Dr. Jason Ellis is a Professor of Sleep Science and Director of the Northumbria Sleep Research Laboratory in the United Kingdom. As an expert in Behavioural Sleep Medicine and a Practicing Health Psychologist under the HCPC, Jason splits his time between researching the pathophysiology of sleep disorders and his applied work in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia. (Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.) 

What happens in our bodies when we dream and what purpose do they hold? 

Before we talk about dreams, it’s important to know more about sleep itself and where dreams fit into that. We normally think that sleeping is a passive process. People are quiet with their eyes closed, but we use just as much energy at night internally, as we do during the day, physically. There are very distinct stages of sleep. At night, our brains start to calm down. Stage one of sleep, we go from being awake but relaxed to being asleep. 

Stage two is deeper, you can sleep and dream, although these dreams are likely to be more concrete and dull. Here we review everything experienced throughout the day to determine whether you need to keep that information or get rid of it. In stages, three and four of sleep is where we fix all of the bodily systems. 

After that, we go back into light sleep, then we go into REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. This is mostly associated with dreaming – the fantastical, vivid, unusual dreams. The two main functions of REM are to consolidate memory and regulate emotions. 

How often do we dream and what affects our ability to recall our dreams? 

We dream every time we have REM. As the night progresses, the amount of REM increases. The first time that you actually have REM is about 90 – 100 minutes after you’ve fallen asleep. People remember their dreams because they wake up during REM, they haven’t progressed into a lighter stage of sleep and therefore have the memory trace of what was going on at that point. We’ve done studies with people who say they never dream and we wake them up when they’re in REM and they remember all kinds of weird and wonderful things. 

Why do we dream and how can insomnia affect our dreaming? 

People with insomnia dream differently from people who sleep normally. Their dreams are associated with the problems they are having, so they dream more negatively and remember more because they wake up more often during the night. When we study people’s dreams, they go from being negative in the first part of the night to very positive in the second and last parts of the night. We think that’s one of the main functions of dreams. 

One theory about why we dream is trying to cope with the emotional self. The first part of coping is acknowledging the problem and that might be happening in the first part of the night. Then by the last part of the night, you’ve dealt with that problem and you can have a happy dream, in most cases. 

What exactly is lucid dreaming? 

The general definition of lucid dreaming is being consciously aware that you are dreaming. Some people go further and suggest you should be able to control the dream as well. 

How can lucid dreaming potentially benefit people who suffer from insomnia? 

I have a colleague in Quebec doing research on people with insomnia and their dreams. As part of her research, she would wake people during REM sleep and ask them about their dreams. She then noticed that their insomnia would improve in the morning every time she had woken them up during the night. This first wasn’t making any sense, why is it that waking people up in the night is actually resolving their insomnia? However, we then realized that if you know that you are dreaming, you must know that you are asleep. In a lot of cases, people with insomnia think that they’re awake throughout the night, but they’re not, they’re actually sleeping. 

We then decided to look into how we can get people to acknowledge that they’re asleep, without disturbing the sleep itself and we came up with the idea of lucid dreaming. So we set out to train people with insomnia to lucid dream and see if it actually improves their insomnia. And it did! In repeated studies, we saw that not only did they get better in terms of their insomnia, we saw reductions in anxiety, and depression as well. These people got better in terms of their entire mental health. 

How do you train someone to lucid dream? 

There’s a technique called the MILD technique – Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams. We have adapted that to teach people to do it themselves in the context of insomnia. The first technique is about keeping a dream diary where you write down as many details about the dream as possible and highlight anything unusual in the dream. This reinforces two things, the ability to remember and recall dreams, and the ability to identify the difference between being awake and being 

asleep. During the day when you’re awake, rehearsing that dream starts to reinforce the idea that you can put them back into another dream the next night. 

The next technique is known as fact-checking. To check to make sure that we are awake, we can touch and count our fingers 1-2-3-4-5. Doing that during the day sends you a prompt at night to do the same thing. However, when you are asleep, you may count but you won’t have that visceral response meaning you will be able to realise that you are dreaming. Just before you go to bed, reinforce the dream goal by picking one thing that you underlined from your morning. And then it’s all about practising these techniques. 

What was interesting is we taught all of that over two days, in two half day sessions. And then people rehearsed it. And actually believe it or not, by the end of a month 77% of our population could lucid dream. 

What impacts have you found of lucid dreaming on anxiety and depression? 

We’ve used dreams to help with anxiety and depression. People with PTSD have a lot of nightmares that are difficult to manage. During the daytime, we get people to recall those nightmares, and then start to change the endings of them. We also do this with children when they have nightmares. This is one of the reasons why we think that lucid dreaming may be a helpful treatment for PTSD, except we’re doing it while somebody is asleep. Therefore affording them the opportunity to get to that point of positive dreaming by the end of the night. 

Is there anything that we can eat or should avoid eating in order to help us lucid dream during the night? 

There haven’t actually been any good studies on foods but there are studies where we’ve given people artificial supplementation, mainly acetylcholine. In those instances, that has been shown to increase the chances of lucid dreaming, but it’s a bit hit and miss. There are certain things we should avoid. Most dairy foods increase the amount of mucus making you more vulnerable to waking up at night. This increases the likelihood of waking up at some point during REM and remembering it. Things such as kiwi fruits, tart cherries, olives, and nuts, specifically walnuts, tend to increase the quality of our sleep. 

Does melatonin affect dreaming? 

This is not well studied. Studies suggest that melatonin doesn’t really affect dreaming because melatonin affects the body clock. Sleep is made up of two main processes: the body clock and the homeostat. Melatonin helps with the timing of our sleep, it doesn’t necessarily change the dynamics of REM so it’s not likely to change the dynamics of dreaming.  

What is the impact of waking up in the middle of REM? 

We don’t believe this should be bad for you. The largest impact you will find if you wake up during REM is that it will be more likely that you will remember the dream. 

Are there any potential risks from lucid dreaming? 

To be honest, at this time, we don’t know. Thankfully, a scientist in Israel has done a study looking at whether the impact of lucid dreaming itself is positive or negative. And the answer is it’s positive. They found that it led to more creativity and problem solving, even for something not associated with the lucid dream. 

What can we do to wake up in the best way for our own well-being, and what steps can we take when we go to bed to support waking up naturally? 

Sleep works on 90-minute cycles. Most of us have experienced waking up and feeling gorgeous. The likelihood is, you have woken up at the very end of that sleep cycle. Re-organizing your sleep timing into 90-minute blocks, where you actually will wake up at the end of a sleep cycle, is the key to waking up feeling refreshed, ready, and not groggy at all. 

What would be three things that we can put into place to improve our well-being, to help with our sleep quality? 

The top tip for getting a good night’s sleep is never trying to sleep. Two, put the day to bed before you go to bed. Have a nice hot bath around two hours before bedtime. It tricks you into thinking that you’re ready for sleep. Finally, in terms of lucid dreaming, it really is about fact-checking throughout the day. 


  • Nicole is Head of Practitioners at Walking on Earth, a digital holistic health platform. She has a bachelor's degree in Psychology and Neuroscience from Maastricht University and a masters degree from VU Amsterdam. She is passionate about using technology to help people make their lives better so they can spend more time doing what they love. Walking on Earth satisfies that interest by providing a platform that helps people learn the tools and techniques to build resilience and live happier and healthier lives.