When one is asleep, there is something in consciousness which tells us that what presents itself is but a dream.
—Aristotle (384–322 BC)

Have you ever been aware that you are dreaming while you are dreaming? That sensation is called lucid dreaming. Once awareness has been achieved, dreamers often can take control of their dreams, opening the door to solving problems, improving skills and having adventures.

The ability to be conscious during your dreams, and thus have some control over them, can help in…

Solving complex problems. In the book Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming, author Stephen LaBerge tells the story of an architect who developed the ability to do a “walk-through” in his dreams of buildings that he is designing—before they’re built. He spots potential problems and makes changes to the blueprints to fix them.

Controlling chronic nightmares. Several studies have found that people who suffer from chronic nightmares can use lucid dreaming to take control of their bad dreams and alter the nightmarish story lines. This can reduce the negative power of nightmares and even their frequency.

Mastering motor skills. To get better at a physical skill—hitting a golf ball or parallel parking, for example—typically requires many hours of repetitious practice. Lucid dreaming might be a shortcut. In a German study, volunteers tried to toss coins into a cup during the day. They scored 3.7 out of 20, on average. They were taught to try lucid dreaming and practice the coin toss in their dreams. The next morning, those who had experienced lucid dreaming scored 5.3, on average—while participants who hadn’t achieved lucid dreaming showed no improvement.

Having vivid and fun adventures. Some lucid dreamers say they use the dreams to enjoy exhilarating adventures…to fly through the sky like ­Superman…to visit distant worlds…and to be the heroes of tales that they shape in their sleeping minds.

More than half of adults have experienced lucid dreaming at least once in their lives. Some find themselves dreaming lucidly as frequently as once a month or even several times a week. But new research has found that by combining several known strategies, the majority of people can experience one or more lucid dreams within just one week of trying.

HOW TO ACHIEVE LUCID DREAMING

Below is a series of steps that can help you become a lucid dreamer. It’s best to tackle these steps in order—when you can reliably accomplish one, move on to the next. Once you’ve practiced all the techniques described in these steps, you may find yourself going back to one or more of them—not necessarily all of them—the next time you want to induce a lucid dream. You can expect to become more proficient at inducing lucid dreaming over time.

Step 1: Hone your dream-recall skills. Before you try to have lucid dreams, practice remembering the dreams that you currently experience. After you wake up each morning, spend a minute or two reflecting on what you dreamed that night.

Helpful: Start a dream journal, and jot down as much as you can remember each morning. People tend to forget most of their dreams soon after they wake, but reflecting on dreams and writing them down can significantly improve dream recall. This is important because research strongly suggests that the better people are at recalling their dreams, the more likely they are to experience lucid dreams. Once you can recall at least one dream most mornings, move on to the next step—but keep on with your new habit of recalling your dreams as soon as you wake up.

Step 2: Frequently ask yourself whether you are dreaming even when you are awake. At least 10 times each day, silently ask yourself, Am I dreaming? and then very carefully consider whether you could be. This might feel silly—sometimes your first thought will be, Of course I’m awake—but it’s important to take the possibility that you might be dreaming seriously each time. If you make this “reality testing” a habit during your waking life, you encourage your sleeping brain to start doing it when you are dreaming, which makes it much more likely that you will realize that you are dreaming.

Helpful: The sleeping brain is very good at explaining away evidence that it is dreaming, which can make the “reality testing” trickier than it might seem. (Flying cows? Sure, that happens.) One strategy that can increase its effectiveness is to close your lips and then attempt to inhale through your mouth as part of each reality test. If you are awake, inhaling this way will be impossible—you’ll just feel suction behind your lips. But your sleeping brain does not inhibit your breathing even when you dream that you are clamping your lips shut, so if you do try this “inhalation test” in a dream, you are likely to experience a weird contradictory sensation of air moving through closed lips. This confirms to the dreamer that he/she is dreaming.

Try reality testing for a few days to a week, and then move on to the next step—but keep on doing early-morning dream recall and reality testing.

Step 3: Set an alarm for five hours after you typically fall asleep. If you normally fall asleep at around 11 pm, for example, set an alarm for 4 am. Don’t worry—the plan is for you to be awake only briefly. Find an alarm that wakes you gently.

Helpful: Use a multialarm clock or smartphone set for two different times so that you also will wake up when you need to later in the morning.

Alternative: If you regularly wake up once a night to urinate, you can skip the alarm. Just use that natural awakening as a reminder to practice the step below.

During these waking moments, prompt yourself to have lucid dreams using the instructions below. Reason: People do most of their dreaming in their final two to three hours of sleep each night, but they are most likely to experience lucid dreams if they prompt themselves to do so while awake very soon before dreaming. Briefly waking up five hours after falling asleep gives you a chance to do this.

Step 4: Instruct yourself to notice that you are dreaming. When your alarm wakes you in the middle of the night, turn it off and then immediately tell yourself (silently, in your mind), The next time I’m dreaming, I will notice that I’m dreaming (or words to this effect), while imagining yourself becoming aware of a dream. Repeat this phrase to yourself several times before allowing yourself to fall back to sleep. This strategy takes advantage of something called “prospective ­memory”—the human brain is pretty good at remembering to perform planned actions in the near future…even when it’s asleep.

Note: Try to remain awake for at least 10 minutes when you do this. If you fall back asleep any faster than that, you might not be sufficiently alert for your instructions to yourself to take hold. If you find that you tend to fall back asleep too quickly when you do this step, turn on the lights and write your instruction to yourself several times. (Step into another room to do this if the light would bother your partner.) Exception: It’s best to leave the lights off if you have trouble falling back asleep after you wake up in the middle of the night.

Caution: If you have chronic trouble sleeping, you might not want to experiment with waking yourself up in the middle of the night. The good news is that in my research, there was no evidence of poorer sleep as people learned these techniques. But I recommend that people skip a day practicing these techniques if they’re feeling sleep ­deprived.

Lucid dreaming is by no means an essential skill for a healthy and happy life. But people who train themselves in this way and then consistently experience lucid dreaming are wildly enthusiastic about how it enhances their lives. In my experience, nearly anyone can learn lucid dreaming. If you want to take control of your dreams, now you know how.