Dream control techniques explored to improve waking life

From lucid dreaming to dream interpretation, curiosity about the sleeping mind’s activities is rising. Vision discovers what’s spurring our interest and why some psychologists embrace dream control as therapy

When it comes to dreaming – something we all do – it’s alluring to share your surreal tales and listen to others’. What do they mean? Are they more or less obscure than those of the person sitting beside you? Do you have recurring nightmares? For this writer, the answer to that last question would be yes. Every so often while deep in slumber, I imagine losing control of a car. I push the brake, but it won’t stop. Frightening as it feels, there’s never a crash.

Dream control is part of that newfound appreciation for dreams

Dr Deirdre Barrett, Author of The Committee of Sleep

“It’s a pretty common one,” says Dr Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist and the author of The Committee of Sleep, who is renowned for her work in dream research. There is a way out, she says. When awake, “you could rehearse another scenario, or tell yourself that you don’t have to be in that dream – imagine another situation.”

With enough meditative practice, it would be possible to step into a dream and change its fate. The technique of dream management, or “incubation”, has taken several forms in the past. Ancient Greeks prayed to deities for meaningful visions. The dream philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism, originating at least 1,000 years ago, focused on comparing dreams with waking reality to understand consciousness with greater clarity.

In the late 20th century, the psychophysiologist Stephen LaBerge experimented with DreamLight, a device worn as a mask over the face that delivered light cues during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep to induce lucid dreams, which the sleeping person is aware of dreaming. 

Group meetings have proliferated across major cities recently and apps are available to help people record dreams and make them more aware of them with the help of soundscapes.

“There’s more of a realisation that dreams can be important with an eclectic, informal approach,” says Barrett. “Dream control is part of that newfound appreciation for dreams.”

Through mental training while awake, in sleep you could fly, walk through walls, meet your favourite celebrity, solve a career crisis or, importantly, treat psychological challenges such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

In the UAE the younger generation values dream interpretation, says Dr Mohamed Omar Salem, consultant and the chair of Al-Ahli Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry in Doha, Qatar. Several passages of the Qur’an and around 100 accounts of the Prophet (pbuh) refer to dreams and dreaming. When faced with a difficult decision, Muslims often perform a prayer for guidance, Salat al-Istikhara, before sleeping, in the hope that the answer to the problem will be delivered in a dream.

“The best interpreter is the dreamer herself,” says Dr Salem. “Dream interpretation is an art, similar to learning a new foreign language. Dream symbols are the words of the dream language. It is advisable to keep a regular dream diary, with dates, titles, characters, emotions and interactions in the dreams. Then the dreamer can construct a dictionary of her symbols over time.”

Many, meanwhile, pursue their dreams without the support of others or technical interpretation. Jessi Lembo, a 21-year-old photographer from Brooklyn, heard of the lucid dreaming practice and did her own research online. She says that it “is possibly the greatest escape there is. There are few experiences that are as cool as being able to close your eyes in a dream and all of a sudden go from being outside in your backyard to being on the top of a mountain,” she says. “I believe that the subject matter and events that take place in dreams aren’t random. So being aware of these subjects and events as they are happening in real time in the dream can help identify my own internal cognitive issues.”