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A woman lies in a hazy field

Lucid dreaming: Our guide to hacking your subconscious

In many ways, dreaming represents ultimate freedom: a state in which the borders between the rational and irrational blur, and the mind begins revealing itself to itself. The laws of time and physics no longer apply, and our ego exists in a series of disorganised vignettes. We all enjoy the feeling of waking up from a pleasant dream, but the vast majority of the time we're completely helpless, at the mercy of our own subconscious. Night by night, the dreams you experience could be euphoric or confusing, scary or sexual. It's a total lottery.

But the good news is that there is a way to hijack control over your sleeping wits and actually impose your own conscious will upon your dreams. A lucid dream is one where the sleeping person is aware that they are dreaming, and thus they are able to exert control over the narrative, environment and characters that inhabit their own mindscape.

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The concept sounds mystical but you don't have to be a zen monk. Lucid dreaming is a natural and scientifically-verified phenomenon, and anyone can do it if they know how and have time to practice. Interested? Then read on to learn about the techniques that'll give you total command over the land of Nod. But first, we need to address the neuroscience behind lucid dreaming.

Even today, scientists are largely uncertain about why we dream, and the study of dreams is hampered by their inherent surrealism and varying interpretations, which makes objective qualification difficult. The most common theory is that dreams are a form of mental inoculation: a way for our subconscious mind to prepare us for the unforeseeable future by running distressing or bizarre scenarios to ascertain our response. The first scientific research regarding the nature of lucid dreams was conducted in 1968 by British psychologist Celia Green, who postulated that lucid dreaming only occurred during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep; a stage of sleeping in which brain activity is still high.

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In 1985, psychophysiologist Stephen LaBerge conducted an intense investigative study into the nature of lucid dreaming; analysing neurological activity in lucid dreamers. In one experiment, LaBerge discovered that lucid dreamers do not experience the sense of time dilation. Lucid dreamers were capable of counting out ten seconds while in a REM state, and signalled the beginning and the end of the count with a pre-arranged eye signal measured with electrooculogram recording. The eye signals were concurrent with the passage of time in reality. LaBerge eventually went on to found the The Lucidity Institute, an organisation dedicated to research into lucid dreams, and developed the MILD (mnemonic induction of ludic dreaming) technique.

In LaBerge's own words, "Although the events we appear to perceive in dreams are illusory, our feelings in response to dream content are real. Indeed, most of the events we experience in dreams are real; when we experience feelings, say, anxiety or ecstasy, in dreams, we really do feel anxious or ecstatic at the time ... If we were to vividly imagine a detailed sequence of movements, say, walking around the room, it is probable that motor areas of the brain would be activated in the same pattern as involved in actually walking. However, they would presumably be less activated than when walking. Otherwise, what would prevent us from actually walking when we imagined doing so?"

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Above the clouds

Therefore, lucid dreaming is the effect that conscious thought has on a paralysed body, and someone who is cognisant of their own dreaming is therefore able to navigate their own dream space. The first step towards lucid dreaming is to make your sleeping self aware that you are dreaming, and there are a number of ways to do this. The first is to take time out during the waking hours to make sure that you aren't dreaming. This might feel a little silly at first but the mere fact that your consciousness has conditioned itself to question reality means that you'll find lucid dreaming easier.

Secondly, it's possible to induce lucid dreaming by wavering between deep sleep and wakefulness. When you go to bed, try setting an alarm for five hours time. When the alarm goes off, try to stay awake for around five minutes, and then settle back to sleep. You should be feeling groggy at this point, and when you return to a sleeping state, lucid dreaming will be much easier for you. Then there's the MILD technique. In this instance, the subject must repeat to themselves: "the next time I'm dreaming, I will remember that I'm dreaming." This conscious mental effort to induce a lucid dream actually has an effect on our unconscious mind, and makes lucid dreaming easier.

Dr Denholm Aspy, a researcher at University of Adelaide's psychology department, has himself determined that the MILD technique is the most effective. "The MILD technique works on what we call 'prospective memory' - that is, your ability to remember to do things in the future," Dr Aspy states: "By repeating a phrase that you will remember you're dreaming, it forms an intention in your mind that you will, in fact, remember that you are dreaming, leading to a lucid dream."

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Once your sleeping self is mentally prepared to begin lucid dreaming, you pick up on inconsistencies or irregularities within the world of the dream; little details that all add up to a feeling of unreality. For example, you might notice that the world is black and white, or that clocks do not accurately tell the time. You might find it hard to recognise numbers, or note that there is a distinct lack of object permanence. One you have recognised that you are indeed dreaming, you can begin to assert a degree of autonomy over the dream narrative.

At first it might be quite hard, and you may find yourself going directly from a sleeping state to a waking one, but if you persist multiple times then eventually you'll be able to dream about whatever pops into your head, and I do mean anything. Getting to that point can be discouraging, but trust me on this one: it's 100 per cent worth it.