Thanet Writers Research Lucid Dreaming

Writer and author Seb Reilly researches lucid dreaming techniques and purposes on behalf of Thanet Writers.

Image Credit: 
Henry Fuseli / Public Domain

Many writers have used lucid dreaming—either purposefully or by chance—to discover new stories or work through scenes of existing ones. Creatives from Salvador Dali to Nikola Tesla have utilised lucid dreaming to help them create or develop concepts and ideas, and notable storytellers like David Lynch and Stephen King have explored dreams. Reportedly, the basis for the novel Sophie’s Choice came to author William Styron in a lucid dream.

“One morning in the early spring, I woke up with the remembrance of a girl I’d once known, Sophie. It was a very vivid half-dream, half-revelation, and all of a sudden I realised that hers was a story I had to tell.”

William Styron

William Blake and Robert Louis Stephenson both had ideas come to them in dreams, and credited their experiences dreaming in writing. Beethoven wrote music in his sleep, as more recently has Paul McCartney.

Lucid dreaming is not controlling a dream, just an awareness that one is in a dream. Whilst there is a correlation between awareness and control of dreams—as noted by psychophysiologist Stephen LaBerge, founder of the Lucidity Institute—neither necessarily requires the other.

Non-Lucid Dream State

The dreamer is unaware they are in a dream.

Pre-Lucid Dream State

The dreamer questions whether they are in a dream or not.

Lucid Dream State

The dreamer is aware they are dreaming.

“For often, when one is asleep, there is something in consciousness which declares that what then presents itself is but a dream.”


According to psychologist Paul Tholey, who worked extensively with lucid dreaming as part of Gestalt theory during the 1980s, there are seven different conditions that a dream must meet for the dreamer to be classified as lucid.

  1. Awareness of the dream state;
  2. Awareness of the capacity to make decisions;
  3. Awareness of memory functions;
  4. Awareness of self;
  5. Awareness of the dream environment;
  6. Awareness of the meaning of the dream;
  7. Awareness of concentration and focus.

These conditions narrow the parameters of what makes a lucid dream. It is more than just being self-aware, or having the ability to make decisions or change aspects of the dream. Rather, it is an understanding both of the dream and the meaning behind it whilst maintaining a sense of self from outside the dream—much like a daydream or waking fantasy—yet must exist within a state of sleep.

Later statements contradict Tholey, however, and the actual conditions needed to classify a lucid dream do not need to be as stringent. According to psychologist Deirdre Barrett (who spent time working on lucid dreaming during the 1990s as part of a study for Harvard University) four sequential statements should be followed and, if all are met, the dream would classify as lucid.

  1. The dreamer is aware that they are dreaming;
  2. Objects disappear after waking;
  3. Physical laws need not apply in the dream;
  4. The dreamer has a clear memory of the waking world.

From these four corollaries it is clear that a full understanding of the dream and why it exists is not necessary, however the knowledge of self both at that moment and from before the dream—when previously awake—is imperative. By stating the potential for removal of physical laws, whilst also recognising that the dream must not continue upon waking, the boundaries of the dream are clearly defined.

Awareness of a dream state can be verified using ‘reality checks’—simple methods of verifying one is asleep. Where two or more apply, the likelihood is that one is dreaming.

  • Breathing whilst tightly sealing the nose and mouth;
  • Hands which are a strange colour, have too many or not enough fingers, or are temperal;
  • Identity variations including name, age, gender, profession, relationships and responsibilities;
  • Jumping and then floating back down;
  • Lights or light switches that do not work despite rational expectations;
  • Memory gaps including method of arrival and recent past;
  • Mirrors displaying abnormal reflections;
  • Nose disappearing or remaining invisible despite closing one eye;
  • Powers such as flight, unlocking doors, magical control, transformation or illusion;
  • Reading sentences which change whilst or after being read;
  • Time changing or moving at an unusual rate on watches or clocks;
  • Vision with zoom ability or extended peripherals, or either blurred or not in opposition to waking vision.

The most widely-recommended method of entering a lucid dream state is through Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams, developed in the 1970s by Stephen LaBerge. The basis of the technique is to prepare an alarm to go off mid-way through the night, to interrupt a dream state, and then once awoken to concentrate on the half-finished dream (or, if that cannot be remembered, one that was experienced recently) and visualise oneself back in the dream whilst repeating the phrase “Next time I am dreaming, I will remember I am dreaming” until asleep.

Other methods include Wake-Initiation of Lucid Dreams, which is where the body is encouraged to enter a sleep-like resting state whilst the mind remains awake and alert, allowing for conscious exploration of previous or recurring dreams; Visual Induction of Lucid Dreams, where repetitive visualisation allows the incubation of a chosen dream; and the Cycle Adjustment Technique, where knowledge of one’s own sleep cycle allows for adjustment to sleeping times to encourage awareness during the latter part where dreams are most likely to occur.

If the advantage of exploring lucid dreaming is to take advantage of unconscious leaps in thinking, then presenting the mind with a problem is an effective way to activate it.

“Some dreams are crystal clear. One dream may have the blueprint for a particular machine. Another may have the answer to a chemistry problem. Dreams do this for people even in cultures that denigrate dreams. The process works independent of our conditioning. But in a culture where dreams are respected, the odds are greater that a person will be helped by their dreams.”

Deirdre Barrett

To begin the process of accessing a lucid dream state to creatively solve a problem, Barratt advises writing the problem on a notepad as briefly as possible. Placing it within arms’ reach—along with a pen and possibly a torch or lamp—and mentally reviewing it before preparing to sleep will ensure it is at the forefront of the mind. Bringing items associated with the problem in the room, especially if they are not normally in the room, will enhance mental awareness of the issue at hand. Whilst then awaiting sleep, imagining or visualising oneself dreaming about and solving the problem, then waking up and writing the solution down, will assign a task to the subconscious to connect the conscious and unconscious mind. Upon awakening, lying still and quiet for a few moments to meditate upon any traces or recollections of a dream can bring elements of the dream back if it has disappeared, and allow for stronger cognitive recall in the future. Then immediately write down whatever is remembered.

“The relation of a phantasy to time is in general very important. We may say that it hovers, as it were, between three times—the three moments of time which our ideation involves. Mental work is linked to some current impression, some provoking occasion in the present which has been able to arouse one of the subject’s major wishes. From there it harks back to a memory of an earlier experience (usually an infantile one) in which this wish was fulfilled; and it now creates a situation relating to the future which represents a fulfilment of the wish.”

Sigmund Freud

Some creatives invert the concept of lucid dreaming, instead encouraging their minds to drift into dream-like states whilst awake to activate subconscious connections. Others use techniques such as automatic writing to similar effect. Whilst these may be beneficial, they will simply allow the writer’s conscious mind to make small leaps by accessing elements of the subconscious. Lucid dreaming instead allows the conscious mind to observe, interact with, or even control the unconscious mind, allowing greater depth but also higher risk of strangeness. Whilst weird can most definitely be good, simply retelling a dream will likely result in a dull and disassociated tale that barely qualifies as a story. Instead, writers can use lucid dreaming to connect unconscious visions with conscious thoughts via characters that develop within the subconscious, thereby offering an unexpected combination of seemingly real and imaginary.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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