Lucid Dreaming: A Beginner's Guide

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John Smith making another title look like child’s play (no audio)

From 1994-1995 I had the great pleasure of training with wrestling legend John Smith, 2-time gold medalist and 4-time world champion (domestic freestyle record of 80-0; international freestyle record of 100-5).

He was famous for his low leg attacks that made even Olympic finals look like textbook demonstrations.

The problem was, of course, that I was in New Hampshire at boarding school and had never met John Smith. I only trained with him 45-60 minutes per night while I was lucid dreaming. I went on to have my best career season, which culminated with a more than 20-0 record before the national championships…

I’ve since used lucid dreaming to:

– Accelerate skill acquisition (example: yabusame)
Reactivate “forgotten” languages in less time
– Cultivate zen-like present-state awareness and decrease needless stress

Lucid Dreaming 101

I applied to Stanford University because I wanted to refine my clinical understanding of lucid dreaming: the ability to become conscious during dreams and affect their content.

This isn’t new-age nonsense, either. It’s been tested in the strictest of lab settings.

Dr. Stephen LaBerge of Stanford was considered the world’s foremost researchers in the science and practice of lucid dreaming, and he had pioneered proving its existence. How? It turns out that eye movement, unlike the rest of the skeletal muscular system, is not inhibited by REM sleep. Subjects could memorize horizontal eye patterns (e.g. left-left-right-right-left-right-left) and repeat the patterns upon becoming lucid, which researchers could observe, all while recording brain activity with an EEG to confirm that the subjects where, in fact, in a dream state. Tibetan monks have been practicing lucid dreaming for thousands of years, but it was considered fringe speculation until it was captured in a controlled environment.

There are now dozens of studies that explore the incredibly cool world of lucid dreaming and hint at applications (search “lucid dreaming” here on PubMed).

I recently had dinner with former PayPal employee Mark Goldenson, who was a researcher in both Stephen LaBerge’s lab and Phil Zimbardo’s psychophysiology lab at Stanford, and the conversation convinced me that sharing the basics was worth a post.

For those interested in experiencing lucid dreaming, here are a few simple training methods, including:

Step 1) Develop dream recall -

Have you ever thought that you didn’t dream on given nights, or perhaps not at all? If I were to track your REM sleep, as I have mine on even “dreamless” nights, you quickly realize that this isn’t the case. Undeveloped recall is to blame.

Put a pad of paper next to your bed and record your dream immediately upon waking. Immediately means immediately. If you get dressed first, or even stare at the ceiling for a minute, dream recollection will be nil. Expect that you might not get more than a few lines for the first week or so, but also expect to get to multi-page recall ability within 2-3 weeks. This alone will make you look forward to going to bed.

Step 2) Identify dream cues and/or do reality checks -

Some people, like Mark, can use their dream log to identify common dream elements that recur from night to night. Water seems to be particularly common. These elements are then used for “reality checks”: asking yourself if you’re dreaming when you see these cues during waking hours, and then testing.

Testing entails doing something like trying to fly (not recommended) or looking at your environment for clear indications of dream state. The latter is my preference, and I typically skip the dream log and default to a few simple tests at set action (every time I check the time or walk through a door, for example).

Since working memory can only hold around 7 +/- 2 bits of information, and you are constantly creating your dreamscape in real-time, there are a few things that change if you look away and then look back at them:

a. Text (e.g., written signs)
b. Digital clocks/watches. Fascinatingly, analog clocks appear to keep accurate dream time, which, in my case, also corresponds to real time passing.
c. Complex patterns

For the last category, I like to look at wall brickwork or floor patterns, look away, and look back to see if their orientation (e.g. horizontal vs. vertical) or tile/block size has changed, asking “am I dreaming?” If there are changes, guess what? You are either on some strong hallucinogens or you are dreaming. If you’re dreaming and answer in the affirmative, it is at this point that you will become lucid.

Step 3) Induce lucidity –

MILD

There are a number of techniques that help induce lucidity. One such technique tested by LaBerge, referred to as Mnemonic-Induction of Lucid Dreaming (MILD), involved — in my case — waking up in the middle of the night, setting the intention to lucid dream for 10-15 minutes, then going back to bed. I have found this to work best when I wake 5 hours or so after going to sleep (not just to bed). Here is a longer description from LaBerge’s FAQ.

