Reality checking is a technique which has it’s origins in Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, where the ego must recognize the difference between the external and internal world. Reality Testing, as it is known in a psychotherapeutic context, allows the ego to distinguish between; fears, beliefs, hopes, and actual reality.3
Reality checking is a simple, easy to use technique designed to increase your critical self-awareness, and to form a habit that will carry over into your dream behaviour.
The process of reality checking goes right to the core of lucid dreaming. In order to have a lucid dream, you must be able to tell the difference between a dream and waking reality. A reality check gives you a specific action you can take, when you suspect, for whatever reason, that you might be in a dream. This action will serve as a test, and when the test fails will provide a trigger for your mind to realise “I am dreaming”.
There are two parts to the reality check, and both are equally important. The first is critically asking yourself the question, “Am I dreaming?”, and then the second is physically performing your pre-chosen test, to confirm or reject your suspicions.
The test can be any action, which will consistently give one result when you are awake, and a different one within a dream environment. Fortunately years of experimentation within the lucid dreaming community have produced a list of discrete, reliable, reality tests:
The Impossible Breath – Hold your nose, pinching it between your thumb and forefinger while keeping your mouth closed, then try to breathe in. If you can, it’s a dream!
Changing Words - Read any written words you can see, turn your head away for a moment and then look back. Have the words changed? This also works with clocks and watches. Did the time suddenly jump?
The Palm Push - Take two fingers and gently try to push them through the palm of your other hand. Remember to will this to happen at the same time as performing the action.
Check Your Hands – Hands often appear distorted, or even invisible in dreams. Look down at your hands, and check ; Do you have 5 digits on each? Are your fingers the right thickness? The right colour?
Mirror Check – Just like dream hands, dream reflections often appear distorted. Take a look in a mirror, does everything look normal?
Light Switch – A strange quirk of dreaming, is that very often a light switch will not work. Flicking a light on and off again is a good check.
The Ghost Hand – A similar principle to the palm push, try to will your hand to push through a solid object like a table or a wall.
Computers & Phones – Switch on your computer or your phone; is the background right? Are the right Apps or Programs there? These are the kind of details your dream will often get wrong.
There are two strategies for using Reality Checks to help you achieve lucidity. Each is based on a different psychological principle:
1.) Make it a regular habit; by performing a Reality Check as many times as possible throughout the day, you increase the chance of the behaviour being carried over into a dream.
2.) Targeting your Reality Checks to specific events; performing a check when you see something unusual, or when you encounter something which you have previously identified as one of your dreamsigns .
The first method relies on using a large volume of checks so that many temporary neural connections are built. While dreaming, your brain is processing the memories of the day, and if that includes having performed lots of reality checks, and lots of instances where you have been thinking about lucid dreaming, that increases the chance of these temporary connections being triggered, and the reality check behaviour spontaneously showing up in your dream content.
Each individual check may only have a 2-3% chance of being picked up by this processing, but you only need one check to be processed to provide the trigger for you to become lucid. By performing 20 or 30 checks throughout the day, you can significantly increase the probability of at least one check being triggered while dreaming.
The second way you can use Reality Checks, by targeting them to specific events, uses a classical conditioning approach to develop longer lasting neural associations between a particular object or experience and the process of performing a check. This allows you to link your Reality Checks, with specific things, which are likely to show up in your dreams.
This second method takes longer to develop, but is more effective, reliable and efficient in the long run. To get results from this second route, you need to have good dream recall, and have identified at least a small set of recurring dreamsigns.
Performing reality checks can directly induce lucid dreams by themselves, but they are most effective when combined together with other techniques, such as autosuggestion, intentionality and LaBerge’s Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams.1
There are also a number of tactics for improving the effectiveness of the Reality Checking technique, for more information see how to get the most out of your reality checks.
1. Stumbrys, T., Erlacher, D., Schadlich, M., and Schredl, M. (2012). Induction of lucid dreams: a systematic review of evidence. Consciousness and Cognition (21), 1456-1475.
2 . Freud, S. (1911). Formulations regarding the two principles in mental functioning. Collected papers, 4, 13-21.
3. Arlow, J.A. (2017) Fantasy, Memory, and Reality Testing.The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 38:1, 28-51