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What Does Lucid Dreaming Feel Like?

by Jimmy Leonard | Updated 22 Jan 2024

Sueño Labs does not provide medical advice. See our terms and disclaimers.

An abstract representation of what a lucid dream feels like
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If you’re new to lucid dreaming, you may be wondering what the experience feels like. Can you really do whatever you want? Is that awesome or terrifying? Or, maybe you had a lucid dream and you’re curious if what happened is how it’s “supposed to” feel. While lucid dreaming is different for everyone, there are some common characteristics of lucid awareness that are true for most people.

This isn’t always talked about, but lucid dreaming takes practice. In fact, most people startle themselves awake the first few times they “go lucid,” and if you can stay dreaming, breaking free from the logic of the dream is harder than it sounds. But once you master a few basic skills, you’ll find that there’s an added intensity to most sensations. Because everything is happening in your mind, not your physical body, some dream encounters will hit you differently than they would in your waking life. It all comes down to setting your mental expectations.

Sueño Labs is committed to normalizing conversations about dream science and dream interpretation. While many of the notes below are based on anecdotes and personal experiences, we’ve tried to throw in the scientific rationale where possible. If you’re curious to learn more, our first e-courses are coming later this year. Contact us to make sure you don’t miss it!

What Lucid Dreaming Really Feels Like

First Up: Are You Trapped in a Dream World?

Before jumping in, let’s acknowledge a common misconception. Some people are afraid to try lucid dreaming because they fear they’ll be “trapped” in a dream state — fully conscious but stuck in a psychologically distressing scenario. Hollywood depictions haven’t helped here. Think Nightmare on Elm Street or Inception when Mal loses touch with reality after spending what feels like decades in a dream world.

Or, maybe it’s a related fear but for the opposite reason. What if lucid dreaming is so fun that it becomes an unhealthy addiction? Does it then distract from real-world priorities and relationships?

To the first point, lucid dreaming is the opposite of being trapped. A benefit of understanding your dreams is that you have more control over your subconscious thoughts. If you have a recurring nightmare, for example, lucid dreaming can reframe the situation so it’s no longer frightening. Or, if you just want to be done dreaming, you can wake yourself up.

As for the other fear, lucid dreaming is no more addictive than any other form of mental escape, such as reading, video games, or scrolling on social media. Many would argue that lucid dreaming is actually quite healthy for your psyche. It’s important to know your limits and not obsess over trying to induce a lucid dream to the point where it’s a detriment to your healthy sleep, but the dream state itself is not addictive. You dream multiple times per night anyway, so as long as you’re sleeping, you’re going to be dreaming, whether you’re lucid or not.

Choose Your Own Adventure

Here’s my favorite way to explain what lucid dreaming feels like. If a regular dream is like a movie where you’re the main character and you just have to watch whatever happens, a lucid dream is like a choose-your-own-adventure role-playing game.

For example, you might have a regular dream that you’re building a sand castle at the beach. You’re aware of the ocean and the sunshine and the people around you, but it’s all just happening. You don’t think about it or question it until you wake up and say, “Oh, I was dreaming about the beach!”

In a lucid dream, however, you figure out that you’re dreaming before you wake up. So, the scene is still there, but you can suddenly decide. Do you want to keep building this sand castle? Would you rather go swimming or talk to someone on the beach? It’s very difficult to completely alter the setting — we’ll get to that in a moment. The subconscious acknowledgment is, “I’m at the beach.” The lucid part is, “What do I want to do while I’m at the beach?”

Keep in mind, dreams typically don’t begin lucid. (There is such a thing as a wake-induced lucid dream where you attempt to go straight into a lucid dream, but that’s not where most beginners start.) Instead, you’ll be having a regular dream, then notice a dream sign that signals to your conscious self that you’re dreaming. For example, if you frequently dream of the ocean, you might think to yourself while you’re building the sand castle, “Hey, I dream about the ocean a lot. I’m at the ocean now. Is this a dream?” This realization is usually a quick process, like a light switch suddenly turning on in your brain. It just “clicks” that you know the scene is a dream. For most people, this realization comes with surprise and exhilaration.