I have also found duration of sleep to be an important variable. It will often be easiest for novices to achieve lucidity if they sleep to excess — more than 9 hours (think Saturday or Sunday mornings) — and then use the snooze button to wake every 10-15 minutes for another hour. This juxtaposition of waking and sleep blurs the lines and seems to make the lucid state easier to achieve.

Ancillary Drugs

Three drugs, in my experience, also seems to assist with induction: huperzine-A (200-400 mcg), melatonin (3 mg), and nicotine (standard patch). I don’t suggest combining them.

Huperzine-A is an acetyl-cholinesterase inhibitor, tested in Chinese clinical trials for treating Alzheimer’s, and will increase the half-life of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine at the synapse. This is my preferred tool if I’m using chemical assistance. Melatonin is involved with setting circadian rhythm and its release is controlled by the pineal gland and suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN). Dreams on melatonin tend to be more colorful and more chaotic, as is also the case with nicotine. Nicotine is my last choice, as it is addictive and can cause total insomnia if you don’t time it properly. If you happen to be quitting smoking and will be using the patch regardless, be sure to put it on immediately prior to bed so the blood nicotine levels (and stimulant effects) peak well after you’ve fallen asleep. Mistime it and you’ll be one grumpy bastard the next morning.

Step 4) Extend lucidity duration

This is where things get a little strange, or even cooler.

The first few times you achieve lucidity, you will likely be so excited that you will wake yourself up. Two effective techniques for extending lucidity are spinning (a la a piroutte in place) and looking at your hands. Both techniques, I believe, originated with Carlos Castaneda, but LaBerge was the first to test them and quantify the effectiveness of spinning vs. hand rubbing:

…the odds in favor of continuing the lucid dream were about 22 to 1 after spinning, 13 to 1 after hand rubbing (another technique designed to prevent awakening), and 1 to 2 after “going with the flow” (a “control” task). That makes the relative odds favoring spinning over going with the flow 48 to 1, and for rubbing over going with the flow, 27 to 1.

Source: Lucidity Institute

Step 5) Once you’ve flown all over and had sex with every hottie you can think of…

Try to explore memory and performance. Indulge in the flying and sex binge, as all newbies do — no reason to rush that phase, of course — but then expand your carnal horizons in other directions.

Have fun and sweet dreams…

Posted on: September 21, 2009.

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412 comments on “Lucid Dreaming: A Beginner's Guide

  1. Brilliant stuff. I’ve had a few lucid dreams over the years, but often it does get to that point where I realise it’s a lucid dream so I wake up out of excitement. Will try to follow step #4 next time though.

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    • Is it weird that my lucid dreams make me horny? The last dream I had, I became a walrus and was living with a clan of walruses and I began to feel horny so I woke up and proceeded to bang my wife this has happened consecutively for the past week. Has anyone else faced my certain “difficulties” with their dreams in the past? If so how did you overcome this, my wife is beginning to lose sleep because of my necessary pleasures and is contemplating making me sleep on the couch. I get so horny sometimes it has began to become a problem, so please respond ASAP to this posting. I have also begun contemplating wether I should begin ‘rubbing one out’ when these urges come on. I haven’t done this since I was 17 and a junior in high school… I am now 32 and married with a 6 year old daughter and 3 year old son. I cannot afford another child at this point

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      • Wear a condom to sleep? Meditate on the fact that being the Walrus King shouldn’t be making you horny?

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      • Stop waking your wife up just to bang on. Ever thought she might not actually want to be woken up in the middle of the night just to pleasure you? Rub one out instead. Jeez. Maybe rub one out before you go to sleep, to relieve some tension.

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      • While you are in REM sleep (which is necessary for dreaming) your body has physical responses, like the rapid moving of the eyes, higher blood pressure, and erections for both men and women. Typically you dream later in the night/early morning, hence why morning wood is so common. So chances are that because you are lucid dreaming and more likely to wake up after a dream and feel completely conscious, you are also aware of the fact that you are horny.

        It has little to do with your actual dream and more to do with the physiological response to dreaming.

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  2. Hi Tim,

    Awesome post. I’m fascinated in lucid dreaming. I’ve been doing it since I was a child and long before I even knew the term “lucid dreaming”.

