August 10, 2021

What Are Lucid Dreams and How Can You Have Them?

Understanding one of sleep's big mysteries

Illustration of person asleep on a pillow with an angel version of themself flying over them

Dreams have always been a somewhat mysterious part of our lives. Brain-driven hallucinations can feel real no matter how fantastical and can generate a range of emotions from sadness to fear. And things go to another level with the concept of lucid dreaming.


Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

The idea of lucid dreaming involves the realization within the dream that it’s, well, a dream and not reality and, for some people, the ability to change the “plot” of your dream as it unfolds.

But how much of this is true and how much of it is, like dreams themselves, a creation of our brains? We talked to sleep disorder specialist Alicia Roth, PhD, about lucid dreams and the reality of what’s going on when you realize you’re dreaming.

What is a lucid dream?

“The basic definition of lucid dreaming is that while you’re in the dream, you become aware of the fact you’re dreaming,” says Dr. Roth. Various studies estimate around half of the world’s population experiences lucid dreaming.

There’s much less known about people who claim to have the ability to control or manipulate their dreams. “The research on lucid dreaming relies mostly on the self-report of the person dreaming. There are few objective ways to measure lucid dreams,” Dr. Roth adds.

“Whether it’s lucid dreams, regular dreams or nightmares, it’s a very difficult thing to measure objectively,” she continues. “There are ways that we can tell when people are in REM sleep. If they’re observed with a polysomnogram or an MRI scanner, we can see brain changes. But we can’t even precisely tell when people are actually dreaming.”

What causes lucid dreams to happen?

Again, the data is lacking and figuring out exactly how lucid dreams occur is tricky, notes Dr. Roth. But they occur mostly during REM sleep. “REM sleep is when your most vivid dreams occur,” says Dr. Roth, “and it’s a very active time for your brain. If you did a sleep study, your brain during REM sleep looks a lot like it does activity-wise when you’re awake.”

It’s possible sleep disruptions or disorders, particularly affecting REM sleep, affect the frequency of lucid dreams.

One study found patients with narcolepsy had a higher frequency of lucid dreams than the study’s control patients. Another report suggested that “a shift in brain activity in the direction of waking” during REM sleep dreaming causes the move towards lucid dreaming, creating a “hybrid” situation involving “features of both REM sleep and waking.”

But, for now, the actual cause of lucid dreams and even why some people have them and others don’t remain unsolved.


How to have a lucid dream

It’s hard to know really how effective specific techniques can be given the unreliable self-reporting nature of data that Dr. Roth noted. But studies have focused on a handful of specific methods that participants suggest work. Just take it all with a grain of salt.

Reality testing

The process of reality testing involves constantly testing the “reality” of your surrounding throughout your waking day. Some examples include looking at your reflection in the mirror, pushing against solid objects or even trying to breathe through a pinched nose. The idea is that if you do this enough while awake, you’ll do them in your dreams, too, and when you notice that these tests go differently in your dream state, you’ll become aware that you’re dreaming.

Mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (MILD)

The MILD approach involves leveraging your intention to remember to do something in the future; in this case, remembering your dreaming. This usually involves waking up after sleeping for several hours, recalling your most recent dream, and reciting a version of the command “the next time I’m dreaming, I’ll recognize I’m dreaming.”

Wake-up-back-to-bed (WBTB)

Typically combined with the MILD approach, this technique involves sleep disruption. After sleeping for a while, a person will intentionally wake themselves via an alarm, stay awake for a set amount of time, and then go back to sleep.

External stimuli

Other approaches involve devices delivering external stimuli to a person in REM sleep. Whether flashing lights, tones or even smells, the aim is to see if those stimuli were incorporated into the sleeper’s dream and whether or not they could trigger lucid dreaming.

What are the benefits of lucid dreams?

As with other aspects of lucid dream studies, there’s a limited amount of data available to confirm how beneficial lucid dreams are.

