Active Dreaming: Methods, Habits, and Drugs
Ways to improve dream recall, awareness, depth, and engagement
In a previous post, we discussed the benefits of Active Dreaming, which I defined as “any earnest attempt to engage with your dreams.” Since then, several of you have asked for a more in-depth guide.
This post will cover everything from the basics to advanced techniques. My hope is that it can benefit everyone, even those who rarely remember their dreams.
Signal and Noise
Before we get into specific techniques, we should ask: why would anyone want to engage in Active Dreaming?
It’s common to believe that dreams are “nothing but” random noise generated by the brain as it goes through routine nightly maintenance. I think this is wrong, for two reasons.
First, biological systems rarely expend energy without getting something in return. Each night our brains explode with neural activity, much of which produces vivid conscious experiences. There’s evidence that dreams are involved in regulating our emotions and consolidating memories. Dream content is also closely linked to what’s happening in our day-to-day life. Something important is happening while we dream.
Second, my own experience is squarely at odds with the idea that dreams are just random noise. Yes, often dreams are random and bizarre and completely indecipherable. But with practice, I’ve been able to uncover a tremendous amount of signal in the noise. They’ve helped me discover the roots of my anxieties. They’ve helped me modulate my personality—to be a better friend, partner, and coworker. I’ve even had dreams give me direct, actionable advice (though I haven’t always listened).
It’s pretty hard to engage with your dreams if you can’t remember them. So our first task is improving recall.
Even if you already remember most of your dreams, it’s a good thing to work on—recall is often a limiting factor on the amount of value you can get out of dreaming.
The most important task in Active Dreaming is to capture your first thoughts as you wake up.
Even before my eyes flutter open, I often roll straight into thinking about breakfast or planning my day. It takes conscious effort to put those things aside and check in with my body and mind.
If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to remember some snippet of a dream. This might be as large as an entire scene, or as small as a vague emotion. At the very least, you can check in with how you’re feeling right now—anxious, relaxed, perturbed, comfortable—it’s possible this emotion is related to the last thing you felt in REM.
Whatever you’re able to capture, hold it in your head, and try to expand it. That vague emotion might turn into a sound, an image, or even just a sharper emotion. Or it might not. The important thing is that you’re taking a few minutes each morning to reflect. Establish the habit, and you’ll naturally improve over time.
I cannot emphasize enough: this is the core practice of an Active Dreaming. It’s the downward dog of dream yoga. Everything else builds on this.
A good way to reinforce that morning routine is to start keeping a dream journal. At the very least, it’s a tangible, measurable activity. But I often find that the process of writing triggers additional memories, beyond what I’m able to scare up by simply thinking in bed.
Again, you don’t need to capture full scenes in vivid detail—even writing down “I feel more tired than usual” is helpful. If you’re unable to recall dream content, try to remember anything that happened during the night: a drink of water, a turn on your side, your partner snoring; all these things can help trigger deeper memories.
Once you’re able to recall a good deal of dream content, you might struggle to decide what to capture. At the height of my journaling I could write for an hour and still feel like there was more to say.
A rule of thumb: emotion is more important than imagery. Think of the images as signposts for changes in emotional content. For example: “I felt excited. Then my boss showed up and I started to get nervous.”—the nervousness is more important than the color of your boss’ shirt.
Try to pinpoint the source of the emotions as well. Is it a fear your boss is going to yell at you? A realization you forgot to do something? The feeling you’re about to get fired? Following that path can help lead to further memories.
If you’re still struggling to remember your dreams, even after establishing a morning routine and trying to dream journal, you might want to try waking up throughout the night. You can set an alarm, drink lots of water, or just rely on normal tossing and turning.
Once you’re up, there are different thoughts on what you should do. I typically just follow my normal routine, noting how I feel and trying to remember any dreams. Others will get out of bed and read a book or have a snack. Figure out what works best for you.
There are hundreds of supplements out there that claim to improve dream intensity and recall. I’ve used a handful of these, with varying results. Unfortunately there’s very little placebo-controlled research.
The good news is: placebos are great! Taking a few minutes before bed to sip your dream tea or take your dream pill is a great way to establish an Active Dreaming mindset. If the last thing you do before bed is dream-related, there’s a good chance dreams will still be on your mind when you wake up.
Here’s a small list of supplements that seem mostly safe and possibly effective:
Vitamin B6 is one of the few supplements I could find a placebo-controlled trial for. It appears to improve recall significantly. (Note: very high doses of B6 can be toxic.)