    I found that I had my most lucid dreams in my teenage years and I’ve struggled to get back to that point. Do you know of any reason for this? Or do I just need to redevelop and fine tune my technique?

    Other than sex and flying (Yep, I still revisit these favorites), I often find myself creating scenarios where I can practice my Mandarin Chinese. Do you have any tips for using lucid dreaming in this way?

    Thanks for this post! Hope you have an awesome day and an even better sleep.

    Heidi

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    • i have lucid dreamed once before(more or less) it was a place where everything was in chaos and i was being chased by 2 big dudes that were cut up and sorta gangstery and i remember hitting myself saying wake up wake up when i was cornered but have never mastered it

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      • If this were to happen again you need to learn you are able to own the dream your the boss you tell what your dream to do so if the guys were to try and beat you p you think of something you like then go there to stay away from the guys

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      • Or just go back to the dream with the two big guys, and believe that you are a martial arts master or something… Worked for me, one time… I turned into Goku… XD

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  3. Excellent post as always Tim. However, I wanted to share this quote of yours I found at http://www.bleikamp.com/projects/ that states:

    “Ben is the best designer I’ve ever working with — period. He has never been late and is often early. That is near unheard of when dealing with the rare animal that is an engineer who understands both programming and design. Ben puts both together, on time every time. Highest recommendations. — Tim Ferriss, NYT #1 best-selling author of The Four Hour Work Week

    Notice the first sentence.

    Thought you should know. Damn those typos.

    Cheers,

    Farrell

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    • I had the ability as a child as well and now, as an adult, can not do it anymore. Perhaps something in the brain changes with maturity making it more difficult to achieve this wonderful state of mind.

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      • No I don’t think it’s age/maturity related, I’s more like available time/responsabilities. I was pretty good at lucid dreaming in my 30’s, but now in my 40’s it happens but not nearly as often. I feel it is due life distractions and being on “autopilot” mode.

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  4. This sounds similar to a technique used by Napoleon Hill in “consulting” with his made up mastermind group as he went off to sleep.

    Interesting stuff. I’m definitely gonna try Steps 1 or 3 as soon as I get the chance (in a few minutes!)

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  5. I like this a lot. Questions I would love to be answered in lucid dreaming 200:

    Why does spinning or looking at our hands have anything to do with extending lucidity?
    What are the best ways to learn something new (or hone our skills) while lucid dreaming?

    And I don’t think i’ve ever laughed so hard at a section title as I did at “step 5″

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    • when you look at you hands, you almost calm down and your mind focuses on something. when your excited your mind thinks of too many things at once. spinning in circles makes you feel calm. when i tried the method in my lucid dream, it felt like i was swimming, i then easily could do melodramatic things such as flying and swimming.

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  6. Hi Tim,

    Interesting post!

    I have had lucid dreams several times myself.
    It was incredible I could change what I was dreaming about, but still
    living the dream or waking up if wanted to.

    by the way…
    Your book changed my life.

    Klaus Tol

    Like

  7. The air in Nica must be inspiring you to write some of your best posts, either that or it’s just pure coincidence. I am totally ignorant to this concept but am rereading this. Does music have any affect on Lucid Dreaming?

    Eat some Gallo Pinto!!!!

    Jose Castro

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    • It’s actually not a good idea to listen to music, because it keeps you brain focused on something that is not in the dreamworld, and it is very hard to become lucid naturally.

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    • not music but binary music look up the effects of binary music on lucid dreams and in theory the sound is meant to change the way your brain is working and induce lucidity

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  8. I love lucid dreams! I found that making a habit of checking and double checking a digital watch during waking hours carried over to dreams and helped me realize I was dreaming. Monitoring light levels also helps since my dreams are only able to get so bright.

    The only downside I’ve found are the false awakenings. I don’t have them with every lucid dream (maybe only 10% of the time), but they are maddening.

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    • Ever seen ‘Waking Life’? I just ask becuase the three things you mentioned, checking if you’re dreaming by checking light levels, checking a digital clock, and also false awakenings, are all main themes in that movie.
      Its a great movie btw, I’d recomend it.

