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Can You Control Your Dreams?

Some researchers, and one free app, seem to think so.
(Photo: frenkel vic/Shutterstock)

(Photo: frenkel vic/Shutterstock)

As a child, I used to have grim, otherwordly The Nightmare Before Christmas-esque nightmares every few weeks, but they never bothered me much. This is partly because I have always kind of liked being a little frightened—of fictionalized imagery anyway—and partly because I could end the nightmares whenever I wanted.

I don’t remember when I figured it out, or how, but at some point during my semi-frequent nightmare years I discovered a theme: If I could find a yellow circle somewhere in the landscape of these dreams, I could walk through it like a portal, and the scary stuff would stop. Not only that, but I knew, in the dream, that I was only having a nightmare and that I had this power to stop it. I had to find the yellow circle, but I controlled it. It would show up nearby as soon as I decided I was done dealing with monsters, and I could move on to dreaming of happier things.

A few years ago a friend posted an article about lucid dreaming on Facebook, which was the first time I’d ever seen the term, or realized the concept was at all remarkable. The friend had commented something to the effect of “omg I wish I could do this,” and so I read about it, and realized I could. Or at least, I could once. I don’t seem to get nightmares more than a few times a year now, and I guess I should be grateful, but neither, anymore, do I get the chance to save myself from them.

The point is: How can we ever really know whether we’re in control or if we just dreamed that we were?

THOUGH MOST PEOPLE REPORT experiencing at least one lucid dream in their lifetimes, and though the concept is frequently referred to and written about matter-of-factly, there are skeptics. Perhaps most prominent among them is the late professor and philosopher Norman Malcolm, who, in his 1959 book Dreaming, suggested the idea was absurd in a way that frankly stresses me out: “I dreamt that I realised I was dreaming, dreamt that I was affecting the course of my dream, and then dreamt that I woke myself up by telling myself to wake up.” The point is: How can we ever really know whether we’re in control or if we just dreamed that we were?

There have been all kinds of dystopian-sounding experiments done with the intent of gathering empirical evidence for lucid dreaming. A 1981 study by LaBerge, Nagel, Dement, and Zarcone instructed sleeping subjects to perform certain “dream actions” (gestures like eye movements and fist clenching done by the body, despite its being apparently asleep) at the onset of their lucid dreams to prove they maintained awareness and control. Five subjects were able to perform as requested (and, yes, that alone is crazy and terrifying), but this only says so much. There was no window into the subjects’ brains at the time—no way to see whatever it was they were seeing, and whether they were controlling it.

Whatever debate exists about the phenomenon of lucid dreaming—from its mere existence to its proper classification—is often, as Malcolm’s paradox is, philosophical in nature, dependent on how we think of what it means to be “awake.” As Stephen LaBerge, a lucid dreaming researcher whom I like a lot for his apparent joy in using sleeping-related metaphors whenever possible, writes: “As long as we continue to consider wakefulness and sleep as a simple dichotomy, we will lie in a Procrustian bed that is bound at times to be most uncomfortable.”

REGARDLESS OF LUCID DREAMING’S exact definition, how it happens, and whether or not we can ever pin it down, the idea of it remains compelling. Who among us does not wish to repeat or prolong a particularly thrilling dream, let alone select and control the subject matter and course of a dream entirely? On several occasions I have had titillating dreams about attractive celebrities, with minor hand-holding and everything, and, the next night, have gone to bed wishing for a second opportunity to finish what we started. It never works.

But last week, a new study on lucid dreaming was released, and it promised to change all that.

In 2010, professor Richard Wiseman, of the wonderfully British University of Hertfordshire, partnered with the developers of an app called Dream: ON. The premise of the app is that by playing themed ambient sounds (called “soundscapes”) throughout the night, it can influence the content of its users’ dreams. If a person “listens” to quiet, beachy sounds while he sleeps, the app’s creators (and now Wiseman) argue, he’s more likely to dream of being at the beach.

Wiseman, after collecting “millions” of dream reports, claims that the soundscapes did affect people’s dreams: “If someone chose the nature landscape then they were more likely to have a dream about greenery and flowers,” he says. No quantifiable evidence is provided in the press release, which states that the findings are discussed in Wiseman’s ebook Night School, released on April 1.

You have to be skeptical of research gathered in partnership with people trying to market a product, but anyway, I wanted to try Dream: ON for myself, especially because I love apps that claim to make phones do things I’m pretty sure phones cannot do.

ON THE FIRST NIGHT, before I realized there were more options, I chose a soundscape called “Into the City,” described as “The hustle and bustle of life in the fast lane.” I then selected a gentle alarm tone called “Moon Light,” picked a “Wake Me Up By” time, and set the phone (screen still on) face down on the corner of my bed as instructed.

I was awoken by Moon Light 23 minutes before my standard workday alarm setting for 7:45, which was infuriating, but which did make me feel like someone living the hustle and bustle of life in the fast lane. I picked up my phone, which was now asking me whether I’d been aware of the soundscape overnight. I had not. Then it prompted me to describe my dream in a small text box journal. (This way you can keep track of how closely your dreams adhere to the night’s corresponding soundscapes.) I wrote: “My dad opened an apple business upstate, which fell through because he lived far away/doesn’t know about apples. I went to McDonald’s with some friends and one enemy and I paid for everyone.”

If you were trying to tie this dream to the “Into the City” theme that guided it, you might say it was about the desire to escape our urban daily grind, met by the simultaneous recognition that we’re bound to it by our limited skill sets. I do not know what the McDonald’s part symbolizes, though. And even if I had a dream that matched my selected soundscape to a T, how would I know it was thanks to the app? How would I know any similarities were owed to the soundscapes, and not simply to focusing on the desired subject matter by actively choosing it right before bed? Designing an experiment that could convincingly test any of this would be a statistical nightmare. (Maybe literally!) (Ha-ha, now I’m doing it too.)

On the second day of my personal quest to regain control of my dreams, I discovered the cornucopia of soundscapes available, for free, in the app’s “dream store.” There was “Travel the World,” “Wild West,” and “Relaxing Rainforest.” There was “Deadly Dungeon,” “Haunted House,” and “Night of the ZOMBIES!” There was even one called “50 Shades of ...” which I did not try (... yet), but which I did download while giggling to myself.

I do not believe in this app, really, but browsing the list of fantastical dream scenarios and downloading them (for free!) one by one felt like Christmas. While I think it would be an impressive, exciting trick if they worked even sometimes, there is something very soothing in most dreams being totally inane brain-soup.

That night I chose “Paparazzi,” because I’d been watching Beyoncé videos and wanted to dream of being her. My dream diary from the next morning reads: “I got in a rental car with Joe [my brother], who in trying to park slowly rolls into my parents’ car. He rolls down the window and asks Dad if the rental place has another, faster car (a green one).” And on the third night, after picking the “Count’s Castle” soundscape, which should have been about me coming “face-to-face” with a vampire, I record the following: “Seafood restaurant in the middle of a garbage dump with Mom and Dan [my other brother].”