The ‘dream training’ that neuroscientists think could help cure insomnia

'It sounds mind-bending, but a lucid dream is essentially any dream where you're aware that you're dreaming,' writes Taylor
'It sounds mind-bending, but a lucid dream is essentially any dream where you're aware that you're dreaming,' writes Taylor

Claudia Picard-Deland likes to fly in her sleep. She takes off like a superhero, sometimes hovering right there in the room, other times soaring above the oceans, her arms stretched out in front of her. It’s exhilarating, but she’s not strictly conscious and she doesn’t, at any point, leave her bed.

Picard-Deland is a lucid dreamer, which means that sometimes, when she’s dreaming, she’s not only aware that she’s dreaming - she can control what happens. Her dream, her rules. To hell with gravity.

“It can be extremely vivid,” she says. “My movements are fluid and I can go fast and control where I’m going. Other times it’s more awkward. I float a little bit and I’m slow and my body is tilting, or I get stuck in tree branches.”

It sounds mind-bending, but a lucid dream is essentially any dream where you’re aware that you’re dreaming. Your conscious mind is engaged, your senses alert. You might do things you can’t do in the real world or even things that help you in waking life. Not many people do it often, but it is a learnable skill.

For Picard-Deland, lucid dreaming - good flight or bad - is a beautiful sensation and she wakes up feeling like she slept well.

That bit’s important, because Picard-Deland is not just a lucid dreamer - she’s a doctor, an insomniac and a sleep researcher at the Dream and Nightmare Lab at the University of Montreal. She is both an expert in sleep and someone who struggles to get much of it.

The waking nightmare

Along with a handful of other researchers, she wants to know if lucid dreams could offer some respite to other people like her, by treating the waking nightmare that is insomnia.

“There are pros and cons, but I think lucid dreaming might be helpful, at least for a subtype of people with insomnia,”  says Dr Picard-Deland.

According to most estimates, a third of people in the UK are insomniacs. Those who suffer either struggle to get to sleep, wake up multiple times during the night or lie awake and can’t drop off again. There’s fatigue, of course. But insomnia is also linked to long-term health risks for conditions such as stroke, heart disease and depression.

Treatments exist, but none of them are perfect. Sleeping pills are rarely prescribed any more because of unwanted side effects and addictive qualities. Breathwork and yoga nidra, which means yogic sleep, can work but not everyone is open to them.

“Cognitive behavioural therapy [CBT] is our first line treatment,” says Prof Jason Ellis, director of the Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research at Northumbria University. “It’s fantastic. It works in 70-80 per cent of cases, but unfortunately it’s very limited in getting face-to-face appointments.” Waiting lists are long and private therapy is unaffordable for many. “So we do need an alternative to CBT.”

Startling results

This is where the dreamscape comes in. Prof Ellis is the author of the only scientific paper yet published on whether lucid dream training can improve people’s insomnia. Published in 2020, it was a small study observing 48 insomniacs.

“We taught them how to lucid dream over a period of two weeks,” Ellis says. “Very simple stuff, five or six techniques that are appropriate for people with insomnia.”

After the training, 77 per cent of participants had a lucid dream, and most of those reported significant improvements in their sleep. “We saw significant reductions in insomnia symptoms, depressive symptoms and anxious symptoms,” says Ellis. “So it seems to have a benefit in terms of mood as well.”

Ellis admits the results were not as good as those typically seen after CBT, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a potential life-changer for people with long-term insomnia. “We also looked at the effect size,” he says. “What we saw was that we brought a lot of those people under the threshold of insomnia.”

In other words, they were cured.

Deep dive into deep sleep

Scientists are always keen to press the need for more research. But if the study’s results are replicated elsewhere, then it does raise an obvious question: how do semi-conscious, trippy dreams give you a better sleep?

There are a few theories. One is that lucid dreams interrupt and change other dreams that might be stressful or frightening. “We know that people dream very negatively in the first half of the night,” Ellis says. “They’re doing a lot of problem solving and reviewing all of that chaos or stress or trauma that they’re going through.

