Dream a Little (Great) Dream

Ah, nightmares. They can ruin your morning. But an amazing dream can help you wake up refreshed and excited for the day.

Is there a way to control which kind of dream you get?

Throughout history, philosophers, religious leaders—even entire societies—believed dreams could be directed or controlled.

“When one is asleep, there is something in consciousness which tells us that what presents itself is but a dream,” Aristotle wrote in “On Dreams,” published in 350 B.C. Ancient Hindu tracts described how to direct consciousness within the dream and visions state of sleep. Tibetan Buddhists believe one of the most important spiritual skills is the ability to navigate your dreams.

In 1913, Dutch physician Frederik van Eeden discovered that a person could wake up in their dream and know they’re dreaming.

“Instead of dreaming being a rather passive and dimwitted event, you could not only appreciate your dreams more, but actively turn them into adventures to your liking, ranging from flying over the most beautiful countrysides to conjuring up an absolutely real-seeming discussion with your favorite philosopher or deceased friend,” Dr. Jayne Gackenbach and Jane Bosveld write in their book “Control Your Dreams: How Lucid Dreaming Can Help You Uncover Your Hidden Fears and Explore the Frontiers of Human Consciousness.

Lucid Dreaming

We’ve all had the occasional lucid dream, where we are aware we are not experiencing reality. But changing the course of the dream is more difficult. There are some more practical ways to direct and determine the subject and action of our nighttime reveries.

“Dreaming is simply the mind continuing to think about our problems in a very different biological and psychological state,” writes Dr. Deirdre Barrett, a Harvard professor, in the journal Dreaming, about research she later turned into a book. “The dream’s power lies in the fact that it is so different a mode of thought—it supplements and enriches what we’ve already done awake.”

For one week, Barrett had students think about problems before they went to sleep. Half said they dreamed about something related to the problem, and most of those people thought their dream had a solution in it. Students in the study solved more personal problems than academic ones.

Dreams are better at solving particularly thorny problems than easy ones.

In a study published in the journal Memory & Cognition, researchers gave participants a set of problems ranging in difficulty.

“After a period of sleep, wake, or no delay, participants reattempted previously unsolved problems,” the study authors note. “The sleep group solved a greater number of difficult problems than did the other groups, but no difference was found for easy problems.”

Problem solving is not the only way to control your dreams.

Want to think about someone specific—a former love interest, a late grandparent or a far-away friend? Put a picture of them near your bedside and tell yourself you want to dream about them.

“If you used to have flying dreams and you haven’t had one in a long time and you miss them, find a photo of a human flying,” Barrett told Scientific American.

But before you can control your dreams you have to be able to recall them. Stay in bed a while after you wake up, Barrett advises. Aromatherapy has also been shown to help dream recall. In a study, rose oil was shown to increase dream recall.

Another way to help remember your dreams is to keep a dream journal next to your bed. When you awake, write down your dreams or any bits of dreams you remember. With practice, you should be able to recall them more and more.