recognize that I was dreaming so I could use that in my childhood and beyond so I have a lot of fun in my sleep,” she says.
D’Urso participated in much of the early research on lucid dreaming and she could indicate to researchers when she was lucid dreaming by moving her eyes in a certain way. Studies like that proved that people could lucid dream.
People who do it say they experience much richer sleeping and waking experiences. There’s also evidence lucid dreaming can help treat nightmares and depression. But what is it and can anyone do it?
Dreaming when you know it
“A lucid dream is a dream [when] you know you are dreaming while you are dreaming,” says Deirdre Barrett, author of "The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists, and Athletes Use Their Dreams for Creative Problem Solving—And How You Can, too."
“Most people find it a really fascinating and enjoyable experience if it has happened to them even spontaneously. Seeing an imaginary world and people and objects and yet as you are seeing them, to know this is dreaming; [your] mind is creating this.”
Anyone who has ever realized they’re flying or felt a sneaking suspicion that the conversation with their late grandma isn’t happening has experienced a lucid dream.
“We know we can’t fly. It is so unbelievable that you realize in your dream, ‘Oh, [I] must be dreaming,’” says Dr. Raj Dasgupta, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California and a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
For most people, lucid dreams occur naturally and they wake after such vivid dreams. Experienced lucid dreamers remain asleep and continue to fly or hash things out with grandma.
Lucid dreaming purposefully requires much practice. But experts believe people can learn to increase their lucid dreams by repeating these practices:
- Record all dreams you remember. If you wake in the middle of the night during a dream, write it down. Write down everything you recall when first waking.
- While dreaming, do reality checks. Look for something that will signal that you’re dreaming. Many people cannot read or understand clocks in dreams; not being able to read the clock signals you’re asleep.
- While awake, do reality checks. Can you read a book? That's a cue you’re awake.
- When awake, review re-occurring dreams and nightmares and imagine reacting differently.
- Focus on dreaming while awake and think about how you want dreams to go.
How dreaming can improve health
Lucid dreamers believe they experience richer waking lives. It’s possible lucid dreaming fosters more mindfulness because it focuses on remembering and being awake and present.
“Lucid dreaming … might help with wellbeing,” says Anne Germain, an associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh “It is very much about being in the moment and not necessarily … taking something at its face value.”
In addition to fostering mindfulness, lucid dreaming can stop re-occurring nightmares. Like D’Urso, lucid dreamers can change their bad dreams.
“When they have their nightmare, they can confront the nightmare or run away,” says Dasgupta, who uses lucid dreaming to help patients with nightmares and PTSD. “There is a role for understanding lucid dreams in … understanding nightmares.”
Lucid dreaming helps people improve physical skills, too. A pilot study showed that five people who practiced squats in a dream experienced increased heart rate as if they were physically active. What’s more, their ability to perform squats while awake also improved.
Barrett conducted a small study with swimmers, which she never published, and learned that when swimmers practiced their strokes in lucid dreams during the off-season, they also improved in the pool.
While she says that lucid dreaming can provide many benefits, some people struggle with it. Barrett recommends dream incubation, where people focus on a problem before bed so they grapple with it during the night.
But for many, lucid dreaming helps them both day and night.
“I was able to deal with tremendous grief when my mother died. [There is a] whole spiritual perspective of starting to live your life in a more lucid state,” says D’Urso.