If you’ve ever wished you had the power to control your dreams, a process called lucid dreaming, you’ve now got a good reason to try—not that it wouldn’t be nice to be able to put on some clothes the next time you find yourself unexpectedly naked while you’re making an important presentation. Researchers have found that lucid dreamers have greater psychological resilience and attentional focus, as well as higher levels of activity in an area of the brain that indicates self-awareness.
Lucid dreaming is “the experience of being aware that one is, in fact, dreaming,” says Kendle Hassinger, a dream expert and psychotherapist at the Emory Clinic in Atlanta. Achieving that state can lead to actually being able to control what happens next in the dream.
Most dreaming takes place during the rapid eye movement, or REM, phase of sleep, a period when the parts of the brain that control rational thought and action become dormant—“which is why dreams seem so bizarre,” says Lauri Loewenberg, the author of Dream on It. After each cycle of dreaming throughout the night, the rational parts of the brain reactivate, which often jars the sleeper into a semiwakeful state. “However, once in a while, this part of the prefrontal cortex will only slightly activate, which allows for lucidity while still in REM,” Loewenberg says.
That means your conscious mind wakes up, enabling you to control the symbols and metaphors within your dream, create new ones to play with, or have a conversation with your subconscious mind. While that can be a chance to have fun—to go soaring over the city or stage a romantic encounter with your favorite movie star—it can also be a powerful tool for self-discovery.
In one of Loewenberg’s own lucid dreams, she walked through her childhood home and encountered a strange-looking woman with undefined features and alien eyes, who told her, “You need to paint.” Loewenberg had been a painter early in life but had given up her artistic ambitions.
“This nondescript person in my dream represents my artistic self. It’s nondescript because I don’t work with it, and the alien eyes represent the fact that painting seems like a whole other world to me now,” she says. “But what she told me is what was most important.”
How can you learn more from your dreams? Once you realize you’re dreaming, if there is a character in front of you, know that it represents a part of you and ask it a question, says Loewenberg. Or, if you’re alone, just make someone up.
“Put Yoda, or Einstein, Gandhi—or, heck, even Brad Pitt —before you, and ask this character a question you need to know: ‘How do I get along better with my mother-in-law?’ or, ‘Why is it I can’t stop drinking?’ or even, ‘What is the meaning of life?’”
Who better to deliver the message than the man of your dreams?
Some people can control their dreams naturally, but anyone can increase the capability for lucid dreaming with practice, says Kendle Hassinger. Try these steps to get more from your dreams:
Improve your dream recall. Keep a notebook on your nightstand and record any memories, thoughts, feelings, or impressions as soon as you wake up. The more familiar you are with your dream landscape and common themes, the easier it will be to recognize you are dreaming.
Ask yourself several times during the day, “Am I awake or am I dreaming? How can I tell?” While the exercise may seem silly, it develops mindfulness about internal and external experiences.
Create a prompt: each time you look at a certain object during the day, such as your right hand or a clock, deliberately evaluate your waking state. When that object later appears in a dream, it may then trigger your mind to ask itself whether you’re awake or dreaming.
Focus on recognizing dream signs. If you notice something bizarre, like you’re flying, or having a conversation with a hat, try to ask yourself, “Am I dreaming?