Can we learn to control our dreams?

Some research points to ways in which we can influence the experiences we have in our sleep and find practical applications for them

Karelia Vázquez
Controlar sueños
'The Dream' (1912), by Franz Marc (1880-1916).Peter Horree (Alamy / Cordon Press)

Choose an argument each night. Write the script following the laws of dramaturgy. Build more or less solid characters. Enter and exit the plot at will. And all this while you sleep, dreaming as though you were awake. The utopia of controlling our dreams has never been so close.

When we are aware that we are dreaming while dreaming, we are having a lucid dream. Science says that the ability to have intense dreams while remaining aware that we are dreaming can be induced and even trained. YouTube has plenty of tutorials assuring viewers that they can learn how to dream consciously in four easy steps. Psychologist Montse Fernández estimates that it would take at least six months of training to achieve a certain degree of consciousness in dreams.

The first reference to lucid dreams is found in Aristotle’s treatises on dreams. Today we know that almost all of us, in one way or another, have dreamed like this at some point. The numbers vary depending on the study. The research work “Is It a Good Idea to Cultivate Lucid Dreaming?” published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2019, points out that throughout life people have at least one lucid dream, while 11% experience one or two every month.

In 2017, a research team from the universities of Mannheim and Heidelberg, both in Germany, estimated that 51% of the population had had very vivid dream experiences, and 20% of them had them once a month. The research pointed out that from the age of three or four, children begin to experience many lucid dreams were, then in adolescence they begin to decline, and from the age of 25 they almost disappear.

But how and when do we have lucid dreams? An article in Medical News Today published in March brought together several testimonials. One lucid dreamer reported that the episode often occurred when he was waking up or trying to go back to sleep after a brief awakening. He said he was so trained that he could choose “on a whim” the realism and intensity of his dreams, as long as he was still in that limbo state between sleep and wakefulness. Other people reported that they woke up immediately when they became aware that they were dreaming, while others said that this was the time to manipulate the narrative of their dreams, and change plots and characters to improve the ending. Like most dreams, lucid experiences occur during REM sleep, when rapid eye movement occurs.

Determining whether these people were completely asleep when they experienced these levels of lucidity has been one of the most controversial points of research. In the 1970s, Professor Stephen LaBerge, a psychophysiologist at Stanford University, was on the skeptical side, but years later he found several lucid dreamers willing to sleep in his laboratory with sensors attached to their bodies, including their eyelids. The experiment, published in Nature Communications in 2018, showed that these people were able to obey simple commands by making eye movements without waking up. In the bed the body was still asleep, but in the territory of dreams things were happening: the eyes moved quickly to execute the scientists' orders. In a 2021 study by Karen Konkoly, a researcher at Northwestern University, lucid dreamers were able to solve a simple math problem while they slept.

In 2023 we have entered another phase: can we learn to have lucid dreams? Is it possible to train ourselves to make them more frequent? Will we be able to control the plot? Montse Fernández, who directs the AWEN Psychology Center in Barcelona, explains by phone that during a lucid dream a dissociation is created: on the one hand, the mind is living an experience, on the other the body knows that it is safe, in bed. “There is awareness of that dissociation and you direct your own film. Let’s say that there are two levels in this technique, the first is being conscious during dreaming, the second is being able to direct the contents of the dream towards objectives, for example, curing a phobia or unblocking a fear.”

The largest study on the subject, The International Lucid Dream Induction Study, answers some of these questions with a more or less resounding yes. Its coordinator Denholm Aspy, a researcher at the University of Adelaide (Australia), tested the effectiveness of five lucid dream induction techniques. Curiously, that the most effective ones all required waking the sleeper in their fifth hour of sleep, and then trying to get them to go back to sleep.

Our fascination with lucid dreams is not just intellectual curiosity: researchers have found practical applications for them, such as those demonstrated in the study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences in 2016 that made the people in the experiment throw darts during a lucid dream; the volunteers reportedly improved their performance when they practiced awake. In other research, therapy during a lucid dream episode was shown to be effective in relieving persistent nightmares, those that recur at least once a week, a disorder that affects 6% of adults.

LaBerge is convinced that awareness that we are dreaming while dreaming is a skill that can and should be worked on. To control dreams, he proposes three techniques. The first, keep a dream journal where, upon awakening, everything you dreamed is described in detail. “Even if you think you never dream, give yourself time. You are a dreamer. We all are,” writes the professor by email. His theory is that remembering dreams is a skill that improves with daily practice.

The second technique is to pay attention and be aware of the topics and people that show up in our dreams, especially those that do not respond to logical reasoning. For example, that boy in your third-grade class whom you have not seen again since. According to the professor, these are useful signs to know that you are dreaming because they are not elements of your life when you are awake. Finally, LaBerge recommends setting an intention, for example, telling yourself: tonight when the third grader shows up I’ll know I’m dreaming.

In his macro-study, Denholm Aspy warns that the ability to enter a lucid dream depends on factors as diverse as the time we spend sleeping, the energy we spend remembering what we dreamed of (this improves with practice), and our diet (in some studies , choline-rich foods such as eggs, salmon, cod and or Brussels sprouts increased the frequency of these types of dreams).

In his experiments, people with frequent lucid dreams are also those who can best remember what they dream. Meditation and mindfulness seem to promote lucid dreaming. The idea is that the more attentive we are during the day, the more likely we are to identify that we are dreaming while we sleep. Montse Fernández has not yet treated any patients through a lucid dream, but she does make them write down their dreams. “It’s a powerful tool for detecting patterns,” she says. “Any exercise that allows you to be more present is a good training to dream consciously.” The psychologist encourages people to be mindful for 15 minutes and cites a phrase widely used among veteran dreamers: to be lucid at night, you have to be lucid during the day.

If we consider that we spend a third of our lives sleeping, and that we dream every night for two hours, it doesn’t seem like a bad idea to make an effort to find out what is happening to us during all that time.

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