“If we teach people to control their dreams, that could be one of the pathways by which it actually helps people with their insomnia. Because they’re not having those negative dreams or they process them faster and more effectively.”

Another idea is that lucid dreaming is a hybrid state of sleep that is different to the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) state associated with dreaming. Brain scans of people having lucid dreams look remarkably similar to those of people practising deep mindfulness meditation, Ellis says. If lucid dreaming is a form of half-conscious meditation, maybe that would also account for improvements in mood and anxiety levels.

Turning bad dreams good

Then there’s sleep misperception and paradoxical insomnia. One of the cruel things about insomnia is that it tricks people into thinking they’ve slept less than they actually have.

“All our anxiety dreams are based on our worst fears,” says Charlie Morely, a lucid dreaming teacher and author of several books on dreaming. “Now, if your worst fear is that you’ve got insomnia and can’t sleep, then you might dream of being up all night with insomnia.”

Teaching people how to lucid dream may help with this phenomenon, too, because the practice is all about knowing that you’re in a dream. If you can learn to recognise when you’re in a dream, it becomes a reassuring sign for insomniacs that they are in fact out for the count.

Morley believes that it’s in fear and trauma where lucid dreaming can be most powerful. He works with tech execs and people looking for creative or spiritual experiences but he says that some of his most meaningful work is with military veterans who suffer PTSD.

“Imagine a veteran with a recurring dream that they’re back in Iraq,” he says. “If you can get that person to be lucid and the next time they have the dream, they fly off to safety or the bullets coming towards them turn into flowers, or they just walk towards the danger knowing that it’s just a dream, just an illusion. As far as the brain is concerned, that actually happened.”

Studies on lucid dreaming as a treatment for PTSD show promising results, with self-reported PTSD symptoms and nightmare distress falling sharply. At the end of one study that Morley conducted, 85 per cent of participants were no longer classified as even having PTSD based on the scores they returned.

Dream on

There’s power in dreams – that much is clear. Other research on lucid dreaming has helped people tackle addiction or improved physical rehabilitation. And in 2023, a controversial US start-up called Prophetic even created a headband designed to induce lucid dreaming so that people can work in their sleep.

There is caution, too, however. Especially when it comes to insomnia. Researchers stress that using the wrong techniques to practise lucid dreaming could make symptoms worse, because they involve waking people up multiple times through the night. Fatigue can increase. Some report sleep paralysis or even derealisation.

For researchers such as Ellis and Picard-Deland, they’re intrigued enough to want to know more. Both are currently seeking funding for further research on lucid dreaming and insomnia.

And, of course, Picard-Deland is one of her own test subjects. She believes the lucid dream training that she practises herself has helped with her own insomnia.

“I’m extremely biased because I’m a dream researcher,” she says. “But when I wake up after a lucid dream, I feel like I’ve had the best sleep.”

How to lucid dream

Four beginner-friendly steps to master your dreams from lucid dreaming teacher Charlie Morley

Plan your dreams

The fun thing about lucid dreams is, because you’re consciously aware that you’re in them, you can control what happens. Want to fly? Go for it. Be best friends with Beyoncé? No problem. But like any holiday from normality, it pays to plan out what you want to do. Think about it before bed. The planning actually makes it more likely that lucidity will happen.

Practise dream recall

You can train yourself to remember your dreams. In the drowsy state before sleep, practise mantras in your sleep like “Tonight I will remember my dreams” or “I have excellent dream recall”. This makes it more likely that you’ll remember your lucid dreams the next day.

Start a dream diary

Once you’re in the habit of remembering your dreams, write them down. Researchers say this is a powerful way of not just remembering your dreams but processing their content, especially if you’re working through distress or trauma. Keep a notebook by your bed or use the notes app on your phone.

Watch out for dream signs

The final step is to train yourself to recognise when you’re in a dream. When you have conscious thought or agency in them, look for things that shouldn’t be there like a deceased relative or celebrity. Look in a mirror and see if there are any changes in your appearance. Once that “a-ha” moment arrives, the dreamscape is yours to control and explore.