[For Esquire Magazine, May 2011]
You’ve been watching Inception haven’t you? Lucid dreams — in which you are aware that you’re only dreaming — occur naturally to most people a few times in their lives, especially before the age of eighteen. A moment of clarity arises where a person becomes aware it’s just a dream and then they typically wake up soon after. And it seems to be possible to induce this state.
Researchers have identified two types of lucid dreams: a dream-initiated lucid dream (DILD) that starts as a normal dream before you figure out it is a dream. The second is a wake initiated lucid dream (WILD). This occurs when you go from a normal waking state directly into a dream state, with no apparent lapse in consciousness.
The latter sounds a little too A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors for our liking, but if you are interested there are several ways to try and induce it. Here’s a simple trick that has been proven to be effective with practice. Get hold of a cheap digital watch — the kind that was popular in the Eighties — that you can set to beep on the hour, every hour.
Wear this throughout the day and every time you hear it beep, look at your hands and say to yourself, “I am clearly awake”. Then when you go to bed at night, put the watch on the table right next to you bed, as close as you can to your head so it’s audible. Throughout the night the watch will continue to beep, but not so loud that it will wake you up. You will, however, be able to hear it and at the right point of a sleep cycle (the REM state), it is likely that the real sound and your subconscious will work together and you will dream about hearing it beep.
Then look at your hands, as you did throughout the day. This is the key, as your hands are the things that often look strange and abnormal in dreams. It’s likely that through your Pavlovian conditioning you will look at your hands and realize you are not clearly awake. This is because you will often see fewer or more digits than there should be or your hands may not appear to be of a solid state.
By teaching yourself to regularly perform reality checks in dreams it becomes easier to determine when you are dreaming. Another good method for giving yourself a reality check in a dream is to turn on a light switch (light rarely alters in dreams) or look in a mirror (you will probably look blurred or unlike your real self). It also helps to get into the habit of remembering your dreams. Good recall is essential and writing them down as soon as you wake encourages this.
Once you’ve got that working, you’ll find you can recall the dream more easily. You may also want to up the level of dreaming. Vitamin B6 can increase dream vividness as can Ginkgo Biloba. Fish Oil also helps you recall dreams. Esquire can tell you from experience, however, that working your way through a wheel of strong cheese, half a bottle of single malt and Pan’s Labyrinth on DVD right before bed is not recommended.
Once within a lucid dream you find you wake up quite quickly after the point of clarity, but soon — and with practice — you will be able to extend it by remaining calm. Many find that spinning around — like a child would to make themselves dizzy — also helps prolong the dream. Once you stop spinning you’ll frequently find your location has changed. Soon you’ll be jumping higher than The Hulk, flying unaided and exploring your own dreams in a lucid state. Maybe.
Some lucid dreamers have claimed to have had outerbody experiences but this has never been scientifically proven. And incidentally, there’s an ongoing study into outer-body experiences at various hospitals. A bright, easily recognisable object is placed on top of a cabinet in the operating theatre. If people claim to have floated above themselves they are asked if they remember seeing this object. So far, nobody has identified it.
Psycho-physiologist Stephen LaBerge (a leader in the scientific study of lucid dreaming) has developed other devices to help users achieve the desired state. The NovaDreamer detects when you’re in REM sleep, then gives you a cue via flashing LED lights to remind you to recognise you are dreaming. The cues enter and becoming incorporated into your dream, just like the beep on the digital watch.
So yes, through trial and error, and ensuring the conditions are right, it is possible to spend short bursts of time controlling your own dreams.