This is a phenomenon known as lucid dreaming, which is rapidly growing in popularity. Many people want to be able to control and manipulate their dreams, and the practice is relatively easy to do.
During REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which comprises about 20% of your sleeping time, brain activity is altered. There is a roughly similar quantity of brain activity detected as when you are awake but in different areas.
It is believed that the secondary visual cortex and emotional areas are more active during dreams, but the prefrontal cortex is much less active. This is the area of your brain that is responsible for reality testing and abstract reasoning. This explains why in a dream, completely nonsensical things can happen without our brains questioning their legitimacy.
During lucid dreams, your prefrontal cortex is partially activated. This is what alerts the dreamer to the absurdity of various things within the dream. This is the postulation for why lucid dreamers are able to recognize that they are in a dream state.
What are the benefits of lucid dreaming?
Some researchers believe that lucid dreaming can have therapeutic benefits, such as being able to overcome and deal with nightmares. If you suffer from nightmares frequently it can lead to anxiety, sleep disturbances, PTSD, and other mental problems.
Lucid dreaming is commonly used in IRT (image reversal therapy). This is where you reimagine a nightmare with calmer alterations made to the plot. This is done in the presence of a therapist and is often combined with CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) to increase the sleeping person’s control over the dream.
There is some evidence to suggest that lucid dreaming can reduce anxiety levels. Dreams and nightmares commonly force the dreamer to face up to things in their life causing them stress. Allowing the dreamer to take control of their dream can have stress-reducing impacts.
There are theories that lucid dreaming can be beneficial to your motor skills. Some people believe that it could help with physical rehabilitation following an injury. There is a link between mentally performing activities and an improved ability in waking life.
Is it bad to lucid dream?
Generally speaking, there are not many downsides to lucid dreaming. You may experience sleep problems, derealization, depression, or sleep paralysis. These are uncommon effects and generally were already underlying.
How can you control your dreams?
There are 3 main methods used to induce lucid dreaming. These are reality testing, wake back to bed, and MILD (mnemonic induction of lucid dreams). These methods are not guaranteed to be successful, although they will greatly increase your chances of inducing a lucid dream.
Just before you fall asleep your body and mind are in what is known as a hypnagogic state. This is a state of heightened suggestibility and means that dream incubation is likely to be very effective. If you tell yourself what you wish to dream about in simplistic terms, you may find that you actually do.
1) Reality testing
This is a kind of mental training regime that you can put yourself through. The basic principle is that you are teaching your mind to recognize your own awareness, in a process known as metacognition. Essentially, you will check every few hours to ensure you are in reality.
Common triggers people use are mirrors, solid objects, clocks, hands, and breathing. If there are mirrors nearby, check whether your reflection appears normal. Try to push your hand through solid objects nearby, if it goes through it is a dream. If you have an analog clock nearby see how fast the hands are moving. If they barely change, you’re awake. If you can pinch your nose and still breathe, this is a sign you are dreaming.
You should perform these reality checks regularly during your waking time. This will train your brain to repeat these checks while you are asleep. Noticing one of these triggers being off in a dream is believed to help induce lucid dreaming.
2) Wake back to bed
This method is designed to optimize the time you are in a REM sleep phase. All you need to do is fall asleep and set an alarm for 5 hours time. When the alarm goes off, you wake up for a brief period (around 30 minutes) and then go back to sleep.
3) MILD - Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams
This method is based on a behavior referred to as prospective memory, similar to setting intentions to perform an activity later. Essentially, you need to train yourself to remember that you are dreaming.
As you are drifting off to sleep, try to recall a dream that you had recently. Try to identify something in that dream to use as an indicator you are dreaming. A common example of an indicator like this is the ability to fly.
Focus on returning to the emotional space of that dream. Make it clear in your mind that you only see the aforementioned indicator when you are dreaming. Repeat to yourself, “the next time I dream, I want to remember that I am dreaming”.
This method also works if you startle awake in the middle of a dream you wish to return to. It is highly effective when combined with the wake back to bed method.
How to stay lucid
One of the easiest ways that you can be pulled out of a lucid dream is due to stimuli. As soon as you realize you are dreaming, remain calm. Try to touch something in the dream, to ground you more firmly into the dreamscape.
It is a good idea to repeat to yourself “this is a dream”. This will reduce the chance of you slipping back into a non-lucid dream. Stay focused and aware, and you should be able to remain within your lucid dream.
How to wake up
If you find yourself trapped in a lucid dream and want to escape, there are a few ways to do this. Call out for help, or blink repeatedly. Falling asleep in your dream is believed to wake you up in reality.