Dream Leaf, a supplement that says it can improve dream recall and cause lucid dreams, looks like it was pulled straight from The Matrix. The black bottle contains 30 red pills and 30 blue pills, along with precise instructions on how to take them. Its website calls Dream Leaf "the world's most advanced lucid dreaming supplement."
As somebody who's experimented with lucid dreaming in the past (with limited success), I was intrigued. Lucid dreams are the phenomenon where you realise that you're dreaming and going on to manipulate and control that dream. Because reports of lucid dreams are mostly subjective and come from individuals recalling their dreams later, some academics discount them, claiming the dreamer has just misremembered.
I'd only achieved a lucid dream once before, recognising I was dreaming as I stood on a cliff face, and going on to control that dream by flying around. I woke up with an almost overwhelming feeling of positivity and child-like excitement. This product seemed to be promising that in a cheap, quick fix.
The blue pill contains 5-Hydroxytryptophan (also known as 5-HTP) which is an amino acid most commonly sold as an over-the-counter antidepressant, as well as the herb mugwort. According to the company's website, mugwort has a calming effect and aids sleep, while 5-HTP creates something called an "REM rebound loop." Dream Leaf says this means the amount of time spent in REM sleep (the type of sleep where dreams occur) is lengthened, which increases the chances of a lucid dream.
The administration of the pills has a sci-fi precision about it
The red pill contains Huperzine-A, a herb that apparently helps the user access memories; Alpha GPC, a natural compound found in the brain that Dream Leaf says it uses to "promote rational thinking whilst in REM sleep"; and choline, the nutrient most often found in B-vitamins and which Dream Leaf say is "the single most effective ingredient in dream recall".
Alex and Connor Southworth, the guys behind Dream Leaf who describe themselves as "dream researchers," at least seem to have done their homework, and I was interested. Could a couple of pills really help me to cultivate better, more vivid, and more controlled dreams? I ordered one bottle, containing 60 pills—a one-month supply—for $30. I waited a couple weeks for them to arrive from Salt Lake City, where the company is based. The ingredients in the pills are legal in the US and the UK as supplements, so ordering was no problem. I got in touch with Alex and Connor to ask them some questions about Dream Leaf for this article, but received no response.
The administration of the pills has a sci-fi precision about it. I had a choice: I could take one blue pill directly before going to bed and set an alarm for four hours later to wake up and take the red pill. Or, for light sleepers, take a red pill three hours before bed the first night and a blue directly before bed the next (and repeat). My boyfriend wasn't keen on being woken at 3 AM every night, so I went for option two.
In my first few days of taking Dream Leaf, I noticed an alarming change to my sleep. I usually have fairly vivid dreams and I almost always remember my dreams in detail after waking up. Immediately after starting to take Dream Leaf, I'd wake up completely blank, as though my sleep was completely void of dreams. I was tempted to stop taking them straight away, but figured a major change like this implied something must be going on in my brain.
Over the next few nights, my dreams returned, but were more confusing than any dreams I've had before. For the next week, my dreams every night were about ordinary things I might have done in real life, as though my brain were trying to test me—to challenge me to know the difference between my dreams and my reality. One night I dreamt my Mum had texted, asking me to call her urgently; when I did (at 7 AM), she had no clue what I was talking about. Another night I dreamed I'd left the bath running, woke up in a panic and ran to the bathroom convinced I was about to encounter a deposit-destroying disaster. Everything was fine.
Eventually I got used to this, and learned to think more carefully about my dreams and line them up with what I'd done the day before, and slowly I started to notice that they were, in fact, just dreams. As soon as I worked this out, my dreams changed again. About two weeks after starting to take Dream Leaf, I had my first supplement-induced lucid dream.
I dreamed I'd accidentally stood up a friend, who I was supposed to be meeting at the theatre. I'd forgotten and gone out for drinks with colleagues. This detail was pulled straight from real life—I really did have plans to go to the theatre that week. As dream-me panicked and called my friend, ready to grovel and apologise, I noticed the street I was standing on didn't look right; some of the buildings were from the street my office is on, and some from the street where I live. I realised I was dreaming and simultaneously remembered Dream Leaf, my previous nights of confusing dreams, and my previous attempts years ago to have lucid dreams. It was a bizarre Inception-style experience, where my conscious life, dreams and memories were layered upon one another in a way I've never experienced before. Once I realised I was in a dream, I went to my go-to lucid dream activity—flying. This lasted a few seconds before I woke up.
"It's like building Ikea furniture. You can speed up the process if you use a power drill, but if you toss away the instructions at the same time, you won't know what you're building."
I didn't feel as excited as I had the first time I dreamed lucidly without help. In a weird sort of way, I felt like a cheat. I got in touch with Ian Wallace, a psychologist who helps private clients understand their dreams and who is well aware of Dream Leaf through clients who have taken it. He takes a dim view of supplements like it. "I'm really challenged by anyone who takes anything to alter their brain chemistry," he said. "Because the brain is a massively complex system and anything you take has knock-on effects. If you're taking any kind of medication, using hydroxytryptophan would be a very bad idea. And one of the problems is [that] by using these kinds of supplements, it can prevent you from lucid dreaming naturally."
Jared Zeizel, author of A Field Guide To Lucid Dreaming: Mastering the Art of Oneironautics, has experimented with lucid dream supplements in the past, but agrees they aren't a quick fix to controlling your dreams. "There aren't any shortcuts to having a lucid dream," he told me. "Some folks are lucky and lucid dreams occur naturally, but if you're training, you only shortchange your skills by taking supplements. It's like building Ikea furniture. You can speed up the process if you use a power drill, but if you toss away the instructions at the same time, you won't know what you're building."
When I explained my experience to Wallace, he suggested the process of taking the pills might have more impact than the ingredients, like a placebo effect. "There's a kind of ritual about it," he said, and told me any kind of ritual around sleeping can improve the quality of sleep.
Wallace and Zeizel both insist the only real way to become a lucid dreamer is by the slow process of trial and error I'd used in the past. It's true that shortcutting my dreams, jumping to the end point without learning anything about myself in the process, made me feel a bit uneasy. I fill my days with timesavers—ready meals, Ubers, fitness apps. But a quick fix for dreaming seems a step too far.
You'll Sleep When You're Dead is Motherboard's exploration of the future of sleep. Read more stories.