Lucid Dreaming: How It Works

by Eli Hendel, M.D. Medical Reviewer

Imagine a dream that you can control. Lucid dreaming is when you are aware that you’re dreaming and, to a certain extent, you’re able to control the development of the dream. Because dreams are an integral part of your emotional stability, mastering “the art” of lucid dreaming has possible therapeutic potential.

The earliest study done on the subject was by Stephen LaBerge at Stanford University Sleep Research Center in 1980. In the study, he was able to demonstrate that time perception is the same during dreams as it is during wakefulness. Over the years, he developed and solidified his research into a concise program called “The Lucidity Institute.” The program has received praise as well as criticism, but it is worthy of some observations.

How can lucid dreaming help us?

LaBerge claims that if we can maintain awareness during the time of dreams and then learn to alter the contents of the dream, we can do much to conquer our fears and alter their impact, especially the anxiety that daily events can cause us. If you know you are experiencing a dream, then the rules of the “real world” no longer apply and you are free to do “impossible things” (like change the dream script or the outcome). Some experts claim that lucid dreaming has the potential for promoting personal growth and self-development, enhancing self-confidence, and facilitating creative problem-solving.

It’s been suggested that trying to manipulate one’s dreams can have some less-than-optimal consequences. A bad dream is a symptom of something upsetting, so some believe that we should pay attention to the matter rather than attempt, through dream manipulation, to avoid it. A bad dream can represent conflict that was not resolved during your waking hours, and conflict should be faced and managed or resolved. The therapeutic goal of dreaming is to manage stress and conflict so you’re not left with emotional instability. That means that a bad dream has a purpose, and altering the dream could have a negative outcome.

When a particular nightmare is recurring and disruptive, there is a role for lucid dreaming in the sense that manipulating the ending of the nightmare may reduce the emotional effects, especially the disruptive impact on the person during waking hours.

Another psychological technique similar to lucid dreaming is called “narrative therapy.” The goal of this therapy is to reduce the impact that the bad dream has, typically on depression and other problems, in waking life. This technique involves remembering the dream, and then having conversations about the distressing contents of the bad dream.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in which the same frightening experience keeps occurring through a dream is perhaps the best example of when lucid dreaming may have therapeutic use. In this case, the therapy involves conscious reenactment of this (nightmarish) dream with an attempt to alter the ending to remove the anxiety-provoking element of the dream. This technique is called imagery-rehearsal therapy.

Lucid dreaming and your brain

Extensive research has been done on a particular part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, that may play an important role in lucid dreaming. This area of the brain also appears to play important roles in the many cognitive processes that the brain performs. It serves to oversee executive functions, and plays a role in the working memory. The pre-frontal cortex is also involved in planning, organization and regulation of brain activity; it is involved in moral decision making. A great amount of research has been done on individuals with criminal behavior to identify those who have “rehabilitative potential.”

Functional MRIs can capture the activity of the pre-frontal cortex during periods of stress — for example, in a threatening situation. During dreams that are instigated by this anxiety-provoking situation, this same threatening situation produces less lasting anxiety, which means it is an optimal time to manipulate the scene playing out during the dream for a better resolution.

If an individual can master lucid dreaming, they may have the opportunity to reduce the excess anxiety that often persists with repeated bad dreams. You resolve the anxiety-provoking dreams by directing the new ending.

How do you learn to dream lucidly?

There are several conditions of clarity that are necessary during a dream in order to “convert it” into a lucid dream:

  • Awareness of a dream state

  • Awareness of the capacity to make decisions

  • Awareness of memory functions

  • Awareness of the meaning of the dream

  • Awareness of concentration and focus

Clearly, it takes training to develop these awareness skills.

In the first part of LaBerge’s program, individuals are trained to form the habit of examining the environment that accompanies a state of awareness during the day. Someone who is a lucid dreamer develops a much higher level of awareness and it is this newly developed hyper-awareness that is credited with improving working memory. The program is based on the hope that these new mental habits routinely practiced during the day can continue in the dream phase at night. The second part of the program is to consistently remind yourself as you are falling asleep that when you dream, you realize that you are dreaming.

For the program to be effective, you also need to get enough sleep consistently. Sleep deprivation results in a lower proportion of REM phase sleep. It takes at least 90 minutes to enter REM from the start of sleep, and then the REM phase only lasts a few minutes. Then there needs to be another cycle before REM occurs again.

Because REM is often called "wakeful sleep," it is the ideal time to manipulate dreams or to utilize the lucid dreaming technique. That’s one of the more critical roles that adequate hours of sleep plays in this program: You need enough REM phases to complete the dream and its manipulation.

The bottom line

Lucid dreaming is just one example of the potential ways that more research can help to reveal opportunities to manipulate components of sleep; and doing say may help treat or reverse certain psychological and even physical conditions.

Eli Hendel, M.D.
Meet Our Writer
Eli Hendel, M.D.

Eli Hendel, M.D., is a board-certified internist/pulmonary specialist with board certification in Sleep Medicine. An Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at Keck-University of Southern California School of Medicine, and Qualified Medical Examiner for the State of California Department of Industrial Relations, his areas include asthma, COPD, sleep disorders, obstructive sleep apnea, and occupational lung diseases. Favorite hobby? Playing jazz music.