Melatonin improves both vividness and recall for me. There’s some evidence it increases bizarre imagery—I’ve heard this anecdotally as well, but it’s not really the case for me. I like to think my dreams are already maximally bizarre.
I’ll also note that cannabis strongly inhibits recall—many people report vivid, intense dreams after quitting.
This article has a more complete list of dream supplements, but there’s some powerful shit in there I wouldn’t recommend messing with (e.g. fly agaric and DXM).
I would generally stay away from the pre-mixed “dream herb” concoctions you can find online. Stick to a single supplement for a while and see how it affects you. And make sure you understand any associated risks.
The last supplement I’ll mention is galantamine, an over-the-counter Alzheimer’s medication. I want to caution that galantamine is very intense and that I don’t have a full sense for potential side effects. Caveat emptor.
Galantamine is super effective at inducing lucid dreams (which we’ll get to in a minute). I’ve tried it maybe 8-10 times, and have had a ~75% success rate.
On the nights where it works, I’m lucid almost constantly. The experience is beyond intense, on par with LSD.
The best way to take Galantamine is after about four hours of sleep, so you’re primed for REM. You’ll probably feel like you’re dying or disintegrating as you fall back asleep—just stay calm and breathe. If all goes well, you’ll transition continuously from the waking world into a dream world, without losing consciousness. What a ride.
Fortunately, there are also natural ways of getting into a lucid dream.
Lucid dreaming is an end-goal for just about any Active Dreamer.
There are a wide range of dreamstates that could qualify as “lucid”. I place them along two axes: awareness and control.
Awareness and control are mostly separable—you can have one without the other. But it’s much easier to practice control once you have awareness. Later on, you might find you can retain control and let the awareness fall away, so you’re more deeply engrossed in the dream.
Awareness is typically the first thing lucid dreamers work on. The idea is to “wake up” within your dream, to realize that you’re dreaming. This can be a very trippy experience.
The simplest prompt to induce awareness comes from Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan in Journey to Ixtlan: “you must look at your hands.”
“I am going to teach you right here the first step to power…I am going to teach you how to set up dreaming.”
He looked at me and again asked me if I knew what he meant. I did not. I was hardly following him at all. He explained that to “set up dreaming” meant to have a concise and pragmatic control over the general situation of a dream, comparable to the control one has over any choice in the desert, such as climbing up a hill or remaining in the shade of a water canyon.
“You must start by doing something very simple,” he said. “Tonight in your dreams you must look at your hands.”
I laughed out loud…”Seriously, how can you expect me to do that?” I asked.
“The way I’ve told you,” he snapped. “You can, of course, look at whatever you goddamn please—your toes, or your belly, or your pecker, for that matter. I said your hands because that was the easiest thing for me to look at. Don’t think it’s a joke. Dreaming is as serious as seeing or dying or any other thing in this awesome, mysterious world.
This prompt somehow works for Castaneda. I needed a little more help.
A common method for inducing lucid dreams is to constantly question your reality. (Note: if you suffer from schizotypy, DPDR, or related mental illnesses, this might not be the best exercise.)
The idea is to routinely check whether or not you’re dreaming. It’s best to think of a trigger that occurs frequently in both waking life and dreams: seeing your partner, driving, hearing laughter, etc.
I perform a reality check anytime I experience something uncanny. Maybe the street I’m walking down feels differently lit, or I see someone who looks vaguely familiar. Really anytime it occurs to me, I take a second to check if I’m dreaming.
Most of the time you’ll find: “Nope, definitely awake. Right? Yeah. Definitely awake”. But at some point, you’ll have that exact sequence of thoughts while dreaming, so it’s important to be sure.
Here are a few things you can try:
Plug your nose and try to breathe. If you’re dreaming, you’ll find you can breathe just fine.
Try to push your right finger through your left hand. For me, it pops right through.
Try to read something, especially small, lengthy text.
Look at something detailed, then look away, and look back. Has it changed?
There’s a trend of naming lucid dreaming methods with an acronym ending in “ILD”. Here are a few:
MILD (Mnemonic-induced lucid dream)—repeating a mantra like “tonight I’m going to lucid dream” as you fall asleep.
DILD (Dream-induced lucid dream)—using a recurring dream or suspicious dream imagery to realize you’re dreaming.
