Marylee Williams: I was sitting in a very bright kind of white room. I grew up along the Mississippi River, and I could like see the river in the background. It was very dramatic and grand. And there was always a bench there and it was always open. And I was sitting there and it was like really bright white. And then all sorts of life come in bold colors. I was like, “Oh, this is a weird place to be.” And it was so quiet.
And then I was like, “Huh, I need to look at the clock.” And I like turned my head. I turned my shoulder. And my alarm clock was there, just kind of in the ether. And I remember before I went to sleep, I had looked at the clock to confirm what time it was. It was like 4 a.m. And then when I turned and looked at the clock this time, it was 1 a.m. And I was like, “That’s not how time works.” And then I took my hands and I put it against my skull, and they went in, it’s just like jelly. It’s just like gooped through. And then I heard my mother’s laugh, but it was creepy. It was really scary. And my hands were in my skull and my mom was laughing and I was like, “Oh, my gosh.”
And then I woke myself up.
Dacher Keltner: When we have a really intense dream, sometimes we make ourselves wake up. It’s like a self-protective mechanism. We can also do something else in our dreams—realize we’re dreaming, lucid dreaming. The Dutch psychiatrist, Friedrich Wilhelm von Eden, coined the term “lucid dreaming” in 1913. But really, the descriptions of lucid dreams date back to Aristotle and even before.
I’m Dacher Keltner, welcome to The Science of Happiness. Today we’re exploring the science of lucid dreaming. How to do it, and what the research shows about how it can affect our consciousness when we’re awake. We hear from two guests who tried a few practices to induce lucid dreaming. We also hear how experienced lucid dreamers are helping scientists understand consciousness.
More after this break. Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner. Today we’re talking about lucid dreams—how to know we’re dreaming while asleep, and how that can affect our waking life.
We put a call out asking people if they wanted to try two different lucid dreaming techniques for our show. And we got a few takers: Marylee Williams is an editor and producer on a morning news show in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Michaeleen Doucleff is a science reporter for NPR and author of the book Hunt, Gather, Parent. Marylee and Michaelean, welcome to The Science of Happiness.
Marylee Williams: Yeah, happy to be here.
Michaeleen Doucleff: Yeah, thank you for having me.
Dacher Keltner: So the first lucid dreaming technique we asked you both to try is something called “Reality Testing.” Every hour or a few hours, check to see if you’re awake. A reality check. One trick to find out is to try to stick your right hand through your left hand. If it doesn’t work, chances are you’re awake. The idea is for this to become a habit, so that eventually you’ll try it while you’re asleep and realize you’re dreaming. Marylee, how did Reality Testing go for you?
Marylee Williams: So the way that I did it was, at first, I set a timer. And then it became like a kind of practice for me after a few days. But I would just take my index and middle finger on my right hand. And I would try to put it through the palm of my left hand. And it was really simple. I just looked at it and I focused really, really hard on like, I would like these fingers to go through my left palm. And I like would close my eyes and try to do it and like push. And if they didn’t go through, then I knew I was awake. Reality checks were cool because I never thought about if I was awake or not. Like that was never something I thought about. Like I woke up. I was awake. It was a state of being rather than something that I needed to confirm.
Dacher Keltner: Nice. And Michaeleen, how about you?
Michaeleen Doucleff: For me, it also made me start to realize, like what does it feel like to be awake? And how does that feel different than when you’re sleeping? Right? And so I started to like, really try to differentiate in my body and in my mind these two states.
Dacher Keltner: What did it teach you and how does being awake differ in feeling from being asleep?
Michaeleen Doucleff: For one thing, a lot of times in my dreams, I don’t really have a whole body. So like being awake means like having — feelings in my legs and my feet, and being very physical. Whereas when I’m sleeping, I’m much more ethereal.
Dacher Keltner: That is amazing! You don’t have your sore knees and your sore tooth and all those things.
Michaeleen Doucleff: Exactly! All the tight muscles, right, that I have. And I think that might be the key to lucid dreaming. It is like being able to really identify those two states and being aware of which state you’re in.
