My initial urge is to believe everyone in this room is insane. Or at least willfully delusional.
I’m sitting in circle with about 20 people; men, women, some young, some old. Some look like hippies, some look like middle managers at accounting firms. We’re in a rented studio in the Kennington area in south London. I’m listening to a guy in his late 20s telling us how he can control things. He can walk through walls. He can fly. He can create worlds. And everyone around me in this studio is acting like what this guy is saying is just totally normal; like this is in no way crazy. At all. Maybe that’s because many of the people in this room claim to have similar powers.
But the thing is: All these people in this room—even the guy who’s saying he has god-like abilities—they actually can do all this stuff. There’s 30 years of scientific data that proves they can. That’s because the people in this room are lucid dreamers and this is a workshop being run by Charlie Morley, a European expert, author, and teacher of dream lucidity.
“Lucid dreaming is the art of becoming conscious within your dreams,” says Morley, whose latest book Lucid Dreaming: A Beginners Guide is a quick-start guide to lucid dreaming. “A lucid dream is one in which you realize, ‘Aha! I’m dreaming!’ while you’re still asleep. Once you become conscious within a dream, you can interact with and direct it at will, choosing to fly through the sky or more interestingly, interact with personifications of your own mind.”
Researchers still aren’t sure precisely what is going on in the mind during lucid dreaming, but it appears to be a hybrid state between REM sleep (the stage of sleep where we have the most vivid dreams) and being awake.
“In a lucid dream you’ve not woken up,” says Morley. “In fact, you’re still sound asleep but the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex part of the brain has reactivated, allowing you to experience the dream state consciously with self-reflective awareness. Once you know that you’re dreaming as you’re dreaming, you gain access to the most powerful virtual reality generator in existence: the mind.”
Sensations in a lucid dream feel just as they do in the real world, some members of the workshop tell me. During a lucid dream they can feel the sand of an exotic beach slip between their toes. They tell me how they can eat food and it tastes just as good as real-world food. They even tell me how they can have sex and it’s just as visceral and pleasurable as real sex is—indeed, many beginner lucid dreamers get into lucid dreaming for the sex.
But more than just being some kind of Inception-style pleasure garden dreamscape, the people in this workshop tell me how lucid dreaming has real-world benefits. They tell me how it’s helped them heal psychologically and physically. They tell me how it can be used to beat addictions. And they tell me how almost anyone, even me, can learn to do it.
Multiple studies suggest that, as far as our brains are concerned, “seeing is believing.” And as fMRI imagery has revealed, being in a lucid dream state is little different than being fully awake in the real world. Thus what the brain “sees” or experiences in a lucid dream can carry over to the waking world as well.
For example, if you can lucid dream and you decide to go on a run in order to train for that marathon you have coming up, that training you did in the dream can actually carry over to the physical world. Or if in the real world you are studying to become a painter you can spend time painting in your lucid dream and the talents you gain there will be available to you when you wake up.
I know that sounds farfetched, but it’s all possible thanks to a mind and body process known as neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to literally rewire itself in response to stimuli. It’s why we get better at repeated tasks. The marathon runner doesn’t only get better because her muscles grow, she gets better because her brain rewires itself to better control her body. Neuroplasticity makes the painter a better painter because the act of creating painting after painting causes his brain to rewire itself to be more attentive to colors and forms.
Using the brain to train your body is nothing new. Athletes have been using visualization training to improve their performance for decades. But Morley points out that simply imagining you’re doing something is nowhere near as effective as training to do something in a lucid dream.
“The results from lucid dream training are much greater than imaginary rehearsal because research shows that perception in lucid dreams is closer to waking perception than imagination is,” he says. In other words your brain knows when you’re just imagining something. But in a lucid dream your brain thinks you’re actually doing it, so the neuroplastic changes are more pronounced.
And the real-world benefits of lucid dreaming aren’t limited to athletics or arts training. People have used lucid dreaming to lose weight, treat post-traumatic stress disorders, confront phobias, and become more aware, attentive, and productive in the real world.
“I smoked for 14 years,” one lucid dreamer tells me. “Couldn’t give it up. I began smoking in my lucid dreams two years ago and haven’t had a cigarette during my waking hours since. I smoke every night in my dreams. I don’t need to do it anymore when I’m awake. What do you think of that?”
“Honestly, it sounds crazy,” I say before I can stop myself. Now I feel like a dick, so I try to clarify to soften the blow. “I mean, I read Charlie’s book before I came here. I’ve researched neuroplasticity in the past. I get the science. I just can’t imagine anything in a dream can feel like it does in the real world.”
The man smiles. “Neither did I. But try it for yourself.”
So I did.
After the workshop ends I’m invigorated. Being in a room with earnest people who speak of all of lucid dreaming’s benefits makes me feel like I’ve been wasting a third of my life by, well, sleeping regularly. And though I can’t imagine a dream feeling like reality, I decide to give it a try.
Morley has told me that some people, particularly those that dream a lot, have a good chance of having their first lucid dream within a few days of trying. I’m lucky in that I dream almost every night, so I’m hopeful I have a good shot at lucid dreaming, especially since Morley has been kind enough to tell me the best “beginners” approach to use.
The first key is to get your conscious mind receptive to paying attention to your dreams. This involves two things: making a dream plan and starting a dream journal. My dream plan is simply a short saying I repeat to myself while I’m laying in bed that night. “I intend to remember my dreams tonight” I say over and over. This is supposed to subconsciously prep my mind for dreaming the same way telling yourself you need to wake up at 6 a.m. for that meeting preps your mind to wake you up at that exact time.
