When I was a kid I used to have this recurring nightmare. In it, I was at a party and everyone I knew was there. Then, out of nowhere, I’d look around and it would hit me: Something was wrong. This gothic, sprawling mansion wasn’t my house. I must be asleep.
Feeling disoriented, I’d turn to someone and whisper. “This isn’t real. We’re in a dream!”
And the person, who looked very much like someone I knew and loved, would look back at me — voice dropping an octave. “No, it isn’t, Allison.”
Then their eyes would flash red — just for a moment — and they’d turn back to whoever they were talking to. The room looked just like before. Only now I was filled with complete terror. I knew I was dreaming but I couldn’t figure out how to wake up.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was having my first lucid dreams.
“Lucid dreaming, scientifically defined, is simply the moment that you become aware that you are dreaming whilst you’re dreaming,” sleep expert Matthew Walker tells me.
He goes on to say that colloquially most people believe that being lucid means you can manipulate the dream, but he insists that just recognizing that I was in a sleep state made me a natural lucid dreamer. Walker is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, founder of the Center for Human Sleep Science, and author of a best-selling book about sleep and dreaming called Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams.
Considering that he’s an expert on many aspects of the connection between sleep and wellness, lucidity included, I knew Walker would be able to help me understand why I have lucid dreams and hoped he could even help me control them. These days about half of my lucid dreams are nightmares similar to the one I had as a child. The others are sex dreams. Those are more fun, by far. But what they have in common is that in either case, I’ve never actually been able to exert any control while I’m dreaming. And who doesn’t want to be able to do that? You could blink yourself to the beach or some other relaxing reality.
But even more important than my fantasies and my curiosity about my own lucid dreams was this: Walker has said in interviews and papers that he believes sleep itself is a form of therapy. He’s found in his research that sleep and the dream state (or lack thereof), connects to our mood and mental health. He believes that through our dreams, we work through emotions, making us better able to process them in the daytime.
“The theory,” he says, “is that dream sleep is a remarkable state because it’s the only time during the 24-hour period where the brain shuts off a stress chemical called noradrenaline.”
Noradrenaline can trigger anxiety. But during REM sleep our brain lets go of it. Walker believes that it’s this state of sleep which allows us to process and heal from the events of the day without being flooded by anxiety and fear.
“During dream sleep we actually reactivate emotional memories that we’ve experienced,” he says. “Like difficult scenarios or traumatic memories. But we’re replaying memories in a brain state that is devoid of this stress chemistry.”
Healing anxiety while sleeping? Sign. Me. Up.
Walker’s research shows that dreaming can actually enhance creativity and problem-solving too. And reading that made me wonder: If more sleep could be a therapeutic tool to help solve my issues with anxiety and increase my creativity, what would more lucid dreaming do? Maybe I could use these two ideas together to open a door to a happier me. A me who floated through the world without stress and anxiety.
It felt like a good idea at least.
“We don’t know if lucid dreamers necessarily have any better mental health than non-lucid dreamers,” Walker said, when I explained my theory. “It hasn’t been tested. But you could put forward the hypothesis that if you gain control of your dreams, then maybe you could direct that emotional overnight therapy that I described, that form of emotional first aid, where you need it most.”
That little bit of encouragement was all I needed. I decided to test out my theory — assuming that one day, entire universities would study me for sleeping my way to happiness and success. If I could actually control my lucid dreams, that is.
On our next call, Walker told me about a study that proved lucid dreamers have control while sleeping.
“The study gives objective evidence that when a lucid dreamer says that they are doing something in their sleep that they’ve gained control and they’re willfully doing something that they want to,” Walker explains.
I already knew I was able to lucid dream and, after talking to Walker, I knew that people can control those dreams if they know how. The next problem was that my lucid dreams come pretty randomly. I had to ensure I would actually have one in order to experiment with it.
The first technique I tried to achieve lucid dreaming was to do a bunch of reality checks during the daytime. You’re supposed to look at your hands and try poking a finger through the center of them throughout the day. In dreams, you can do it. In real life, not so much.
For a few days, I started asking myself if I was dreaming a lot and touching my hands to see if they melted. They never did, so I’m pretty sure I knew I was awake when I was awake. Unfortunately, when I went to sleep, I never seemed to get to the place where I’d ask myself the same question.
The next step was to put intention behind your dreaming before falling asleep. I started repeating the mantra, “I’m going to lucid dream tonight; I’m going to know I’m dreaming.”
That didn’t work either. But it did annoy my partner.
The third technique I tried in order to will myself to lucid dreaming was to keep a dream journal. This went okay. It turns out, my handwriting isn’t great at 2 AM directly after a dream. I was only ever able to pick out a few words the next morning. “Apartment, Science, Worms, My elementary school,” was what one night’s notes said. Another morning my notebook said “BRUJA” in all caps. Bruja is a witch in Spanish, a language I do not speak.
This thoroughly scared me. And I still hadn’t had one lucid dream.
My last hope was trying an app that focussed on a series of meditations that you’re supposed to do before bed. As I fell asleep, with headphones in, a hollow voice coaxed me toward the darkness. It was weird; like being hypnotized.
It worked though. I had my most lucid dream of the whole experiment. Because brains are strange, my dream blended the nightly news and a ’90s TV show. I woke up from that dream and grabbed my pen and paper to write it down. But I had an eerie feeling. I looked around my room, then I looked down at my hands to do my reality check. They were blurry.
“Oh! I’m dreaming right now,” I thought. I even remembered why I was writing down my dreams while dreaming. I was fully in control.
Okay. So here should be the part where I decide to use lucid dreaming to do something cool, like take a walk on the moon. Or better yet, where I did what I set out to: opening a secret door that revealed all of my issues, ready to wake up confident after having faced my fears and anxieties.
I’d like to say that’s what happened; that this lucid dream fixed me. But while I was lucid and in control of my actions, I forgot that I was supposed to do all of those things. Instead, I took the opportunity to sit down, while dreaming, and make an outline for this article.
I kid you not, I realized I was dreaming and thought, “the best use of my time is to get a little work done.” I conjured myself a legal pad and started jotting. It’s a bit of a lame ending, I know. But I don’t think the whole thing was a failure. I set out to use lucid dreaming to help combat my issues — the biggest of which is anxiety. And you know what I was most anxious about this week? Getting my article about lucid dreaming done.
Well, goal achieved. When I woke up, I felt better about this piece. I had more direction. I couldn’t remember the outline I’d jotted while lucid dreaming, but I was able to outline the piece in a matter of minutes the next morning. It was — at the very least — a mild success.
So, when we have a problem should we all try to lucid dream our way out of it? Matthew Walker isn’t so sure.
“I think it’s an interesting idea,” he says. “The only danger I think is that Mother Nature has spent 3.6 million years putting this thing called sleep, including REM sleep dreaming, in place. My suspicion is that she understood exactly the type of algorithm needed and cherry picking emotional experiences that need to be processed during sleep at night, and to think that we ourselves through our hubris have the ability to select in a more nuanced way which things should be processed or not, is probably a mistake.”
Ouch. I was silent for a moment, realizing that I hadn’t managed to revolutionalize sleep science after all.
“But… who knows?” Walker added.
I clearly don’t. What I do know is that while dreaming I managed to tackle an issue I was nervous about. And even though using lucid dreaming to outline an article is way more boring than using it to act out some wild fantasy, I have to say: It did make me feel less anxious. And no one looked at me with flashing red eyes. Those are wins as far as I’m concerned.