Can You Confuse Lucid Dreams with Reality?

by Paul via Email

If everything you see, hear and feel in lucid dreams is the same as when you're awake, how do you know you're dreaming? Can you confuse lucid dreams with reality? What is the objective difference?

Rebecca Casale

Rebecca says: Great question. This is a common misapprehension about lucid dreaming and I'm more than happy to set the record straight.

In my experience (and, I'm sure, the experience of many lucid dreamers) it is not possible to confuse lucid dreams with reality. With the power of conscious thought behind you, knowing you're dreaming is as intuitive as knowing you're awake.

Any deviation from that truth would be an indication of psychosis, and I see no evidence whatsoever to tar lucid dreamers with that brush!

In fact, this myth of confusing dreams with reality stems from a common misunderstanding that lucid dreams can "feel" exactly like waking life. People think that if this is so, then the two states must be indistinguishable.

While conscious dreams can FEEL real, there are other factors, such as memory and logical thought processes, which clearly distinguish these states.

To illustrate this I have mapped out three separate states of awareness - waking reality, lucid dreams and normal dreams - as I experience them:

Lucid Dreams vs Reality

So while lucid dreaming is a conscious experience, it's a completely different state from being consciously awake, and it is easy to distinguish so.

How Do I Know This Isn't Real?

Philosophical arguments aside (what if reality is a dream itself?) here's a more specific example from last night's lucid dream and why I couldn't possibly confuse it with reality. There's nothing special about this example and I believe you could apply all the same rules of logic to any other lucid dream.

In my dream, I was standing on a mountain over a forest. The desire to fly made me realize I was dreaming. I became lucid and the scenery shot into focus - suddenly I could see thousands of pine trees as vividly as real life. I got a sense of how high up I was, and now, when I looked into the distance, I could see the shiny silvery sea. If it looked so real, how could I be sure I wasn't awake?

  1. I was standing on a mountain
  2. I was talking to an odd looking character I'd never seen before
  3. I had no memory of how I arrived on the mountain
  4. Moments earlier the scene was dream-like
  5. I said out loud "my body is asleep in bed right now"
  6. I had a memory of my real "normal" life
  7. I could fly and there was little sense of gravity
  8. I could fill the atmosphere with invisible waves to fly higher
  9. ...and so on...

But, you might argue, this scene was too fantastical to confuse with reality. So what if I dreamed lucidly of a very boring and lifelike scenario...?

Lucid Dream vs Reality

My experience of being in my living room in a lucid dream is not the same as my experience of being in my living room in reality.

The lucid dream version is self-contained. I can only hear things in the immediate vicinity or whatever my consciousness is focused on.

I don't necessarily know what day it is, nor what time of day.

The world beyond the living room doesn't exist yet until I go there. As a result, I tend to perceive only my localized bubble of awareness and there can be little room for separate lines of thought that don't directly manipulate my dream reality.

While awake, I might sit in my living room and daydream about being on a beach, while simultaneously being aware of both locales. In a lucid dream, daydreaming of a beach would most likely result in me appearing there, and the living room scene being left behind. In this thought-driven reality, thoughts drive the behavior of the "physical" dream world.

And of course, the big giveaway is, in a lucid dream I can do impossible things like push my own fingers through my hand (see: reality check). However, this is typically used to distinguish a dream from reality, and not the other way around.

Indeed, 95% of the population goes to sleep every night and fully accepts their dreams as reality. It's only when they wake up they realize it wasn't real.

In this sense, you can confuse normal dreams with reality, can you not?

But there is no concern for a sane mind to become locked in the belief that they are lucid dreaming, when in fact they are awake.

The Memory Exception Have you ever recalled a memory of something trivial then realized it wasn't a real memory - but a recollection of a dream? For a moment you were fooled. Why?

Memories are tricky. They are blurry and subjective and emotionally rooted. You can't critically analyze them in hindsight and so it's easy to confuse snippets of dreams with real life memories.

By the way, we're talking about mundane memories here - a snippet of conversation perhaps - not jumping off the Empire State Building!

False Awakenings

A final word on false awakenings - aka dreaming of waking up.

These can be exceptionally realistic dreams, like the most vivid kind of lucid dream, and yet you still don't know you're dreaming. Because you dreamed of waking up, you naturally assume you are now awake. Confusing, much?

A false awakening has all the characteristics of a lucid dream (vivid, intense, self-awareness) without realizing you're dreaming or taking conscious control. It is a good example of a scenario where you can confuse a dream with reality based on it's tangible and realistic nature.

The worst case scenario in a false awakening is you get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, head out the door for work... only to wake up, back in bed again. This next awakening can be a false awakening, too. And so it can be a frustrating cycle.

The answer is to perform a reality check when you wake up. Often this transforms a false awakening into a lucid dream!

And while for some people the experience may frustrating as it plays out, I don't believe there is really any doubt of reality when you finally do wake up for real. Objective thought will reveal whether you are dreaming or not... and the only reason a false awakening persists in the first place is because dreams lack objective thought.

This is the key to distinguishing your reality for what it is - and it's automatically provided by a healthy human consciousness.

About The Author

About The Author

Rebecca Casale is a lucid dreamer and a science writer with a special interest in biology and the brain. She is the founder of World of Lucid Dreaming and Science Me.