People Who Can Control Their Dreams Are Also Better at Real Life

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Photo: Severine Arend

Lucid dreamers are those lucky individuals who are aware that they’re dreaming and are able to control what happens in their dreams. (Jump off a cliff and soar through the air? Sure. Walk across the ocean? Go for it!) It’s an ability that must make the dreaming hours more interesting, and now some new research suggests some waking-life benefits, too. Lucid dreamers tend to be better at problem-solving, particularly the types of problems that require one of those lightbulb-flashing-on bursts of insight. 

Previously, research has shown that frequent lucid dreamers are better at common tasks used in psychology studies, such as the Stroop test (in which, for example, the word green is written in blue ink and participants have to name the color, not the word). For this study, University of Lincoln psychologist Patrick Bourke decided to test his 68 study participants — 20 of whom were frequent lucid dreamers — using the Remote Associates Test, in which participants must figure out which word links three seemingly unrelated other words. Here’s an example: Age. Mile. Sand. The common word linking all three? Stone. It’s the kind of problem where you can’t think of the answer until, all at once and seemingly out of nowhere, you do.

In this study, the participants who reported frequent lucid dreams were better at the task than those who occasionally or rarely experienced lucid dreams. But why? The researchers believe that the cognitive skills that let lucid dreamers recognize and control their dreams may be related to this sort of problem-solving. In order to solve these sorts of insight problems, people need to “step back from perceived reality, reflect on it, and evaluate the perceptual evidence,” the authors write. “For the insight that leads to lucidity, people also seem able to step back from the obvious interpretation and consider a remote and, at the time, implausible option — that it is all a dream.”

What the paper didn’t demonstrate, however, was causality — in other words, you can’t necessarily expect that if you train yourself to become a lucid dreamer, you’ll also get better at this kind of problem solving. Most people have experienced a lucid dream at some point during their lives, and frequent lucid dreamers — those who have a lucid dream more than once a month — are fairly common, too, somewhere between 19 and 37 percent of the population.

If you want to teach yourself how to be a lucid dreamer, these are the steps that seem to work, according to a recent analysis of the lucid dreaming literature:

  • Write your dreams down when you wake up so that you can start to notice patterns in them, which, Bourke says, may help you spot when you’re in one.
  • As you’re falling asleep, “rehearse” a dream in your mind, and imagine yourself becoming aware that you are dreaming.
  • Throughout the day, ask yourself whether you could be dreaming. If you spot anything that seems weird, investigate.

Bourke has had a few of his own lucid dreams in the years since he began researching the topic, and he described one in an email to Science of Us:

I was going down an escalator to see if I could find information about a train I was planning to get. On the way down, I remember thinking that the information would not be there and I’d more likely find it back on the level I came from, so I hopped on the escalator to go back up. On the way, I looked up and noticed that I had another three levels of escalators to go. At that point I thought, “Impossible, I only came down one escalator. Could this be a dream?” I went to check by heading to a newsstand — in dreams, the text in books tends to change if you look at it, look away and look back again. I found all the books were academic books, and remember thinking — yeah, not likely in a train station. That’s consistent with this being a dream.

While we’re on the subject: Are you absolutely certain you’re not dreaming right now? Related question: Why is it suddenly raining cats?

Lucid Dreamers Are Better Problem-Solvers