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

Arts, entertainment, and more.
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?

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.

Initially, my dreams didn't seem to have much in common, except perhaps a somewhat depressing number of pop-culture references. (In my first recorded dream, I was attending a day camp aboard a Star Trek-style spaceship; in another, I was studying photos of Elvis—only to realize that his signature hairdo was actually a toupee!) I did find one genuine dream sign, however: bathrobes. More than once, I had variations of the classic naked-in-the-classroom anxiety dream that involved me being out in public in just a bathrobe. But let's not think too hard about what that means and move on to the final, and most challenging, step.

Step 3: Redistribute Your Sleep
For the first month or so of my experiment, everything was going according to plan—I was writing down dreams in my journal and performing regular reality checks. But I still hadn't experienced the slightest hint of lucidity. And as the weeks wore on, my resolve started to slacken. Work became unusually busy and I began neglecting my dream journal, forgetting to do the reality checks, and generally feeling frustrated with the whole experiment. Lucid dreaming seemed destined to join my personal graveyard of overambitious projects: the theremin I tried to build after high school, the novel I tried to write after college, the 100 pushups program I've been trying to follow for the past several months.

I was also, frankly, avoiding Step 3. According to LaBerge and Rheingold, the most reliable method for inducing a lucid dream is to "redistribute" your sleep. It works like this: Set an alarm to wake you two hours earlier than normal, "go about your business" for those two hours, and finally go back to sleep for at least two more hours. The idea is that this delayed final stretch of sleep is particularly rich with REM activity. When I called up professor Siegel at UCLA, he confirmed that this method had some validity—late-morning dreams are typically the longest and most intense.

But, man, what a hassle. I finally worked up the motivation to try it one Tuesday night, setting my alarm for 4 a.m. (ugh). The next morning, after a good half-hour of riding the snooze button, I dragged myself out of bed and proceeded to putter about the house in the dark. But without my usual two cups of coffee—which I figured would prevent me from going back to sleep later—I couldn't manage to do much other than stare at the wall, unload half the dishwasher, and aimlessly surf the Internet.

Jumping back into bed at 6 was bliss. And waking up to full sunshine at 8 felt wonderfully lazy. If I could actually do some work during those first two hours, I think I could get used to this schedule—it combines early-a.m. productivity with the delicious feeling of sleeping in. Getting out of bed twice in one morning, however, is a bitch. (I was also a good 20 minutes late for work.) As for the dreams, I definitely felt as if I had more of them during the delayed sleep—but, alas, none were lucid.

For the next two mornings, I tried, and failed, to rouse myself again at 4 a.m. Finally, the weekend rolled around and my schedule allowed a little more flexibility. On Sunday morning, I woke myself up at 6, did some reading and light housework, and then spent several minutes, as LaBerge and Rheingold suggest, picturing myself having a lucid dream. I closed my eyes and imagined stepping off a dining-room chair—but instead of landing on the floor, I hover midair, levitating around the room like David Blaine.

At 8, I crawled back in bed and drifted into a light sleep. Like last time, the delayed sleep was rich with dreams. In one, I'm walking up a path into the lobby of an old apartment building, but the door is blocked by a couple in the midst of a heavy make-out session. Oops. I walk to the next building—this one is definitely where I live—but as I'm going for the door, a very tall man grabs my shoulder and spins me around. Behind him is another, even taller man. They're accosting me for some reason that is obscure now. But in the dream, instead of being threatening, the men seem silly. So silly, in fact, that the situation finally trips my reality-check reflex. I don't need to stare at my hand: Obviously, I'm dreaming. This is it! I look at the very tall man in front of me and I think: Now's your chance—take flight! And, sure enough, I begin slowly to float up off the ground, until I'm up to the tall man's shoulders, and then to his face, and then I'm looking down at him from above. I feel a suffusing sense of giddiness, a kind of euphoria even, as I rise up into the sky, accelerating rapidly, the ground disappearing far below me.

And then I woke up. I tried to go back to sleep, to get back to the dream, but it was impossible—I was wide awake. I felt great, too. And now I can happily report that this lucid dreaming thing is for real, although it's not exactly as I imagined it. I felt capable of moving about within the dream—and taking flight was easy, natural even—but it wasn't as if I could suddenly plant myself in the final seconds of the Super Bowl and mount a game-winning drive or steal a car and go joyriding along the coast. It was a much more diffuse feeling, closer to an out-of-body experience than hanging out on the holodeck.

Granted, I'm still an amateur. Despite my high hopes to the contrary, in the weeks since that first lucid dream, I have failed to experience any new episodes. I'm largely to blame: I haven't managed to drag myself out of bed early enough to repeat the experiment under ideal conditions. And, frankly, it doesn't seem worth it. Lucid dreaming was nice, and maybe it gets better, but it hardly seems like something that's warrants rearranging your life.

Later on the same morning of my brief lucid dream, I downloaded Bob Dylan's new album. In the song "I Feel a Change Comin' On," Dylan neatly sums up my attitude toward the whole experience.

Well now, what's the use in dreamin'?
You got better things to do.
Dreams never did work for me anyway.
Even when they did come true.

Mason Currey is the author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.