The Lucid Dreaming Experiment

Now you can read us on your iPhone and iPad! Check out the BTRtoday app.

Few things are more boring than listening to other people talk about their dreams. But every once in a while, you’ll come across someone who has mastered his consciousness from the inside out—someone who can attain lucidity in his sleep and manipulate the very structure of the dreamworld to suit his whims.

These are the lucid dreamers, the oneironauts who summon by sheer force of acuity the creative faculties of their wakeful minds within the realm of slumber.

My personal relationship to dreams has always been somewhat conflicted. While most of my friends saw a nonsensical amalgamation of the day’s minutia play out in their sleep, I witnessed the rise and fall of alien civilizations, found myself stranded in the heat of a fierce battleground, or bound to story lines that spanned generations and foreign dimensions. I’ve spent entire nights soaring over the surface of the world, somehow bodiless, a wind that sees everything and everyone. And when I was nine, I dreamed about different iterations of the apocalypse for several months straight—many thanks, I’m sure, to the release of Deep Impact.

I love that my dreams are vivid and frequent, but some nights they feel more like an assault from my subconscious mind, and I am powerless to disrupt the course of the fantasy, no matter how exhausting or frightening it may be.

I have accidentally stumbled upon brief, glimmering moments of lucidity many times. For instance, the realization that all of my teeth have suddenly crumbled will naturally prompt me to think that the scenario is just too ridiculous to be real. But the realization that “I must be dreaming!” always startles me out of sleep, and any prospect of harnessing unconscious awareness slips away.

So I started to think: if my dreams already brim with powerful imagery, and if I already recall the adventures that transpire within them, why not just train myself to become lucid? Why remain moored to unconsciousness when I could explore my mind within an ethos of my own design?

Welcome to the lucid dreaming experiment. After conducting some research, I ordered an all-natural supplement that promised to promote the induction of lucid dreams through a potent combination of vitamins and herbs. In concomitance with my preexistent practice of meditation and keeping a dream journal, I set out to find if taking one of these pills every night for 10 days would result in lucid dreams.

Two days later, I tore open an Amazon package and found inside a cobalt blue bottle reminiscent of an apothecary’s artifact, labeled plainly: LUCID DREAMS.

Time to get weird.

Each gelatin capsule contains a powdered blend of vitamins B-6 and B-12 (at 4,000 percent the daily value), 5-HTP, Melatonin, EGCT green tea leaf extract, Choline, and Huperzine A–a highly distilled extraction of toothed club moss that is commonly used in treatments for memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease.

Of course, no pill can produce lucid dreams on its own. The process of achieving lucidity depends more upon one’s mindset than anything else.

Susana Martinez-Conde, professor of neurology, physiology, and pharmacology at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center and director of the Laboratory of Integrative Neuroscience, tells BTRtoday that “people who tend to wonder more about the content of their thoughts or who constantly analyze their motivations” have a higher probability of being lucid dreamers.

“Those people who are not very reflective about their thought states during the day are not likely to be lucid dreamers at night,” she says.

Supplements like the LUCID DREAMS pill serve only to increase the likelihood of users experiencing lucid dreams by deepening sleep and extending the amount of time that dreamers spend in states of Rapid Eye Movement (REM). Huperzine A acts as a long-lasting acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitor, causing an excess of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter associated with mental clarity and enhanced cognition.

While these supplements may create a broader window for lucid dreaming to occur, they can also lead to more frequent instances of micro-awakenings and sleep paralysis.

If you’ve been lucky enough to make it this far in your life without ever experiencing sleep paralysis, be grateful. Speaking from personal experience, it’s just about one of the scariest things that can happen when you’re alone in the dark. Essentially, your body continues to experience the muscle paralysis associated with REM sleep while your brain wakes up. To make the experience of being trapped inside your own body even worse, these occurrences are commonly accompanied by the sensation that a sinister presence is in the room with you.

Ryan Hurd, founder of Dream Studies Press, recalls an episode of sleep paralysis brought on by the first lucid dreaming supplement he ever tried.

“I woke up a couple hours after going to bed wrestling with titanic forces,” he writes. “It felt like my brain was being drawn and quartered… I kept falling back asleep into these bizarre dreams that I can only describe as my head being scraped against the bottom of a submerged iceberg.”

Hurd had taken a Galamantine supplement, which operates nearly identically to Huperzine A as an AChE inhibitor. Lovely. Let’s get started.

Needless to say, I was super freaked out after reading about Hurd’s experience, and I considered abandoning the experiment altogether. But in the name of journalistic conquest (and some selfish curiosity), I burned a smudge of white sage, crawled in bed, and swallowed one of the gelatin capsules with water. To take my mind off of the fact that I might wake up paralyzed in my own body and feeling like a ghostly presence was doing pushups on my chest, I read a few chapters of Harry Potter.

What followed was a night of some of the best sleep I’ve ever experienced. Yet unlike most mornings, when I wake up with a cascade of vibrant narratives unraveling into my awareness, I was unable to recall anything but a few muddy vignettes: the spinning drum of a washing machine, a quizzical look on a friend’s face, an unfamiliar room.

I thought that perhaps I was groggy from the Melatonin, and that the contents of my dreams would present themselves to me throughout the day, as it sometimes happens.

But I couldn’t remember anything aside from a few disparate images—an enormous departure from my usual dream recall.

The following night, I shook off my lingering apprehension and took the capsule before bedtime. Again, I awoke feeling balanced and refreshed, but the night’s visions remained completely obscured.

Feeling more confident that the supplement would not induce a terrifying episode of paralysis, I considered two options to help the process along.

Option one: the Wake Back To Bed (WBTB) technique, one of the most popular methods for lucid dream induction among experienced practitioners, which entails exactly what its name suggests. I would go to sleep, wake myself up, reflect on the contents of my dreams, take the supplement, and go back to bed. The vast majority of lucid dreams occur early in the morning, making this method a highly effective means of nudging your awareness into conscious sleep.

Option two: take two pills. This option seemed far less desirable to me, however, because I’m never comfortable increasing a dosage when I’m unsure of the outcome.

For a busy New Yorker who spends 15 hours a day out on the hustle, setting a habit of waking myself up in the middle of the night to think about my dreams was not really my idea of a good time. Nevertheless, I pursued the WBTB method for the duration of the experiment.

What I found was an astonishing correlation between early morning wakefulness and the occurrence of hyper-vivid dreams. Every single day that I woke myself up at 4 a.m. and went back to sleep, I tumbled into a succession of dynamic journeys replete with colorful dreamscapes and characters. In one dream, the floor of my room was an endless abyss of clouds and light. In another, I flew over a stony promontory that jutted into a glistening sea.

But despite my intention, not one of these experiences yielded a lucid dream. Whether or not the pills had any effect on my sleep, I can’t really say. I feel that the process of focusing on what I wanted, combined with the practice of regaining consciousness briefly in the morning, did more to induce my dreams than the supplement could.

The best thing one can do is likely to prepare for sleep mindfully: engage in self-reflective thoughts throughout the day, or better yet, make time to meditate; set an intention for lucidity and actively think about how you want to achieve it; keep a dream journal and focus on enhancing your dream recall; and if you have the nerve, commit to the WBTB method.

I would not be surprised if a 30-day trial resulted in lucid dreams. Regarding matters of the mind, there is no shortcut that bypasses the value of practice and repetition. As for me, I’m going to enjoy a few nights of uninterrupted sleep.