You're fast asleep, floating between dreams, blissfully unaware that you're lost in your subconscious. Suddenly, you find yourself able to control certain things: You can talk to people, fight off zombies, or even fly. That's called a lucid dream; it's when you manage to walk the fine line between sleeping and waking, and studies show that about 55 percent of people have done it at least once. While for some, lucid dreaming takes conscious effort, for others it doesn't take much at all; it may even just be a nightly routine.
Lucid dreaming doesn't just give you the chance to do cool shit without consequences, either: According to a 2015 study, it can also help you combat chronic nightmares. You can do the devil's dance with your favorite celebrity, or kill that asshole who's been chasing you with a knife all night—it's all in your hands. We talked to a bunch of young people about what they do when roaming this no-holds-barred alternate reality.
Tiffany, 26, Manhattan, NY
How did you start lucid dreaming?
From a really young age, I always had vivid dreams where I had control. I thought it was normal until I started telling people about it, and they were like, "What? How do you do that?"
What kind of stuff do you generally do?
I sometimes try to prove to people that we're in a dream. Or if it's a bad dream, say I'm being chased by zombies, I'll want to move on to the next dream. So I'll let them catch me and it sucks, but I get to go to the next dream because I die. It's really weird.
Have you used it to help you in any way?
I've used it to get myself out of nightmares by talking myself out of it or going somewhere, because I know I'm dreaming. And there's this weird way I can actually sometimes wake myself up if I remember it in my dream. I hold my nose and shake my head in my dream, and I actually wake up shaking my head. I've done that quite a few times to wake myself up from a nightmare.
Matt, 23, Dedham, MA
How long ago did you start lucid dreaming?
The last couple of weeks, actually. When I realize I'm in a lucid dream, I start doing bad shit that would normally make for a really stressful dream because I can discern that I won't get in trouble. But when I'm aware it's a dream, it's not stressful at all.
Can you describe one?
One of the most vivid ones I had was just three days ago. I was chilling in a bank and the money was all out in the open, so I went to go grab it, but I couldn't because of some invisible obstruction. That's how I knew it was a dream. I was like, 'this is a little too fuckin' weird,' and I realized I could probably stay out of trouble, or I could run and become a criminal. So I decided to do the latter, and it was an on-the-run type of dream. When I heard sirens and shit I decided to spice it up, because I knew I had it all under control. So I went back to the bank and saw all these cops there. I decided it'd be cool to have a gun, so I got a gun. It was pretty sick to run from the cops and shit. I bailed after that.
Austin, 24, Minneapolis, MN
How can someone learn to lucid dream?
A few times throughout the day, you wanna ask yourself if you're dreaming, even if you're fully aware that you're not. You wanna get in the habit of regularly asking yourself if you're dreaming. And there's some things you can do to verify that you're in dreams. I always try light switches, which don't do anything if you're dreaming.
What's one of the craziest experiences you've had?
I had this bizarre one where I met myself. There were two of me: the real me, and the 'dream Austin,' who didn't speak, didn't know how to communicate. It felt animalistic and barbaric, and I think I was recognizing the part of myself that has control over these dreams, this unconscious self. It was a very illuminating experience, seeing myself as this, like, animal that was incapable of language.
How has lucid dreaming impacted your life?
I feel more secure in myself because once you reach a point in lucid dreaming, you're literally in this sandbox where you can do whatever you want. You don't get that in everyday life. You can hypothesize what you would do, but in lucid dreaming you actually get to do it.
Howard, 24, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
What's your favorite thing to do in a dream?
I did a series of experiments where I'd try to teach myself how to fly. First I'd try to jump up in my dream and sort of suspend myself; I'd only get like three feet off the ground. It took maybe two years to be able to sort of glide, and then actually be able to fly in all directions.
What changed once you learned how to fly?
I remember the pinnacle, when I felt like I'd really mastered this. I had this dream where it was a sort of scary situation, but I was able to airlift my little brother and carry him to safety. After that, I felt like I'd accomplished what I guess at the time was interesting to me within lucid dreaming. I also realized it's only during really shallow sleep that I was able to have any sort of control over my dreams.
How else did it prove useful to you?
Lucid dreaming really helped me during times of potential dissociation—like having experiences with psychedelics. Just being able to ground [myself]. To be like, "Is this really happening? And how do I bring my mind back to a place of control?" Instead of letting your consciousness slip away from you, you're able to redirect it into a manageable place.
Ed, 26, Brooklyn, NY
Why do you lucid dream?
I could say it's useful as a form of meditation, but it can also be dangerous. Because you might end up digging up something you don't want to. Nightmares happen, even if you're conscious about what's going on. There's definitely something useful there. It's a form of catharsis that we find by approaching the abstractions that emerge from our subconscious.
How else has it affected your life?
The most important thing it's done for me is gotten me in touch with a sense of fate. I've had some dreams where the details were so clear that [I was reminded of] what I wanted to do with my life. It's all about destiny in the weirdest, most abstract way. You can't put your finger on it.
Justin, 24, Brooklyn, NY
What got you into lucid dreaming?
I was about eighteen when I read about it online. It sounded like an awesome idea. I always like my dreams, so the idea of lucid dreaming seemed like an awesome prospect. So I tried it and thought it was cool the first few times. When I was good at it, I used to fly a lot. It was super fucking awesome; I felt like Neo in the Matrix.
What was your scariest experience?
I was alone on a huge ass beach stretching infinitely in both ways. There was a huge wall of water slowly approaching me on some tsunami shit. I knew I was dreaming but I couldn't wake up, and that ultimate fucking wave just kept coming towards me. Knowing it was a dream, knowing there was no way to stop it—that was crazy. I can't remember if I woke up in time or not.
Do you still do it?
Not really. After a while, I kind of missed dreams where I actually didn't know if I was dreaming. Those became more exciting because the stakes felt real.