WILD (Wake-induced lucid dream)—maintaining conscious awareness as your body falls asleep. Not for beginners.
FILD (Finger-induced lucid dream)—tapping your fingers as you fall asleep. I don’t really understand this one.
Lucid dreams are more frequent and vivid in the second half of the night, when you spend more time in REM. Sleep in if you can.
We talked about intermittent waking as a strategy for improving recall. It can also be a useful technique for inducing a lucid dream as your fall back asleep (sometimes known as WBTB for “wake back to bed”).
Make sure you’re sticking to your nightly and morning routines. The more you think about lucid dreaming—especially before bed—the higher your chances of success.
The first time you have a lucid dream, you’ll probably get excited and wake up immediately. So the next step is learning control.
The first thing to realize is that you’re never going to have perfect godlike powers in your dreams—there are always limitations. Never forget that you’re a guest in Morpheus’ house.
The second thing to realize is that every individual limitation is surmountable with practice and negotiation.
In the province of the mind what one believes to be true, either is true or becomes true within certain limits. These limits are to be found experimentally and experientially. When so found these limits turn out to be further beliefs to be transcended.
—John C. Lilly, LSD and dolphin enthusiast
Keep Calm and Stabilize
The first thing to remember is to stay calm. If you get too excited, you’re liable to pop out of the dream and wake up in bed. Before you try to do anything, just repeat “I’m dreaming” to yourself a few times. Look around. Figure out where you are and what’s going on.
Next, you’ll want to stabilize the dream. Maybe you can’t see anything, maybe your body feels stuck, or maybe you’re just a bit disoriented. There are a few things you can do to get things on track:
Engage with your environment. Use all your senses, especially touch. Touch everything you can, including your own body. Rubbing your hands together is great.
Ask to see more clearly. Really, just ask! This works surprisingly well for some people.
If you feel like you’re about to wake up, try spinning in a circle. Overloading the senses seems to help.
Once you’ve got a stable lucid dream going, it’s good to practice your skills a bit.
Flying is a common lucid dream activity. It’s fun, it’s fairly easy, and it can get you out of a jam quickly.
Teleportation is an equally useful skill. I can usually fall face-first into the ground and transport myself to another scene—though not always where I planned to go.
Summoning people and objects is another good skill to practice. Again, you can try simply asking out loud—sometimes Morpheus will cooperate. You can also open a box or a door while expecting to find your target on the other side.
In general, expectation plays a large role in dream control. Whatever you expect to happen tends to happen (as Lilly put it: whatever you believe to be true, is true or becomes true). This isn’t a rule so much as a tendency—you’ll find the dream world is very much capable of generating surprises. But its default strategy seems to be conforming to expectations. (This is probably why we tend to accept the dream world as reality, even when it’s at its most bizarre.)
So far, we’ve covered techniques for remembering dreams, as well as gaining awareness and control within dreams. This might be cool, but it’s not helping us grow or heal.
Once you’ve got the basics down, the real work comes from earnestly engaging with the dream world.
Dream interpretation is a touchy subject. Its role in psychoanalysis has been somewhat discredited and downplayed; an industry of nonsense has sprung up to compensate. There are more alleged “dream dictionaries” out there than I can count.
It is plain foolishness to believe in ready-made systematic guides to dream interpretation, as if one could simply buy a reference book and look up a particular symbol. No dream symbol can be separated from the individual who dreams it, and there is no definite or straightforward interpretation of any dream.
—C.G. Jung, Man and his Symbols
The dirty secret is that only you can interpret your dreams. And you’re liable to do a shitty job.
It’s far too easy to project your conscious desires onto the dream content, rather than listening to it on its own terms. Consider this study, which found that “the meaningfulness attributed to specific dreams…was moderated by the extent to which the content of those dreams accorded with participants' preexisting beliefs.”
Note, however, that it was the meaningfulness that was modulated by waking preferences—the raw dream content doesn’t play by the same rule. On the contrary, Both Jungian theory and my own experience says dreams will tend to challenge your waking beliefs and desires.
The upshot is: you should pay more attention to dreams which feel uncomfortable, scary, or bizarre. This helps correct for confirmation bias.
Again, focus more on the emotional content than on particular images and events. Instead of fixating on minor sensory details, meditate on what exactly makes the dream feel the way it does.