At least two studies, including one involving throwing darts, looked at whether or not lucid dreams can help motor skills. Both found data that suggests that lucid dreams can improve performance.

Two more studies suggest that people who have lucid dreams may be more creative.

While these findings are preliminary and more research is needed before any concrete assertion can be made, Dr. Roth points out there is at least one benefit of lucid dreams that’s been empirically proven.


Relieve anxiety or nightmares

“One theory is that REM sleep is your brain organizing your life or your day in its own way, kind of like cleaning up a messy work desk,” Dr. Roth says. “Your brain decides what’s important to remember and what’s not important. And dreaming is the process of your brain organizing and placing things.”

Nightmares, Dr. Roth notes, occur when your brain is trying to organize things in a detrimental way. And one way to help you break that pattern is a treatment called imagery rehearsal therapy.

“We start with training the patient to do pleasant guided imagery while they’re awake. We teach them how to incorporate all five senses, even focusing on creating a scene of something they enjoy doing,” Dr. Roth says. “Once you start doing this right before bedtime, it can sometimes work its way into your dreams.”

But the nighttime aspect focuses more on recognizing the anxious dream situation or nightmare when it’s happening. “People write out the narrative of the nightmare and then rescript it to end a different way,” Dr. Roth says. “We help you identify the hotspot of the dream, the point at which the dream goes wrong, and rescript the narrative from there.”

The patient will then rehearse the dream, rereading the narrative and visualizing it. Some patients, she says, even choose to make their own movies of the rescripted version with their smartphone. “When they’re rehearsing these rescripted dreams, they’re able to get their brain to organize them in a way that’s beneficial,” she says.

When the patient reaches the hotspot in the dream, they’re able to recognize the situation as a dream or follow the rescripted path.

Are lucid dreams bad for you?

Again, with the lack of concrete data, it is hard to know if lucid dreams are really “harmful” to a person. But for people interrupting their sleep pattern to induce lucid dreaming, that can lead to sleep deprivation which can affect alertness, memory, stress and even lead to issues like high blood pressure and diabetes.

Related Articles

Child in dark room huddled under blanket with nightmare ghosts in background.
December 14, 2022
Is Your Kid Having Nightmares? Who Has Them and How You Can Help

Nightmares in children are common and more likely when your child is overtired or stressed

child frightened in bed with night terrors
November 14, 2022
What Are Night Terrors? And What To Do About Them

Getting enough sleep and keeping the bedroom quiet and restful can help

Person in sleep state dreaming.
August 18, 2022
Why Do We Dream?

Experts are still trying to unravel this mystery

Natural antibiotics, pills and herbs, displayed on bamboo spoons on wooden table.
December 5, 2023
Why You Shouldn’t Self-Treat With ‘Natural Antibiotics’

Natural doesn’t mean they’re safe or effective

Female swimmer in the water at edge of a pool
December 1, 2023
Can Exercise Reduce Your Risk of Breast Cancer?

Physical activity and weight management can minimize your chances of getting the disease

Two people standing in the cold.
November 29, 2023
10 Colds Not To Catch This Winter

The flu, RSV, COVID-19, pneumonia and more typically circulate during cold weather months

Parent breastfeeding baby on bed, against the headboard.
November 27, 2023
Looking for Foods To Increase Your Milk Supply? Think Big Picture

No single food will increase your milk, but an overall healthy diet will help

Trending Topics

group of hands holding different beverages
November 14, 2023
10 Myths About Drinking Alcohol You Should Stop Repeating

Coffee won’t cure a hangover and you definitely shouldn’t mix your cocktail with an energy drink

Person applies moisturizer as part of their skin care routine after a shower.
November 10, 2023
Korean Skin Care Routines: What You Need To Know

Focus on the philosophy — replenishing and respecting your skin — not necessarily the steps

glass of cherry juice with cherries on table
November 8, 2023
Sleepy Girl Mocktail: What’s in It and Does It Really Make You Sleep Better?

This social media sleep hack with tart cherry juice and magnesium could be worth a try