It’s estimated that most people will have a lucid dream — one in which they are aware that they are asleep and might have some measure of control over their actions — at least once in their life. But there are those who claim to “get lucid” much more frequently. Studies have shown that lucid dreaming — reported anecdotally throughout history, but only scientifically documented in 1975 — can be successfully induced with a range of techniques from acoustic stimulation to herbal supplements. (There are even online resources like the Lucid Dreaming Fast Track, an at-home tutorial created by a woman who taught herself to lucid dream during adolescence so she could overcome her anxiety and low self-esteem.) Neuroscientist Susana Martinez-Conde, who has written about her dreams for Scientific American, says that they have been the most bizarre perceptual experiences of her life.
Recently, Science of Us spoke with 55-year-old Peter Maich of New Zealand about his experiences as an advanced, lifelong lucid dreamer.
What does it mean when you say you’re a lucid dreamer?
When I’m asleep, I’m aware that I’m dreaming. I find myself flying, running, exploring, or playing in a virtual reality where I have some control over aspects of the scene and setting. This dream leaves impressions that are as strong or even stronger than anything I experience when I’m awake. It’s fascinating and it’s extremely powerful and it’s all in my own mind.
A lot of people will talk about lucid dreams in religious terms, other people think they’ve had an out of-body experience, and some say that they have been abducted by aliens. The experiences are so real. But I don’t think like that, and I have had several hundred of those scenarios occur during my thousands of lucid dreams.
So I take it you’re not religious?
I have no religious beliefs. The last time I saw a godlike figure in a dream, I told him to get out of my way. I told him, “I’m not interested in you, you are no use to me — go!”
How many dreams do you usually have each night?
My average dream recall is five to six dreams a night. The most I have ever sat down and written in my diary is 13. But they are not all lucid. I have had three to five lucid dreams of varying length in one night. I can also reenter the same dream after waking up.
Is that restful sleep?
I’ve always been a terrible sleeper. I have broken sleep. I don’t think I’ve ever slept through a night unless I had too much to drink or I was exhausted. I was a fisherman for 20 years and small boats bounce around and disrupt you at night. Or I drove big ships, so I’d have six hours on and six hours off — it was a broken sleep cycle. I also had terrible nightmares when I was a kid. I used to lock my door before I went to sleep because I was scared of things coming to get me, but doors were no barrier — they would manage to get through.
As I got older, I would have a recurring nightmare where a big crowd was threatening me. The experience was very disturbing. Over time, I’d get angry in the dreams. I didn’t have the vocabulary for “fuck you,” but it was the equivalent of that, and at one point, I just started destroying things. I took over. And all of a sudden it was like, a-ha, I can pick on these bullies. Without being aware of what I was doing, I exercised control.
So these were your first lucid dreams?
As a boy I didn’t comprehend the concept of lucid dreaming. I would say they were dreams where I was aware I was the agent in the dream. They were intense as nightmares, but low-level as lucid dreams, because I didn’t know I was in control. I was just a fully aware victim.
How did you discover that you were having lucid dreams?
I’m 55 and I had no idea what lucid dreaming was until about seven or eight years ago. Whatever I’ve discovered about it, I’ve sat down and puzzled out myself. I joined all the dots after that from what I learned about it on the internet.
What made you start researching?
I just knew my dreams weren’t normal. When I was young, I used to hear talk of LSD and other drugs and think, That’s not even a patch on what I’m doing. Because of the flashing lights and funny sensations, I thought it could be a brain tumor. You have to understand the intensity. I thought, What the hell is going on? What’s wrong with me?
Did you go to a doctor?
I didn’t even think to go to a doctor and say I am having these weird dreams. For so many years, I felt like an outsider and like nobody could relate to what I was experiencing. The biggest relief was learning that within a small percentage of people it was normal, and I wasn’t suffering from a major illness.
Before I knew I was a lucid dreamer, I had a lot of control of myself in the dreams — but I didn’t take control of what was going on, because I didn’t know I could. I couldn’t say, “I want to be somewhere else. I want to do something different.”
So how do you know you’re having a lucid dream?
After I learned about lucid dreaming, I started mucking around with reality checking, which is a common way to establish that you are dreaming. A lucid dream can be so real that you are aware of yourself but can’t establish that it’s a dream. What I tend to do is touch materials, then with gentle pressure, my hands will go through and I know I’m dreaming. One of my favorite things to do is put one hand through another, and it tingles and I get an electric shock.
