Please explain: Can we control our dreams?

Macquarie University/The Lighthouse
Lucid dreaming is when you are aware you’re dreaming while actually in the dream. Associate Professor Simon Boag from Macquarie University’s Department of Psychology explains what it is and what might be the benefits.

Research says at least half of people have had a lucid dream in their life, and nearly a quarter regularly.

Flying on demand: About one in four people regularly have lucid dreams that they can take steps to control.

Most of the time when we’re dreaming, we’re not aware of it and just take what’s before us in the dream as real. But lucid dreaming is when you are aware that you’re dreaming and can take steps to control the dream – for instance you can fly if you want to.

A meta analysis reported in 2016 that roughly about 55 per cent of people had at some stage had experienced a lucid dream and about 23 per cent regularly had them. There’s a whole array of different types. A kind of fleeting instance of lucidity is when you’re having a nightmare and become aware within the dream and tell yourself ‘It’s only a dream’, which allows you to wake up.

In other lucid dreams, you can become aware and you might say, OK, I’m going to fly, and then because the rules of gravity don’t exist when you’re having lucid dreams, you can actually fly.

Once I actually had one of my own experiences of a lucid dream where I decided to fly. However, I was also carrying a really, really heavy backpack, which I didn’t take off so I couldn’t fly properly – so you’re kind of limited by your own mind.

Benefits to mental health

There are different stages of sleep. There’s non-rapid eye movement (REM) sleep – we go through various stages of that and that basically means progressively going into deeper and deeper sleep.

And then we go into REM sleep – during this phase of sleep, as the name suggests, your eyes are fluttering. If you wake people during rapid eye movement sleep, 90 per cent are highly likely to report they were dreaming.

If you’re lucid you can potentially control the dream – and you might make your fears disappear.

There seems to be quite a few benefits associated with lucid dreaming and there is a relationship with mental health. Some research indicates that people who have greater control of their lucid dreams tend to suffer less depression and anxiety.

People who have greater frequency of lucid dreams also report higher life satisfaction.

Techniques for taking control

There are techniques and apps for training yourself for lucid dreaming, so it is potentially a learnable skill. One of the techniques is to utilise cues to help you recognise that you’re dreaming.

Train yourself: Rather than being terrified by a nightmare, you might engage with whatever is frightening you, says Dr Boag.

So for instance, if you jump while you’re awake, gravity pulls you down straight away. But if you jump while you’re dreaming, you might float for an instance and so you can recognise it’s a dream. If you test this regularly while you’re awake, you might also test this when dreaming.

With things like nightmares, you can train yourself to recognise that you’re dreaming, and then, rather than being terrified and running away from whatever it might be, you might engage with whatever is frightening you more creatively. So if you’re lucid you can potentially control the dream – and you might make your fears disappear.

One of the things that has occurred to me with lucid dreams and the pandemic and lockdown is that in some ways you’re not trapped by the confines of your apartment.

For someone with lucid dreams, the universe is there for you to explore in a dreaming virtual reality and so lucid dreaming is potentially an outlet. I can thus imagine there may be beneficial, positive of aspects of lucid dreaming during these strange times.

Dr Simon Boag is an Associate Professor in Macquarie University’s Department of Psychology.

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