Dacher Keltner: That’s amazing. We also asked you both to try something a bit more demanding. You had to wake up in the middle of the night, every night — and try to remember your dream as vividly as possible. Then as you fall back asleep you tell yourself over and over again that you will remember your dreams, kind of like a mantra. Tell us how that went.
Marylee Williams: Before you go to sleep, you set an alarm for about 5 hours after you’re going to fall asleep. And then you wake up and when you wake up, you need to assert or kind of meditate on the fact that you are awake. And then before you go to sleep, there’s a specific phrase you need to say, but I can’t actually remember what it is.
Michaeleen Doucleff: Yeah, I will know that I am dreaming. Right? I will know that I’m going to be dreaming.
Dacher Keltner: It sounds like you guys did this complicated practice for 1 to 2 weeks. Thank you so much. And of course, the question is, how did it affect your dream life?
Michaeleen Doucleff: So it’s really weird. Like in the first couple of nights, I literally dreamed about lucid dreaming, which is incredibly meta. I literally dreamed that I was lucid dreaming even though I wasn’t. And then I actually was telling people in my dream about lucid dreaming, it was like this incredible recapitulation of what I was trying to do. I actually recorded one of them when I woke up.
Michaeleen Doucleff: So I had all these crazy dreams about lucid dreaming, and it was so weird because I actually woke up and I was still dreaming. I feel so weird because I thought I was awake, but I wasn’t. I was still dreaming. I’m just very confused by it. And I was convinced that I was explaining to this person my dream — like and I think she was someone on Twitter, like how I was trying to lucid dream. And I’d almost done it and I was close to it. It’s crazy. It was really crazy. I’m kind of freaked out about it.
Michaeleen Doucleff: But I also had a bad dream. When I went back to sleep one morning, which was really clear and vivid. It was like in the New York subway, and I was kind of lost in those tunnels. And I was trying to find my dog. And I was really, really confused and disoriented because the tunnels kind of looked the same. And I couldn’t find my dog. And I could feel that. Like – I wanted to wake up because I know that this isn’t real. And I think I kind of knew it was not real because I didn’t have legs. One of the key things I’ve realized over the past week is that in my dreams I really don’t have much of a body. It’s so fascinating to me. I think it’s really been, one — made me appreciate what it feels like to be dreaming and what that means, but also really excited about playing around more with it.
Dacher Keltner: And it’s so interesting how that maps onto what people talk about in terms of meditation and contemplative practices, it’s like, one of the really big benefits is this meta benefit. Maybe it doesn’t reduce your stress immediately, but you get the sense of like, “Wow, I have all these interesting states of consciousness and I can play around with them and I have a little bit of freedom and I can get some insights into them.” So it’s really striking. How about you, Marylee? Like, how did it affect your dream life?
Marylee Williams: When I go to sleep at night, because I was not the type of person that dreamed a lot of thoughts about my dreams very often, it just became, like, sleep was a blank void. Like it was a lost amount of time. But when I tried to start paying attention, then it was suddenly a space where things could happen, if I could figure out, if I could crack the code. Maybe cracking the code was doing less, it seems like. But blurring that line, it kind of opens up 8 hours of your day. Not to necessarily be productive, because that’s not really what I’m going for here. Don’t do your taxes in your sleep. But like, it just kind of becomes this space, this bigger playground where you can do things.
Dacher Keltner: Were you able to lucid dream?
Marylee Williams: Well so, all of my dreams I started to realize I was lucid dreaming, they all kind of took on a very eerie quality. Now, I don’t know what that says about my own brain, but that’s just kind of what was happening. And it would always seem to happen, or at least my sensation in my body is that it would be happening almost right on the cusp of like I had woken myself up and I was like, “I’m going to know that I am dreaming. I’m going to know that I’m dreaming.” And then I just kind of fell into it and then I realized that I was dreaming because I did the thing with my hands. And it happened a couple of times when I got in the door. And I was like, “Oh my God, I am dreaming.” I got so excited. I was overjoyed, just filled with endorphins of success. And I would wake up. Every. Single. Time. I could not keep myself asleep when I realized that I was lucid dreaming. And I tried to be like, “You will get very excited if you want to dream, but try to stay with it.” And I would get in it, and I’d be like, “Oh my God.” And then I would wake up.