And remember that a literal, straightforward interpretation is not the goal. In fact, the word “interpretation” is a bit misleading—it makes it sound like your task is to translate the dream’s message into English. Instead, you should just let yourself soak in the feeling of the dream. Let it affect you the same way you’d let an abstract painting or a novel affect you. Feel what it has to say; don’t put words in its mouth.
Every interpretation is an hypothesis, an attempt to read an unknown text. An obscure dream, taken in isolation, can hardly ever be interpreted with any certainty. For this reason I attach little importance to the interpretation of single dreams. A relative degree of certainty is reached only in the interpretation of a series of dreams…the basic ideas and themes can be recognized much better in a dream-series.
—C.G. Jung, The Practical Use of Dream Analysis
As you start to analyze your dreams, try to find the patterns. Specific people, scenarios, or feelings will come up again and again, sometimes every night.
I’ve generally found that a dream—especially a stressful or frightening dream—will continue to recur until my emotional reaction changes. Responding with fear, anger, violence, etc seems to entrench the dream pattern.
For example: I often have dreams where I’m approached by a wild, dangerous animal. If I respond with fear or a preemptive attack, the dream quickly turns into a nightmare, and I end up mauled or dead. A similar scene is likely to recur the next night.
But if I make my default attitude one of trust and acceptance, I’m almost always able to befriend the animal. The nightmares stop, at least for a while. And waking life feels a bit more copasetic.
Developing a personal vocabulary for different characters and scenarios can be very helpful. You may even find that as you solidify a vocabulary, your dreams start to mold themselves to the categories you’ve constructed.
For example, I have recurring dreams that I label “garden dreams”. Each one is different, but they always take place in a beautiful, open setting. They’re often accompanied by music which I can control as though I’m conducting an orchestra. Usually there’s a woman there to guide me around, and a vague sense that she’s put this scene together for me. Identifying this pattern seems to have reinforced it: once a few aspects of a garden dream start to appear (say, the open space), my expectation of the other elements potentiates them.
You can also try starting with an existing vocabulary. I’ve adopted a few of Jung’s archetypes (especially the dream characters of Anima and Shadow), and have found that the more I pay attention to them, the more they show up in obviously recognizable forms.
Talking to Strangers
If you’re able to lucid dream with some control, a huge avenue for engagement opens up: conversing with dream characters.
I’ll caution that conversations in dreams are weird and hard to decipher. It feels like talking underwater. Twin Peaks did a great job of depicting the weirdness (David Lynch had the actors trained to speak their lines backwards, then played the tape in reverse).
I’ve found that I’m either able to speak eloquently but not understand my conversation partner, or vice versa: I can understand them fine, but can’t put my own thoughts into words.
Occasionally I’m able to do some sort of turn taking here, and have a legitimate conversation. But there’s a substantial shift in my mindstate each time I go from speaking to listening and back. (I have a pet theory that I’m essentially taking and relinquishing control of different brain regions with each turn. There are indeed different regions for speech production and comprehension. And sometimes, when I’m fully lucid, my dreams will sing messages to me—another way of sharing language control.)
Asking questions of your dream characters can be fun and surprisingly enlightening. Some dreamers will ask directly, “what do you represent?” or “what are you here to tell me?” with varying results. I’ve tried asking for advice on specific situations, but usually without much luck. Asking for general advice seems to work better—in a previous post, I reported a dream conversation which had a noticeable impact on my mental health.
One caveat: be kind to your dream characters. You have no rational obligation to consider them conscious, but you do have a moral obligation to take that possibility seriously. And you’ll likely find that your mind responds to aggressive behavior in kind.
If you’re not yet able to lucid dream, you can still ask for help. Take a few minutes before bed to think about what you might want to change about your day-to-day emotional state: to be happier, less anxious, more social, etc. Ask for these things directly, even if you’re not really sure whom you’re addressing. You won’t wake up an entirely different person, but you might have a dream or two that helps you sort through the situation.
The Rabbit Hole
The “red pill” metaphor is wildly overused, but it’s particularly salient here.
You have a choice: do you engage earnestly with your dreams, and treat them as important? Or do you write each one off as “just” a dream?
Whichever belief you adopt will be reinforced by the evidence of your senses.
If you ignore your dreams, they’ll remain mostly random and bizarre. But if you listen to the feelings they engender and absorb the recurring patterns, you’ll find your dream content becomes more structured and legible. Your dreams will begin to engage you in conversation—sometimes literally.
You’re going to spend a third of your life in bed anyways. Why not make the most of it?