Sometimes beginners get so excited that they actually jolt themselves awake. If this happens to you, don’t fret. As lucid dreaming becomes more common in your sleep patterns, it won’t be as startling. After the initial shock and thrill subside, you’ll be in the dream state, asking, “What do I want to do next?”

The Laws of Physics Apply

As mentioned, it’s difficult to completely change the setting of a lucid dream. If you’re at the beach, it’s hard to suddenly transform the landscape into a snow-covered mountain or Martian landscape. Why? In a dream, the laws of physics still apply.

“But wait!” you’re thinking. “What about dreams where I’m flying? That’s against the laws of physics!”

Sort of. But birds fly, don’t they? And airplanes, and bugs, and bats — flying is not your normal experience, but it’s not impossible. Hold the thought.

Your billions of experiences with the normal laws of physics have hardwired the expectation into your brain. Gravity pulls things down, exerting a force makes something move forward, and friction slows the moving object. These laws are subconscious expectations that carry over into the dream state.

So when you’re lucid dreaming, you need to consciously address these default assumptions with a rational workaround. Consider — how easily can you imagine a world where gravity doesn’t exist? All of the implications and nuances are hard to nail down. It’s much easier to imagine a world where gravity is normal, but you have the superpower to fly. Do you see the difference? You aren’t breaking the laws the physics so much as you’re creating an exception to the rule.

When you’re in a lucid dream, anything is possible, but your conscious mind usually needs a small rationalization to manipulate the scene. Follow the logic here:

  • I have telekinetic powers. When I jump, I’m going to fly up to the clouds.
  • I’m in a house, but behind that closet door is outer space. When I open the door, I’ll be in outer space.
  • I’m lost in the woods, but when I turn around, I’ll see a path out.

As long as there’s some logic to your expectations, you can maintain control of the dream and do otherwise impossible things.

Thoughts and Emotions Are More Vivid

Most lucid dreamers experience an intensity of thought and emotion. If you’re happy, for instance, you’re hyperaware of that happiness and feel it in every interaction. Studies have associated lucid dreaming with increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of your brain that regulates your thoughts and emotions. This could be a reason that lucid dreamers have a heightened sense of self.

There’s also the more practical reason — dream plots are narrow and focused. In a dream, you aren’t thinking about needing to go to work or how you’re hungry or what the traffic is going to be like. When all of the daily distractions and noise are gone, you are more in tune with your emotions.

Your Physical Senses Are Suppressed

This makes sense — sleep is cerebral. You aren’t literally eating, drinking, touching, or anything else. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy physical sensations in a dream. Just remember that everything is simulated. To put it another way, if you’re scared in a dream, that’s a real emotion of fear actually happening in your brain. The dream can affect your mood and behavior even after you wake up. If you eat a cheeseburger in a dream, there is nothing real for your taste buds or stomach to experience. It’s not like you wake up feeling full.

Here’s how that distinction impacts the five senses.

  • Sight – you don’t need glasses in a dream. Nothing is ever out of focus because you aren’t relying on your eyesight. If you do have blurry vision in your dream — which isn’t uncommon — it’s symbolic, not physical, and will likely have an emotional attachment.
  • Touch – your brain will supply contextually relevant clues (you might imagine wearing a coat in the winter for example), but your actual skin perceptions will be off. It’s common to walk through a wall or put your fingers through the palm of your hand in a dream.
  • Hearing – dream sounds happen in your mind, so you may hear someone speaking even if their lips don’t move. Similarly, it’s common to dream someone is speaking to you in a foreign language and yet you somehow understand every word.
  • Taste – eating is surprisingly rare in regular dreams considering how often it happens in real life, but in a lucid dream taste tends to follow your expectation of pleasure, not the real-life texture of food. For instance, it’s enjoyable to eat a sweet dessert, but you don’t necessarily identify the precise flavors or consistency as you would normally.
  • Smell – like taste, smell is rare in dreams. One estimate suggests olfactory sensations occur in 1%  or less of dreams. Perhaps this is because smell is so closely related to memory. In a dream, you can skip straight to the memory without needing a scent to trigger it.