Dacher Keltner: My final question has to do with what this practice and gaining new insights into your dreaming and your minds did for your moods and your emotions. And even if there’s trauma down there, your dreams kind of give you new perspective. I remember I lost my brother, pretty young, a few years ago. He was in his fifties. And I was like, man, what does this all mean? It’s a big question. What happens to people you love when they go? And I had this one dream where he was on a bicycle and he was wearing these short shorts from the seventies. And he’s really athletic as he was. I was in this car filming him. And he — we pulled up next to him. He was almost like in a bike race and he turned to me and he was smiling blissfully. He looked at me and pointed to his mouth. And he’s like, “There are no words, right?” and then he turned back forward-looking and just sped off. And I came out of that like, “Wow, you know, my brother is happy. Whatever space he’s in, he’s in a different space than what I’m in.” And it totally changed my feelings. I came out and I suddenly went from, you know, being anxious and grief-stricken to just having some sense of it. I’m curious about what these insights brought you this past week in terms of your two weeks, in terms of your moods, and your emotions.
Marylee Williams: I never thought that they were so inside of me. I don’t know if that makes any sense. Like how much my body and my brain can hold on to the finest, smallest details. Like, I told you about the dream about my mom, but like, I haven’t seen that view of the Mississippi River in oh gosh, I don’t even know how long. I haven’t been back there. And it’s probably almost a decade at this point. I mean, it was crisp and clean, and the smell smelled like the Mississippi — it was amazing how crystal clear that image came in a dream. It did humble me, I think, a lot, in terms of what my brain can do when I in a sense, just kind of let my hands off the control. I know lucid dreaming is about controlling yourself in your dreams. But I think what I got from this is just how my brain can just go if I’m just like, “You go ahead and take the wheel, neurons in my head and go wild.” And it just produces these crisp, clean, vibrant things that I didn’t even know I could do.
Dacher Keltner: That’s profound. You know, it’s so interesting that when people do some of the meditative practices that we profiled in a show like the loving kindness practice, it’s just like you’re saying, Marylee. They have these insights about their potential, right? It’s not the transcendence of the state. It’s more that, “God, I could feel compassion almost any time I want. And I didn’t even imagine that was possible.” Michaeleen, what about you?
Michaeleen Doucleff: When I woke up, I tried to record what I dreamed. And I realized that I have way too many things to do in the morning to write them down. Right. So, but the phone you can record with your phone.
Michaeleen Doucleff: I’m awake right now. Can’t remember what I was dreaming the truck woke me up. Try to think of this dream I had, where I was in the subway looking for my dog. Let’s see if I can get to control it.
Michaeleen Doucleff: And I found that that was incredibly powerful because you forget them so quickly. You think you’re going to remember them because they’re so vivid at the moment, but they go away. But if you have them recorded and you say them, then they last so much longer. So I really want to keep doing that. But the other thing is I’ve really gained an appreciation for that morning state. The state where you’re just waking up, I think it’s a really powerful state of mind and I really want to play around with that more. That time is where what I learned is where you really can visit different conscious states. Consciousnesses of yourself. This exercise made me start to pay attention to those moments and I want to play around with that and see where that takes me and try to become comfortable in that state. Just like I’m comfortable in the “reality” state or the “dream” state. I want to become comfortable in that in-between state.
Dacher Keltner: Wow. Thank you so much, Michaeleen and Marylee, for taking on lucid dreaming and revealing so many insights about the practice.
Michaeleen Doucleff: Yeah, thank you.
Marylee Williams: Yeah, thank you.
Dacher Keltner: Up next, we look at the growing literature about what lucid dreaming can teach us about consciousness.
Benjamin Baird: There are these large questions that have been around for a very long time within philosophy and psychology. And we realized that lucid dreaming gave us a way to address this question.