I go to bed and I do dream. But I only realize it’s a dream when I wake up at 4 a.m. It wasn’t lucid. But I follow Morley’s second step: I write the dream down in my dream journal—just a notepad I’m keeping by my bed. Writing in a dream journal further opens your mind to not only being receptive to dreams, but to help you remember them.
I go back to bed hoping that since I wrote my previous dream down, I’ll recognize it as a dream if I continue dreaming it again. But when I wake up at 8 a.m. I don’t remember dreaming again.
The next night I step it up a notch. Morley calls this the “Wake, Back to Bed” approach. I set my alarm for two hours earlier than I normally get up—6 a.m. Based on sleep cycles, this should put me firmly in REM sleep territory, the best time for dreaming. If we interrupt this time by waking up we have a good chance to begin dreaming as soon as we fall asleep again. The key is you need to stay up for an hour to “starve” yourself of your dream time before you go back to bed, this makes your brain hungry for dreaming and allows you to quickly drift back into REM sleep, which is when vivid dreams happen.
I stay up for an hour, reading. I also tell myself that when I go back to bed I’ll realize I’m having a dream. This dream plan intention preps my mind for being open to lucidity. I go back to bed and I do dream about being in Lisbon, my favorite city. But I don’t realize it’s a dream when I’m having it.
After the second night I felt I was onto something. I just wasn’t prepared with a trigger. A “trigger” is something in our dream that can make us aware we are dreaming. A trigger can be anything out of the ordinary: seeing a dead relative, having sex with a celebrity, watching a blue monkey juggling minivans. These are things we know we wouldn’t be doing or seeing if we were awake.
When I dream my dreams usually always take place outside of London where I live, so a good trigger for me to be aware of is being anywhere outside of London. So before I go to bed I tell myself that if I’m suddenly somewhere outside of London it’s a sign I’m dreaming.
But your trigger only reveals you may be dreaming. To confirm it you need a tell. A tell is something you can check to see if it acts and looks as it does in the real world. It’s the tell that will often transition you from a pre-lucid state to a full-on lucid dream.
In the pre-lucid state the mind often has no trouble conjuring up the big things—people, streets, entire cities—but is has problems with the little details. Morley says that if you recognize a trigger, confirm you’re dreaming by looking at the front of your hand and then the back. In a pre-lucid dream you’ll often see your hand grow extra fingers or change shape. Alternately you could try to read text (in a dream the text will often change while you’re reading it). This is a clear sign you’re having a dream and this awareness will often snap you into a lucid dream state.
When I go to bed I find myself in Lisbon again. I’m back at the flat I rented last summer. I’m so happy, I love it here. The window is open and I’m watching swallows play in the warm breeze. But then I remember it’s February and I should be in London. I look down at my hand and flip it over. It’s extra hairy and kind of wrinkled.
“Oh my god!” I think. “I’m dreaming. And I know I’m dreaming. I’m having a lucid dream! Eureka! Time to grab a Portuguese girl and go to the beach! This is so…”
But then I wake up in my bed in London. My first lucid dream lasted all of five seconds.
I’m at a loss of words to describe how it felt to discover I was dreaming while I was dreaming. But my reaction to the epiphany that I was lucid dreaming was also my downfall. I got too excited, which acts like an eject button. Most first-time lucid dreamers will get over-excited while they’re dreaming, thus waking themselves up before they can do anything.
So the next day I don’t think about lucid dreaming. Instead I think about Lisbon and the flat I love and my plans to go back this summer. And when I do go to bed that night I do dream of Lisbon again, and then I realize I should be in London and I try to read a street sign but it changes its text as I’m reading it. And within seconds I know I’m dreaming again, but I stay calm and don’t think about my lucid dream achievement; instead I think of Lisbon and how I love walking its streets and I make up my mind to walk to the Campo Pequeno bullring. The street’s pavement is hard beneath my feet. The air is warm. The blue sky is bright with sun. And for the 15 or 20 seconds I manage to walk I’ve never felt so at one with things. I’m asleep but I’m not. I’m in Lisbon but I’m not.
And I wake in my bed with a smile on my face.
Though the practice of lucid dreaming has been around for over 3,000 years, the science of it is still in its infancy. My total lucid dream time is less than 60 seconds, but I’m now a believer in its efficacy. All I’ve done so far is used it to stroll around my favorite city, but doing so felt just as real to me as sitting here typing this article does now.
Though I’ve not used it to give up smoking or to train for a marathon I now understand how smoking or training in a lucid dream can feel just as real as it does during our waking hours. And that’s to say nothing of its abilities to enable people to realistically confront their fears in the safety of their own minds. But more than that, my brief experience in lucid dreaming got me thinking about how much more living we could all do if we could actively partake in our dreams while our bodies sleep.
We spend roughly a third of our lives asleep. If you consider the average life-span of a person in the United States is just shy of 80 years that means a full 26 years of our lives pass us by unnoticed. That’s not to say those are 26 wasted years, of course. After all, sleep is essential to life and without it we couldn’t survive for long.
But what if we could harness the two or three hours a night when we actively dream? What could we achieve if we could take back 10 years of productivity time by learning to lucid dream, so when our bodies are resting our minds are still actively exploring, learning, and growing?
If the accomplishments of some of the people I met at the workshop are any indication, the answer may only be limited by what the mind can dream up.