Although many lucid dreamers report clearly defined and sensual experiences in their dreams, the distinction is that these physical sensations are emotional in their basis. If you eat ice cream in a dream, it won’t be cold (the physical sensation) but it will be delicious because that’s the pleasurable experience in your emotions. Likewise, if you run a mile in a dream, your legs won’t feel tired (the physical muscle fatigue), but you’ll have the emotional triumph of accomplishment. So what about sex? As any therapist will tell you, sexual intimacy is emotional. This is why sexual dreams can feel incredibly intense.

A side note here is that your brain can selectively respond to real-life sensory stimuli and incorporate them into the dream. Consider the new mom who’s so tired she could sleep through a hurricane but will wake instantly to her baby’s cry. Or, maybe you’ve had a dream where a siren is blaring only to wake and realize that “siren” is your phone alarm. Similarly, if you have the urge to go to the bathroom in a dream, it’s likely because your bladder is full in real life. So while generally speaking all physical sensations are simulated in a dream, some may be reactions to real-life sensory input.

Getting Hurt or Dying in a Lucid Dream

Technically, no, you cannot get hurt in a dream while you’re lying safe and warm under the covers. But that’s not what you’re wondering, right? Even if you aren’t literally hurt, you can dream about pain, and your brain’s expectation of pain can lead to an emotional sensation.

One survey found that up to 30% of people with chronic lower back pain report dreaming about being in pain. This could be an instance of the dream world responding to a real-life sensory stimulus as described above. In a lucid dream, pain follows the imaginative course of action, not the pain receptors in your body. If someone punches you in the gut in a dream, you might think, “Ow, that hurt” because you expect it to. But then you can change the scene and forget about the pain as quickly as it came.

As for dying in a dream, it’s far more common than most people realize. Death is incredibly metaphorical and could even be positive in your dreams, perhaps representing a major transformation or milestone in your life. Most lucid dreamers agree that death in a dream is like death in a video game — sometimes it happens and then you just restart. Dying in a dream might be scary at first, but you wake up and realize you’re fine. It’s not unusual, it’s not a sign of any psychological condition, and it’s not something to be afraid of.

Distorting Time and Space

Many people wonder about time dilation in dreams — does time move slower while you’re dreaming?

This is another idea popularized in Inception, where five minutes in real life is an hour in the dream. Interesting as that sounds, that’s not how it works. What gives this impression is that can you “skip” all the boring parts.

Let’s say it normally takes you 20 minutes to drive from your house to work. In a dream, you can step through a portal in your backyard and suddenly be at work. This gives the impression that you’ve just done “20 minutes’ worth of activity,” because that’s what your brain is used to, but of course, you haven’t. I had a vivid dream once about running a marathon that included the whole race, start to finish. More accurately, I dreamed about the start and the finish, but not every detail along the imaginary 26.2-mile course.

Compare it to watching a movie. The plot in the movie might cover days or weeks of storyline, but the movie is literally only two hours long. Your longest stage of REM sleep is usually 40-60 minutes. When you wake up, you might feel like you did hours of activity in a dream, but if it were possible to watch a replay, you’d see everything occurred in 40-60 minutes of real time.

To summarize, time doesn’t move slower and distances don’t get shorter. You just can skip around more easily.

Can You Really Do Whatever You Want in a Lucid Dream?

Your mind is the limit! In theory, yes, you can do anything you can imagine in a lucid dream.

What most beginners don’t realize is how hard it is to stay lucid. It’s a careful balance of not getting so creative that you excite yourself awake and not being so mentally tired that your conscious mind gives up and just lets the dream do its own thing. (Remember, you’re literally trying to sleep in real life. Your brain wants a rest.) There are some tricks of the trade to help you stay aware and prolong the dream, but if you’re reading this as a beginner, it’s important to set the bar law. Your first few lucid dreams will be thrilling but short-lived. Keep at it, and you’ll eventually find awareness is a habit of your dreaming.

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Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy is a marketing content strategist and copywriter who moonlights as the editor of Sueño Labs. A self-taught lucid dreamer, he enjoys helping others understand and master the skill.

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