How to Give Yourself Vivid, Crazy Dreams
Remember that time you rode your Brazilian unicorn across Jell-O Lake to save Venus Williams from the burning spaghetti factory? Ahhhh, those were the good old days...
Bizarro dreams are kind of like an acid-trip lottery: you never know when you'll hit the jackpot. But there may be ways you can play the odds in your favor. Like your teenage self, dreams are pretty easily influenced, so try your hand at a couple of these techniques, and you might see your trusty unicorn again in no time.
The first step to having crazy dreams is actually remembering them, and in the immortal words of Marty McFly: "If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything." A 2007 meta-analysis concluded that someone's attitude toward dreaming is the strongest indicator of recalling dreams. Basically, if you want to remember dreams, then you're more likely to remember them (deep, right?).
Most people dream four to six times per night, but you're not paying enough attention to remember them. Before going to sleep, mentally expecting to "have" and remember dreams might just be your best bet in making sure you feel like you're actually having them.
Write it down
Once you've got it in your head that you're going to dream, the next step is recording it. Gently place a camera on your mind's eye, then... totally kidding, though the idea of keeping a "dream journal" probably garners just as many eye rolls.
Unlike recording your mind's eye, keeping a logbook about your dreams is a proven method for increasing dream recall. Intending to dream makes you pay attention to your crazy dreams. Logging the dreams immediately after waking up helps you remember that craziness. Just label your dream journal something like "Accounting Records," so no one has any desire to read it or make fun of you for having it.
Play video games
Excuse me. Finish work first. Then play video games. Lucid dreaming, or the ability to control your dreams, is a rare skill pursued by spiritualists and clinical scientists alike. The science of lucid dreaming has been inconclusive (to say the least), but recent research might be on to something that could justify those daily Call of Duty marathons.
Research performed over more than a decade found that gamers report having more lucid dreams than non-gamers. The lead researcher hypothesized that gamers can exercise control over dreams thanks to experience controlling fantasy worlds in video games. Further studies suggest that lucid dreamers potentially possess greater insight into solving real-world problems with their dreams. So disregard everything your parents and ex-girlfriends ever told you: video games are for winners! They're for winners, dad!!!
Sleep on your stomach
Are your dreams lacking a certain va-va-voom? Do you ever fantasize about being crushed? Have you ever wondered about auto-erotic asphyxiation? Then boy, do I have the sleeping position for you! A 2012 study found that people who sleep stomach-down report higher instances of sexual and suffocation dreams (not clear how often they were combined). The effect isn't fully understood, but might have something to do with body compression. Whatever it is, maybe wait until you're in a bed alone to try this. Things could get really awkward for the person next to you.
Smell the roses
If your room smells like a foot had a baby with a Taco Bell, your dreams might be suffering the consequences. A small study out of Germany exposed 15 sleeping volunteers to the smells of either roses or rotten eggs during REM sleep, the most active dream state. Upon waking, the volunteers were asked to describe the overall feeling of their dreams. Every single participant reported having positive dreams when exposed to the smell of roses, while most reported negative experiences with the rotten eggs. If rotten eggs sound appetizing compared to your bedroom's "musk," it might be time for some air freshener.
Suppress your thoughts
What happens when you're told something is off limits? You can't press that one button. You can't open that one door. You can't date that one co-worker. The more you try to resist the urge, the exponentially more you fixate on it.
A 2013 study discovered that this sort of suppressed fixation can cross over into your dreams. When study participants were asked to suppress thoughts about certain objects before sleeping, they reported higher frequency of said objects appearing in their dreams. Your subconscious clearly has no respect for your willpower. So come bedtime, try really hard to not think about that rooftop pool party with Beyoncé, and you might be really "disappointed" when you wake up in the morning (especially if you sleep on your stomach).
Herb it up
People are always telling you to eat more greens. Try starting with Calea zacatechichi, better known as the "dream herb." Used by the Chontal Indians of Mexico to induce mild hallucinogenic trips, the dream herb is one of the few (legal) herbs that might increase vivid-dream frequency. It's pretty easy to find in tea form, although you probably shouldn't have a tea party with it, unless you want that party to end up as a sleepover. Other herbs, like mugwort and Huperzine A, get a lot of hype in the lucid-dream world, but there's not much evidence to corroborate these claims.
If you're desperate, load up on meds
Your brain is a delicate balance of chemicals. So delicate, in fact, that even something as seemingly harmless as Nyquil can mess it up. While the exact cause is unclear, nightmares and wildly vivid dreams are a known side effect of Nyquil.
Nicotine patches, especially the 24-hour kind, have been shown to cause similar experiences. Nicotine has a unique relationship with brain activity and REM sleep, creating an environment ripe for not just having crazy dreams, but also for remembering those dreams in the morning. Most commonly prescribed drugs for mental and emotional disorders affect dreams in the same way. So if you're a flu-ridden recovering smoker on benzodiazepines, you're probably in for some wild rides.
With the study of dreams being largely subjective, there are hundreds more claims out there about how to influence your dreams. Hell, one study even says different cheeses might cause different types of dreams (never mind that it was funded by the British Cheese Board). Whatever you end up trying, avoid riding that unicorn too hard.
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Nicholas Knock is a freelance writer for Thrillist who spent last night dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight. You can follow him on Twitter: @nickaknock.