I also regularly meet these dream characters whom I can talk to directly, like I’m talking to you now, and I’ll say, “You know that you’re dreaming?” And they’ll say, “No, what’s wrong with you? You’re not dreaming!” And I’ll say, “Okay, watch me.” And I’ll get my hands and I’ll put them up inside my head. I put my fingers out through my eyes. It took me quite a few years to work up the courage to do that. To put my hand though my hand, that’s not so bad — but to put your hands inside your head where you brain is and mush them around, you have broken all sorts of cultural taboos.
So, if I’m trying to convince a dream character we are dreaming, I will put my hands in my head and poke a finger out each eye socket and wiggle it at them. It’s an odd feeling and you can see your fingers coming out from the inside. It also has an impact on the dream characters — they usually get out of there as fast as they can.
Who are these “dream characters”?
Among the many, there are about four who have been with me forever. It’s a man, a woman, and two younger girls. They tend to appear in different guises. Sometimes they help you, sometimes they hinder you, sometimes they are just there to watch you fail. They don’t always appear together.
Do they always look the same? What are they like?
They can be slightly different in appearance, but have what I term the same “energy imprint.” I can know them, even if they look a little different. There is a male figure aged around 50 or 60 and he is a commanding figure. His presence is one of infinite wisdom and power. It’s almost too difficult to comprehend. The female figure is around the same age and his counterpart — but she does not interfere or take command of the dreams the way the male figure can. The other two are females in their mid-20s. One has bright red hair. They are cheeky and full of mischief.
In one dream, I was being operated on in a hospital bed. The characters were saying that they were preparing me for a journey. They had the big needles and they were going to jab me. The characters in my dreams have a mind of their own.
Now that you know what they are, do you actively seek to have lucid dreams?
I will get lucid maybe three times a week, and within those three times, the longest I have ever stayed in that state is over two hours. You can run out of things to do. But the thing is, these dreams allow me to get rid of all the bullshit of daily life. It’s another world with memory and taste sensations. What I describe as a playground. A lot of people get caught up in having sex in that state. It’s what they want, it’s what they crave — so it’s what they do. You can fantasize about someone, create them, and then experience them.
But you are more likely to use your lucid dreams to deal with the problems in your waking life?
I went though a breakup with a long-term partner with whom I have four children. During that time, I got lucid. I was standing in the hallway and there was a door and I said, right, I’m not afraid of this door, and on the other side, I want to see a group of people that I know and I trust and we are going to come up with a solution to this problem. And so I went through the door. And there were about ten of my good friends in there, guys I grew up with, and some former colleagues from when I was at sea.
I trusted them because we worked together in such extreme conditions. So my subconscious had populated this room with a whole bunch of people who I felt comfortable with and we sat down and worked out the strategies for getting the settlement that suited both me and my former partner. So a very practical application is to have dialogue in the dream and come up with solutions. I find that quite powerful. The next day, I called up my lawyer and figured out an agreement.
Are you yourself in your dreams?
Yes, I’m totally myself — but at times, I see a kindness that I didn’t know I possess. There are some dreams where I may not be fully lucid, but I have some awareness. It seems that you have been tested in some way, and without asserting control, you make a choice, and then with recall you can judge those actions. These dreams leave me feeling good the following day, like I made the right choices. For example, I was riding my bike and went past a group of people standing on the side of a street. There was an old lady in a wheelchair. She was looking at me. I rode past her and then decided to go back. I picked her up and carried her across the street to where the other people were waiting. She was very light and small and her body changed to a baby while she was in my arms. When I took her to the other group, they all looked very happy and pleased with me.
Can you describe what it’s like to enter a lucid dream?
You watch yourself go to sleep, and you are laying there relaxing — and while that’s going on, you watch another part of your mind close down and go to sleep. Suddenly you are standing there fully formed in your dream, and you have not lost any awareness of who you are and what’s going on.
What are your favorite things to do in dreams?
I like to fly and feel the cool air on my skin. I like the feeling of being flooded by light and energy. This can leave an afterglow for up to two days. Sometimes I have an urge to destroy and it’s normally buildings, so I wreck a whole city just for fun. I like visiting bakeries and gorging on doughnuts and cakes and desserts. I sing in the most perfect voice — this is coming from a person who was singled out by the teacher in school choir and told to pretend and not actually make any noise. I like creating space ships and flying them — organic ships that are living and full of wicked high-tech toys. I love running. I don’t run in real life, but I run when I dream and I wake up with a sense of having had that run. So I feel like a runner even though I only do that in lucid dreams. I like playing with my kids and reliving the memory the next day.
Let’s talk about your waking life for a second. You’re a fisherman?