Dacher Keltner: More after this break. Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner. We’ve been exploring techniques to induce lucid dreams. Now we’re going to learn about what happens in our brains when we dream.
Our producer Haley Gray spoke with Benjamin Baird, an assistant research professor at The University of Texas in Austin, about what lucid dreaming can teach us about consciousness.
Haley Gray: Here’s one of the oldest questions about dreaming and consciousness.
Benjamin Baird: Is it more like imagination, is it more like perception? And this really goes back to Aristotle.
Haley Gray: Dr. Baird wanted to see if our brains act like they’re imagining or if they act like they’re perceiving reality when we’re dreaming. And, until recently that was impossible to do.
Benjamin Baird: People typically just experience whatever they experience in a dream. They can’t do a specific task.
Haley Gray: But lucid dreaming solves that problem.
Benjamin Baird: And they can go into the dream on a mission, so to speak, to do an experimental task.
Haley Gray: Dr. Baird brought experienced lucid dreamers into his lab for an overnight study and gave them a job to do in their dreams. He had them hold their dream-thumb out in front of themselves and move it slowly from left to right, keeping their eyes fixed on the thumb the whole time.
Benjamin Baird: And it feels just like waking life, although you’re in a dream. And when they’re doing this tracking, we’re simultaneously measuring their eye movements with the electrooculogram in the sleep lab.
Haley Gray: The electrooculogram measures eye movements while you sleep. Our brains act in a particular way when we watch something moving slowly.
Benjamin Baird: You have a specific mechanism in your brain which allows you to make smooth, sustained eye movements.
Haley Gray: But when we imagine we’re watching something move slowly, this mechanism doesn’t kick in.
Benjamin Baird: You get what are called these characteristic catch up saccades where you get these fast jerky eye movements superimposed on the smooth motion.
Haley Gray: Dr. Baird wanted to know, would the eye movements be slow and smooth, like they would be when we follow something with our eyes in real life, or would they be jerky, like when we imagine we’re watching something?
Benjamin Baird: What we found in the study was that the smooth pursuit during the dream tracking is nearly identical to the smooth pursuit that you see in waking perception, and both were equally distinct from imagination, which has these jerky catch-up saccades.
Haley Gray: So to answer Aristotle’s age-old question, our dreams are more like perception than imagination.
Benjamin Baird: Here you’ve got a essentially a virtual reality. If you want to fly to outer space, you can do that. If you want to surf an 80 foot wave and never fall off. If you want to dunk a basketball, you can do that. They’re overwhelmingly very, very positive experiences.
Haley Gray: And yeah, they happen while we’re asleep, but they can help us while we’re awake.
Benjamin Baird: When people have lucid dreams the night before, they do tend to be in a better mood the next day, at least the next morning. I met a musician, who in his lucid dreams, he often finds himself in a simulation of his own bedroom. And there’s a clock radio next to his bed. So he turns the clock radio on to a specific channel, and he hears symphonies coming out of the radio in his dream. And he wakes up and transcribes them. And so he actually composes music in this way, getting inspiration from some recess of his own mind through his dreaming.
Haley Gray: Studies also show a link between meditation and lucid dreaming.
Benjamin Baird: And one of the things that are being cultivated in that type of practice is a sense of being able to recognize the content of your own mind. It’s such a fascinating area. Yeah, if you’ve never experimented with it, I’d say give it a whirl, and see if it’s for you.
Dacher Keltner: Thanks, Haley. What does it take to put yourself in someone else’s shoes? Next week on The Science of Happiness, we explore the idea of intellectual humility.
I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness. You can find more information about the science of lucid dreaming in our show notes. We have links to Greater Good articles, and links to Benjamin Baird’s research on lucid dreaming, and more about our guests.
We’d love to hear your lucid dreaming stories. Share with us at happiness email@example.com, or use the hashtag #happinesspod.
Our Executive Producer of Audio is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Gray. Sound designer Jennie Cataldo of Accompany Studios. Our editor in chief is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.