Lucid dreaming, the act of realizing we're dreaming and exerting some control over both our actions and the narrative, is something many of us have experienced at one point or another. Most of the time these all-access tickets to the wilds of our imagination occur by chance. But what if you could improve the odds of turning every night into a choose-your-own-adventure trip down the rabbit hole?
A team of researchers studying lucid dreaming believe the psychological phenomenon is a skill that can both be learned and potentially fine-tuned for personal enrichment. In a new study published in the journal Dreaming, the team describes how they tested various combinations of induction techniques on a group of nearly 170 participants in Australia. The volunteers who applied all three techniques reported a 17 percent increase in lucid dreaming in as little as a week of practice.
"These dreams feel just as real as waking life," lead study author Denholm Aspy, a visiting research fellow in psychology at the University of Adelaide in Australia, told the Sydney Morning Herald. "All the senses are represented. Objects feel solid and real. You can taste, touch and smell."
Ready to boost your lucid dream potential? Here are three techniques to incorporate into your daily and evening routines:
1. Reality testing
Have you ever seen the movie "Inception" where the main characters have a personal token to check whether they're dreaming or not? This practice is similar, but instead of carrying something like a top around, you're putting your mind in the habit of testing reality through a variety of exercises. These include pausing to read printed text (text in dreams tends to morph into new words) or some physical anomaly, like willing two fingers to pass through the palm of your hand.
"In waking life, this discreet method always yields the same resistance," writes Rebecca Turner. "In a dream, willing my fingers to pass through my palm causes it to happen 90 percent of the time. Then I know... I'm dreaming."
2. Wake back to bed (WBTB)
Set an alarm to go off five hours after you fall asleep. Stay awake for at least 5 minutes and then go back to sleep to induce a REM cycle where dreams are more likely to happen. (Photo: ruigsantos/Shutterstock)
Grab an alarm clock and set it to go off after five hours of sleep. Stay awake briefly and then go back to sleep. This method supposedly induces a REM sleep period in which dreams are more likely to occur. This method is best achieved by staying awake anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes; just enough to become clear-headed and overcome any grogginess.
"You can use this time to read over your older dream journals and prepare your mind for a lucid dream," the site advises. "If you are particularly groggy, splash a little bit of water on your face (not too cold though), and do a bit of very light stretching."
3. Mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (MILD)
This technique involves the previous action, but adds a chant of intention to the mix. While briefly awake, the researchers advised participants to repeat the phrase, "Next time I'm dreaming, I will remember that I'm dreaming." They also were advised to simultaneously visualize becoming lucid in a dream.
According to the study, those who practiced the MILD technique and resumed sleep within five minutes of waking were able to experience a lucid dream 46 percent of the time.
"The MILD technique works on what we call ‘prospective memory’ — that is, your ability to remember to do things in the future," Dr. Aspy explained in a statement. "By repeating a phrase that you will remember you’re dreaming, it forms an intention in your mind that you will, in fact, remember that you are dreaming, leading to a lucid dream."
Lucid dreaming using the MILD approach, he notes, also did not impact the quality of sleep experienced by the participants. The hope is that by expanding the accessibility of the technique to more people, it might open new possibilities for learning hobbies or helping those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"These results take us one step closer to developing highly effective lucid dream induction techniques that will allow us to study the many potential benefits of lucid dreaming, such as treatment for nightmares and improvement of physical skills and abilities through rehearsal in the lucid dream environment," added Aspy.
Another study tested the effects of adding a medication to their nightly routine. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the Lucidity Institute in Hawaii gave participants various dosages of galantamine, an Alzheimer's drug that contains acetylcholinesterase inhibitors (AChEls). The inhibitors obstruct an enzyme that inactivates acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter believed to help regulate REM sleep.
For three consecutive nights, participants would wake up after 4.5 hours of sleep, take the medicine and stay awake for 30 minutes before falling back asleep using the MILD method. About 14 percent of participants reported having a lucid dream after taking a placebo. The number jumped to 27 percent after taking 4 mg and even higher to 42 percent after taking 8 mg.
"These results show that galantamine increases the frequency of lucid dreams in a dose-related manner," the study's authors wrote. "Furthermore, the integrated method of taking galantamine in the last third of the night with at least 30 minutes of sleep interruption and with an appropriately focused mental set is one of the most effective methods for inducing lucid dreams available today."
However, the study notes that more research is needed before to determine how safe it is to take galantamine for those who don't suffer from Alzheimer's.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in October 2017.