I grew up in Christchurch, New Zealand. Dad left home when I was very young, so I have no real concept of having a father. My mother didn’t remarry — she spent most of her life by herself. I was a loner, but I always liked my own company. And I was selfish with my own time. I did martial arts and every Saturday and Sunday, I rode my bike to go fishing at local rivers or beaches. I loved collecting birds' eggs from the trees. I was small and light and it was my job to climb the highest trees. I’d also get lowered over a cliff on a rope to get pigeon eggs and my mates wouldn’t haul me back until my pockets were full. I left school at 15 because I was a bit fed up with it. I ended up working at sea on small boats and on the Fiordland coast for about ten years, then for a major seafood producer on factory boats for another ten years.
At night, there were around 20 computer screens. Coupled with the stars, it made for a view that reminded me of the Enterprise in Star Trek. It really was like a space ship out there with the isolation and a closed community of people with a common purpose. These days I own a fishing school that places young people on factory ships.
What’s your online involvement like these days? Do you regularly interact with other lucid dreamers?
About four years ago, I felt the need to see if I could find other people with similar dream experiences, so I searched the net for some sites and forums. I put myself out there and I discussed my dreams and techniques for getting lucid. I’m now a moderator on one of those sites. I’m keen to get involved in research around lucid dreaming and want to share some of the more interesting dreams I’ve had, so I plan to build my own website. These dreams can make you quite lonely and you fear talking about the feelings that go with them. It’s nice to see kids as young as 10 seeking help or understanding on forums. These sites help bring some normality to an abstract skill.
What’s your technique for getting lucid?
Every time I close my eyes, I want a lucid dream. And keep in mind that to get there you have to be utterly relaxed, relaxed enough to observe your mind closing down. That’s a meditative state. I might look behind in the darkness of my eyes and get completely calm. Everything I do is a precursor to getting ready to get into that dream.
Do any substances help you get lucid?
I do use supplements for dreaming like Galantamine and Choline — both are commonly used in the dream community. I used it for about two years, about once every two weeks, which is not much. There’s a wonderful book out called Advanced Lucid Dreaming by Thomas Yuschak and I refused to read it for a long time because it talks about using supplements — I thought, That’s cheating! It will seriously alter brain processes and make it easier to get into the dream state. Or they make you retain that dream state longer.
But you need experience. It’s like Lance Armstrong: He chose to use drugs, but he could have won anyway, as he had the talent. I think a lot of people who have these vivid dreams should learn how to be creative with them instead of being scared of them. The supplements and book helped me understand the chemical processes and changes that occur naturally in the brain. They helped me understand the micro stages for dream entry and replicate them. They also helped me break down the fear barrier within the lucid dream so I can go deeper and experience more.
But the best thing for me is good old coffee. I drink a cup, go back to bed, close my eyes, and I will start to see a few images in front of my eyes. I will relax into those and, five to fifteen minutes later, I am fully lucid and walking around in a dream.
Do you ever use your dreams to help you with your work?
About five years ago, I started trading on the U.S. stock market, because I am awake at odd hours, anyway. A while ago, in a lucid dream, I created a virtual trading room. I said, “When I go through this wall, I want to see a trading room and I want it to be like the Enterprise.” Sure enough, there are six big computer screens on the wall. Then I said, “I want a coil seat,” so a whole lot of tubes and vines came out of the floor like a big snake and they picked me up and held me there.
And then I said, “I want to see some patterns that are successful. I want to see patterns that will make money and I want to be able to identify them when I wake up.” So I just started to look at the flickering on the screen and somebody comes up and says, “Nah, I don’t want you to do that.” I said, “Go away, get out of my face and I picked him up and pushed him through the wall to rid of him.” Then I woke up and thought, You dick! Here I was in my dream trying to think of ways to make my trading better and here’s someone sitting next to me saying “You can’t do this” — why didn’t I ask him to help me do it?
How do you feel when you wake up from a lucid dream?
Let’s take the example of the dreams I have about my children. They live about six hours away, so I only see them once a month. Often when I get lucid I say, “Right, I want my children.” And there will be a door and I’ll go through it and they’ll be sleeping and I give them a cuddle. You know what your children smell like, you know the warmth of their bodies, you know everything about them. It fully engages you in your dream and really solidifies your senses.
Recently I got lucid and I saw my daughter and she said, “What do you want to do, Dad?” And I said, “I want to go flying.” So I take her arms and I grab her and we start flying and it’s a real experience with my kid; she’s shrieking and we soar over the sea. Then I thought, Okay, I have to get on with the dream, I have some things I want to do. So I took her to the ground and dropped her off at a party with her friends.
I wake up in the morning and, in my mind, I have had my kids. I have cuddled them; I have played tricks on them. It’s as real as it can be.
This interview has been edited.