Lucid Dreaming Might Be the Trick to Answering Life's Tough Questions
Experts explain how to take control of your dream state.
I remember being in what looked like a department store. Maybe a JCPenney? As I sat in a chair next to my mom, I realized armed men were attempting a robbery. I tried to remain silent, but I caught the attention of one of the men. He walked toward me and got close—too close—to my face. My breathing became short as he lifted a gun to my forehead. I closed my eyes, and then a single thought popped into my head: “This isn’t real.” I suddenly opened my eyes in the dream and shot up awake in my bed. That’s when I realized: I was lucid dreaming.
If you’ve never heard of the term “lucid dreaming,” it means being aware that you are dreaming and being able to control when you're in the dream state. This usually happens during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep right before you wake up, which can last for about 90 minutes.
Scientists aren't sure what causes the phenomenon, but when it does happen, the region of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex, which controls self-reflection and introspection, becomes highly active. A 2015 study found that people who can naturally lucid dream usually have a larger anterior prefrontal cortex than those who are not able to experience lucid dreams.
According to U.S. News & World Report, “A growing body of research increasingly indicates that not only do some people have lucid dreams but that there are ways to induce these dreams and even possibly use this sort of unconscious consciousness to gain some control over what one dreams about.” In the past, I’ve been able to wake up and re-enter my dream when I'd go back to sleep. On rare occasions, I’ve even been able to think about something intently before I fell asleep in an attempt to dream about it. It’s worked a few times, but the idea of being able to induce a lucid dream seemed out of reach.
However, if you want to have a lucid dream, professional dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg explains that there are two ways to teach yourself. One method is throughout the day, every day, ask yourself, ‘Am I dreaming?’ When you ask yourself this, focus on the details around you, like the texture of the blades of grass in your lawn or the hairs on your arm. “Training your brain to connect the question of ‘am I dreaming?’ to noticing details is key,” she explains. “Once you are dreaming, being able to notice fine details can trigger lucidity because you are likely to notice something is off. The clock on the wall may be backward, or your dog may be made out of cloth.”
Another technique is to set your alarm 30 minutes earlier than you normally do—but don’t worry, you can hit snooze (just make sure your snooze is set to 30 minutes as well). “When the alarm goes off in the morning, hit your snooze and drift back to sleep,” says Loewenberg. “As you drift off, tell yourself ‘I am dreaming, I am dreaming…’ This small window of time will allow you to fall back asleep and dream, but it's not long enough to fall back into the deep delta (slow-wave) stage of sleep, which is what tends to keep you from remembering all dreams throughout the night. Instead, you will linger in the lighter stages of sleep, which makes it easier to maintain a little bit of consciousness as well so that when you begin to dream again, you are more likely to be aware that it is a dream.”
If this all sounds a little Inception-esque, bear with me, as there is one benefit to lucid dreaming: It can be a way to access your subconscious mind. Whenever you're going through a tough period in your life, rather than asking everyone in your social circle what you should do or trying to manifest, just dive into the deepest parts of your mind to find an answer. “I tell my clients: Whenever you become lucid in a dream, ask a question! You can ask a character in your dream, you can make Gandhi appear before you and ask him, or you can just ask [in general]. You will get an answer,” promises Loewenberg. “You can ask for creative ideas. You can figure out the best ending for that novel you've been writing. You can perfect a skill you have been working on. Lucid dreaming gives you the opportunity to tap into and access the deepest, most knowledgeable and creative part of your mind.”
Now more than ever, a lot of us are searching for answers, meaning, and direction. When the state of the world feels uncertain, it’s nice to turn inward—because what you’re looking for may be buried deep within your subconscious mind. Who knows? The answer to that big question on your mind might be one lucid dream away.