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15 Lucid Dreaming Facts That Will Make You Question Reality

Are you sure you aren't dreaming right now?

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Every night, our brain constructs a reality that's completely separate from the outside world. Usually, the dream experience feels so real that we don't realize it's actually a dream until we wake up. But sometimes, people become aware that they're dreaming during a dream — and from there, they have the ability to control and bend their dream reality.

Lucid dreaming sounds like something from a sci-fi movie, but it's totally real. So how and why does it happen? We reached out to two experts, Susana Martinez-Conde, Ph.D., professor and director of the Laboratory of Integrative Neuroscience at SUNY Medical Center, and the "Sleep Doctor" Michael Breus, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, to find out.

1. A lucid dream starts out just like any normal dream.

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Dreams are unconscious visual manifestations of information and memories that are already floating around in our heads. That's why all the imagery in our dreams is familiar. There can technically be new characters or places in a dream, but they're really an amalgamation of things you've already seen before, says Breus.

The neural mechanisms that allow our brain to "see" our dream reality are probably the same ones at work when we imagine the future. The only difference is that in our dreams, it seems like what we're "seeing" is reality. "Dreams are illusions — we are seeing a reality which doesn't exist but we also can't tell the difference between this and actual reality," Martinez-Conde says.

2. But when you start to lucid dream, you suddenly become aware of the fact that your dream world isn't real.

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And when you become aware or "lucid," you can then control and manipulate aspects of the dream reality, says Breus.

Lucid dreaming was first described in 1913 by Dutch psychiatrist Frederick Van Eeden to recount a dream in which he could act voluntarily and had full awareness of his waking life — but he was still so deeply asleep that no external stimuli or bodily sensations entered his dream perception.

That's what makes a lucid dream different from a hallucination — your physical body is in deep sleep and can't actually feel anything you do, even though you're aware and have control.

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3. Scientists aren't sure what triggers you to realize you're dreaming and become lucid.

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Studies show that brain waves look pretty much the same in people who report lucid dreaming compared to their normal dreams, Breus explains. So it's hard to pinpoint which specific mechanisms or parts of the brain are at work during a lucid dream. And obviously lucid dreaming is hard to study since it relies totally on self-reporting after you wake up.

"Studies haven't observed a significant enough increase in heart rate or breathing to demonstrate a physical change in the body during lucid dreams," Breus says. But the experts agree that whatever triggers a person to become lucid is definitely from within the brain, and not an external stimulus. Some studies suggest that lucid dreaming could be due to an overactive frontal cortex during sleep, but this hasn't been proven yet.

4. Lucid dreaming most likely happens during the REM sleep stage.

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Most dreaming happens during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, when the brain is most active and working to process short-term memories into long-term memories, says Breus. During REM, voluntary muscles are "paralyzed," but the eyes move rapidly as you respond to images (which may be a protective mechanism so we don't act out our dreams and accidentally walk off a cliff).

Researchers have tried to observe lucid dreaming by measuring eye movements and looking for a stereotypical pattern among lucid dreamers, says Martinez-Conde. This way, subjects could technically "signal" lucidity to researchers with specific eye movements, so the researchers don't have to rely on self reports after subjects wake up. More research is needed on this, but it still seems most plausible that lucid dreaming would happen during REM sleep, when you have your most vivid and intense dreams.

5. Lucid dreams aren't the same as nightmares.

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If you've ever had a nightmare in which you start to realize you aren't actually in danger right before you wake up — that's not a lucid dream. "What makes a nightmare so scary is the lack of control, and it's a natural process driven by emotions and stress," Breus says. So when you wake up from a nightmare right before you're about to get attacked, that's actually your increased heart rate and breathing from the stress of the nightmare bringing you out of sleep.

The reason you can stay conscious for so long in a lucid dream is because the realization is more of a relaxed, "OK, I'm in a dream, cool" consciousness without the big dramatic shift that happens when you come out of a nightmare, Martinez says.

6. About half the population has experienced lucid dreaming, and most people start at a young age.

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According to a popular German study, researchers found that about 51% of people have experienced a lucid dream at least once. "We aren't sure how many of those people are frequent or regular lucid dreamers and how long episodes last," says Breus. And since lucid dreaming relies on self-reporting, it's probably underreported.

Lucid dreaming can happen at any point during life, Breus says, but like most sleep phenomenons and disorders, it usually begins during childhood or adolescence. However, it is easier to study lucid dreaming in adults, since a child might lack the necessary cognitive skills to explain or reflect on it.

7. There isn’t a known cause, but it might be linked to being more introspective or having more gray matter in your brain.

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"Studies have shown that people who are more reflective or introspective about their inner thought are more prone to lucid dreams than others," says Martinez-Conde. There's some data showing that people who can lucid dream tend to also have higher metacognitive ability, which is basically the ability to reflect on and report one's mental states. So basically, when you actually think about thinking.

"MRIs on the brains of frequent lucid dreamers have shown that their brain has more gray matter volume," Breus says. The gray matter of the brain deals with conscious thought, memory, decision-making, and self-control. So this may increase a person's metacognitive ability, and therefore their tendency to lucid dream.

