Can you teach yourself to control your dreams? In search of "lucid dreaming."

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July 17 2009 10:23 AM

I Believe I Can Fly

Can I teach myself to control my dreams?

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

The history of dream interpretation goes back to the very earliest human civilizations—the ancient Greek diviner Artemidorus put together a five-volume treatise on the subject about 17 centuries before Freud—but I like to think that it's reached new heights this year at my apartment. My girlfriend, you see, has a gift. Every morning, without fail, she awakes with exhaustively detailed memories of multiple dreams—which, naturally, are a favorite topic of speculation and debate around the breakfast table.

Unfortunately, it's a one-sided conversation. I'm one of those people who almost never remembers his dreams. I know I have them—the alarm clock often jolts me out of a vivid scenario—but by the time I lurch out of bed, poof, they're gone. And a few months ago, I started to feel left out. What's going on in my head every night that I'm missing out on?

Some Google sleuthing yielded a couple of unappealing remedies. There's a pill that is supposed to boost dream recall—but it looks about as trustworthy as those "natural male enhancement" offers that clog my spam folder. More promising was the idea of a progressive-wake alarm clock, which gradually rouses you through lights and sounds that increase in intensity over the course of a half-hour. Apparently, this gentle awakening is better for remembering dreams than, say, the aggressive marimbas of my iPhone alarm. But at $70, I wasn't about to find out.

Besides, as often happens to me, I was beginning to be distracted from my initial goal in favor of a much more ambitious and quirky one. My dream-memory searches kept turning up something called "lucid dreaming"—the idea that some sleepers will become conscious during a dream and then actually be able to "control" the dream scenario. Imagine the possibilities! Numerous lucid dreamers report being able to fly at will; others describe a general feeling of euphoria and well-being. One woman experienced her first lucid dream as "a blissful sensation of blending and melting with colors and light" that grew in intensity, "opening up into a total orgasm." This I had to try!

The above description comes from Stephen LaBerge and Howard Rheingold's 1990 book Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming, which I picked up from the New Age section of my local Barnes & Noble one day. Between the book and a handful of Web sites, I cobbled together a three-step plan for lucid-dream mastery. I also set a goal: I decided that I would consider my experiment a success when I could will myself to take dream flight. Although, really, why stop there? Why not wing it over to Giza, Egypt, whack a few tennis balls against the pyramids, guzzle a bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild, and race dune buggies along the banks of the Nile?

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If this all sounds nuts—well, I was thinking the same thing. So I called up Jerome Siegel, the director of UCLA's Sleep Research Center and an expert in REM sleep behavior, to make sure I wasn't embarking on a fool's errand. Siegel said that while he had never experienced a lucid dream himself, he finds it plausible that some people do have them. "You can control your daydreams," he said. "Why not your night dreams?" That was good enough for me.

Step 1: Keep a Dream Journal
First, I had to achieve my initial goal of simply remembering my dreams—otherwise, how would I know whether I was having lucid episodes? (Plus, getting a handle on your typical dream subjects becomes useful for inciting lucidity—more on this later.) My reading suggested that I could ignore pharmaceuticals and expensive gadgets in favor of a much simpler method: keeping a bedside dream journal. So I installed a nice aqua-blue Moleskine notebook next to my pillow and set to work. The key, I discovered, is to write down dreams as soon as you wake up, before the usual parade of morning thoughts ("What's for breakfast?" "Would anyone notice if I wore the same shirt two days in a row?") elbow the fragile memories aside.

Lo and behold, it worked! Within a few weeks, I'd written down a dozen dreams—more than enough to finally hold my own at breakfast-table interpretation sessions. Before I knew it, I was ready to move on to more advanced stuff.

Step 2: Identify Dream Signs and Perform Reality Checks
This is where it starts to get tricky. In theory, the way to train yourself to become conscious during a dream is to get in the habit of regularly questioning whether you are awake or dreaming. At first, this feels stupid: Obviously, you know that you're awake. But the point is to make it a reflex, and particularly during situations that seem bizarre or surreal, since dreams are full of them. (I find that the New York City subway is an especially fertile testing ground.) Eventually, this questioning should happen while you're actually asleep—and, bam, you're lucid dreaming and can go about fulfilling your fantasies of sleeping with supermodels; punching out your boss; eating a really, really big pizza; or whatever.

Common reality checks include things like flipping a light switch on and off (apparently there's no artificial lighting in dreams); looking at a piece of text or a digital clock, looking away, and then looking back (in a dream, the letters or numbers should rearrange themselves); or simply pinching yourself. I picked what seemed like the least conspicuous test: looking carefully at my hand. According to wikiHow's impressively detailed instructions, a carefully studied dream hand will prove to have more or fewer than five fingers. Creepy, yes, but at least I could do this on the subway or in a meeting without looking like a lunatic.

While I got in the habit of testing reality, I also set about trying to identify my personal "dream signs." These are recurring circumstances or settings that you should pay particular attention to while awake. For instance, if you keep dreaming about elevators, then every time you get in an elevator during the day, you should perform a reality check—thereby increasing your chances of doing the same thing in a dream.

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