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  9. I discovered the ability of lucid dreaming after dreaming of “events that couldn’t happen.” An example would be meeting or talking to someone I knew was dead like a relative for instance. When I was in the Army and worked to the point of exhaustion I’d lucid dream all the time. Even now, if I’m super exhausted I’ll be able to control any dreaming I may have.

    Good stuff Tim!

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  10. One of the best way to be able to recall dreams is not awake naturally, not to the sound of an alarm clock. Keep your eyes closed and lie very still for a few minutes recalling the dream. Then very slowly roll onto your side and write down as much about the dream as possible.

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  11. Tim, thanks for posting this. Lucid Dreaming has been something that I’ve been working on for the last year.

    Is Huperzine the same as Galantamine? It’s also used in Alzheimer’s treatment too, so perhaps it’s the same thing. If so, the important thing is that you can’t use it all the time. I find that I can only use it once per week max, otherwise my body gets used to it, and it loses its effect.

    Also, I wake up and take the Galantamine about 3-4 hours after going to sleep. It takes an hour to kick in, at which time it’s at its strongest, so by the time I’m drifting back to sleep it coincides with my REM cycles and has a better effect. Taking it at the start of the night is a waste of time, since most REM and the best dreams are towards the end of the night.

    One other thing – Vitamin B6 (about 25 to 50mg) helps. It’s toxic in doses over 100mg, so it’s best not to over-do B6, and not to take it every ngiht. You can get B complex vitamins in a V8 vegetable juice drink which makes a healthy night-cap which also helps send you off to lucid land.

    The other thing about Lucid and non-Lucid dreams is that they often have the same “geography”. I often find myself driving down the same streets in some hypothetical version of a town. Drawing maps of those streets in my dream journal helps reinforce the dream imagery in my mind, which makes it easier to recognize the tell-tale imagery to help me go lucid.

    For the last couple of months I’ve been meaning to email you and ask for your thoughts on Lucid Dreaming. So I’m really glad that you wrote this article.

    Oh – one last thing. “Waking Life” is a great movie about Lucid Dreaming. A little verbose, but it has some helpful concepts and imagery. Have you seen it?

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  12. Ha Ha Ha i love how you mention sex binges because that is the very first thing that anyone thinks of when they learn about lucid dreaming. The second thing is “how realistic will the sex binges be”

    Seriously though lucid dreaming has always been an interest of mine and even though i have studied the techniques extensively i have sadly never taken it off my “some day maybe list”

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  13. Took a class on philosophy& neuropsychology (well actually neither really, it was one of those in-between, exploratory classes). Regardless, lucid dreaming was discussed and a method of inducing it is as follows: Write a big L and R on your left and right hands (or just any marks), and consistently throughout the day look at the marks on your hands so you develop the habit. This will apparently carry through into your dream, and when you see/realize the L and the R on your hand, you’ll realize you are in a lucid dream, and take control of your dream.

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  14. I’ve definitely noticed more of a tendency to lucid dream when I take melatonin. (I suffer from Delayed sleep phase syndrome and the melatonin helps me sleep when nothing else does.)

    I also recommend the movie Waking Life. Fascinating concepts and beautiful to watch.

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  15. Great post Tim, I never thought I would see you writing about Lucid Dreaming here on your blog. It was a pleasant surprise as I’ve been thinking of getting into it again.

    I was into Lucid Dreaming in the past and used to do it a lot, but over time I’ve just forgotten to write down my dreams and have a hard time recognizing the dream cues while dreaming. I still remember most of my dreams though, just woke up from one actually, I was playing golf with gnomes in the woods and there was some real funky music playing in the background. Yes, most my dreams are this weird and I can’t understand how I don’t recognize them as dreams sometimes (my life ain’t THAT crazy for me to not recognize them as dreams!).

    A tip from me is instead of writing your dreams down is recording it with your mobile phone or a dicta-phone (not that I think most people have one), it will make it that much easier to get them down when you’re sleepy and just want to go back to sleep because you can even do it while keeping your eyes closed (set the record on your phone to a quick button).

    Keep up the good work and happy dreaming!
    //Erik Åström

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  16. tried any of the binaural frequencies?

    [affliliate site removed]. after listening to that a bit before went to sleep had the strongest lucid dreaming ever had.

    worth a mention is glasses that sense when you go to rem sleep and fire off a few leds.

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