"There's also an increase in lucid dreaming frequency among people with narcolepsy but we're not exactly sure why that happens," says Breus.

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8. Lucid dreaming might just be an innate skill — like wiggling your ears.

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The experts agree that being able to lucid dream is probably just an innate ability or natural skill some people are born with. "Lucid dreaming isn't necessarily an advantage — it's just kind of a strange thing you either get or you don't," Breus says.

9. And like any skill, you can get better with practice.

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"Lucid dreamers can develop their skills so they can better act on demand or even find creative solutions to problems in their dreams," says Breus. The techniques vary, but most involve some form of having the intention to lucid dream (by telling yourself, telling another person, writing it down, etc.) or doing certain mental exercises before sleep.

You can check some of them out from the Lucidity Institute, created by lucid dreaming expert Stephen LeBerge, Ph.D.

10. If you've never had a lucid dream, there are ways to teach yourself to have one.

"The fact that you've never had a lucid dream doesn't mean you still can't have one," Martinez-Conde says. There are different techniques to consciously induce lucid dreaming, but what works is really up to the individual. "Simply having the intent to lucid dream and telling yourself that it'll happen or you'll have more control in the dream before you sleep can help," Martinez-Conde says.

According to Breus, another popular method starts by drawing an X on the back of your hand and looking at it every hour until it becomes a habit for a week or two. The idea being that you might then also glance down at it during a dream, and if you notice that it isn't there, you could know that you're dreaming and become lucid, he explains. Similar "reality checks" would be things like seeing that you have five fingers or not being able to push your hand through a wall. The thing is, lucid dreaming experiences are super subjective so it's hard to find a definitive technique that works for everyone.

11. The degree of awareness and control in a lucid dream can vary.

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It would be cool to be able to fly around and go into outer space every time you lucid dream, but it usually doesn't happen than way. Even skilled lucid dreamers rarely have complete control, and what they can do with that control is limited. "Among lucid dreamers, there is a huge variation in how often they can have them and how much conscious control they have in the dreams," says Martinez-Conde.

Just like regular dreams, some tend to be more vivid and intense than others. "Sometimes by the time you can even take control in your dream, you'll just wake up, but other times you can have more sophisticated control and make yourself fly or do anything," Martinez-Conde says. And each experience is different — you might have the ability to control physical stuff in one lucid dream and talk through emotional issues in another.

12. Despite what you've seen or read, lucid dreaming won't actually influence your waking life.

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Lucid dreaming is definitely exaggerated in movies like Inception and Waking Life, which blur the line between dream life and real life. "You don't want to become too attracted to the idea of harvesting benefits from lucid dreaming and believe you can learn to do something like a sport without ever trying it in real life," Martinez-Conde says.

Likewise, it isn't a way to make up for past mistakes or try to relive situations differently in order to influence the future. "Some people are even terrified of lucid dreams because they think they'll get trapped in the dream or if they get killed and die in a lucid dream, it means they'll die in real life," Breus says. But it's really just a normal dream where you happen to be aware of the fact that you're dreaming.

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13. Common themes include adventures and sex. Because, obviously.

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Hey, when else would you be able to soar naked over the Grand Canyon or hook up with a celebrity? Most people who lucid dream frequently aren't bothered by it or suffer any sleeping problems. Some people even report having sleep orgasms during lucid dreams about sex.

14. You might never have a lucid dream in your life, and that's totally normal.

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Like we mentioned earlier, the experts agree that lucid dreaming is probably just an innate ability that some people have and others don't. "If you can't lucid dream, you are not at a loss or suffering for it," Martinez-Conde says.

So don't get frustrated if you repeatedly try to teach yourself to lucid dream and it doesn't work. It might just not happen for you, and that's totally fine. "It isn't abnormal to have lucid dreams all the time, and it isn't abnormal to never have them either," Breus says.

15. And there aren't any real benefits other than having fun and memorable dreams.

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So far, there are no proven advantages of lucid dreaming. Sure, it can be cool and weird and mind-opening, but the experts warn against reading too much into the phenomenon. "They can be a very memorable and fun part of your life," Martinez-Conde says, but they also aren't necessary to get the most out of your sleeping or waking states.

  1. Do you have lucid dreams?

    Never.
    I've tried, but it doesn't really work for me.
    Sometimes, but they aren't that intense.
    All the time — I can do the craziest shit in my dreams!
    I'm honestly not even sure now if I'm in a lucid dream or this is real life HELP.

15 Lucid Dreaming Facts That Will Make You Question Reality

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Do you have lucid dreams?
  1.  
    vote votes
    Never.
  2.  
    vote votes
    I've tried, but it doesn't really work for me.
  3.  
    vote votes
    Sometimes, but they aren't that intense.
  4.  
    vote votes
    All the time — I can do the craziest shit in my dreams!
  5.  
    vote votes
    I'm honestly not even sure now if I'm in a lucid dream or this is real life HELP.

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