It Was All a Dream

This episode of YR’s Adult ISH podcast offers a roadmap for subconscious adventures with journalist Alice Robb, author of “Why We Dream.”

It Was All a Dream

Between the overlapping crises of our modern era, most people are struggling to hold it together these days. So in this episode, YR's Adult ISH podcast team offers tactics to create one’s own imaginative haven. First, producer Dominique French chats with “Why We Dream” author Alice Robb about lucid dreaming techniques and the power of one’s subconscious mind. Then, we take you on a soundscaped journey, to get away from it all.

Adult ISH is produced by YR Media and brought to you by PRX’s Radiotopia. Be sure to follow all our socials @yrAdultISH!

Episode Transcript

Dominique: Psst! You awake? Nyge is still sleeping, but come with me! It's producer Dominique French and this week, I'm your host. Welcome to Adult ISH, produced by YR Media and brought to you by Radiotopia from PRX. 

Life can be hectic, full of noise, obligations, choices and deadlines. It's enough to make someone long for escape. Depending on who you are, this escape could come in many forms. Food, drugs, sex. But what if I told you there's a form of escape that is no-cal, free and won't ask, “You up?" It's something you already have the power to do in a place where you can be in complete control and you've been sleeping on it this whole time. 

This week we're exploring dreams and those who have the ability to control them. 

Have you ever had a moment in a nightmare when you realized, “This can't be real. I must be dreaming.” Perhaps you're able to wake yourself up and end  the nightmare all together. A handy skill. But did you know that some people are able to do things like fight back? They have the self-awareness in their dream worlds to become, for example, an invincible flying blackbelt? That self-awareness is called lucid dreaming Something I myself tried to do this week.

Dominique: Woke up in the middle of the night or, for me, 7:00 a.m., which is the middle of my night. Had a dream about missing shoes, which is ....(fades) 

Second attempt to try to lucid dream, which I did not do, but I did dream about lucid dreaming, so that's interesting. Is it? 

I did dream… what did I dream about? Um… Um..  

Brain stopped working. Oh, OK. But I don't think any of it was lucid dreaming. I, I feel like the harder I’m trying to lucid dream, the less it feels possible. I feel like I keep waking myself up periodically throughout the night, kind of like, “Did I lucid dream yet? Did I lucid dream yet?” Just generally, I'm not sleeping very soundly. We'll see what happens tonight.

Dominique: There are a few tips I learned on the internet. Every night before falling asleep, I repeated to myself: I am going to have a lucid dream. I also practiced reality checks throughout the day to get into the habit of doing them in a dream … which looked like regularly attempting to fly during waking hours. And yes, it was weird. But try as I might, it did not seem to be working. So we called in an expert to get some of our dream questions answered. 

Alice Robb is a science journalist and the author of the book “Why We Dream: The Transformative Power of Our Nightly Journey.” I asked her to tell me a little bit about her book.

Alice: Part of it is a scientific exploration of what is going on in our minds and our brains when we're dreaming at night. And I'm also looking at, how do we get to this point in our society where we've devalued dreams and people tend to kind of dismiss them as a bad conversation topic or even a little embarrassing. Which I disagree with.

Dominique: I also disagree with that. Um, so a large part of your book is, as you said about lucid dreaming. For those who don't know, could you give us a brief intro into what lucid dreaming is?

Alice: So lucid dreams are dreams in which you're aware that you are in a dream. So a lot of people will have like a little flicker of a lucid dream when maybe you're in a nightmare and something really scary is happening and you suddenly realize, “Wait, this can't be real. I would never go to my exam without getting dressed. This must be a dream.” And then maybe wake yourself up. But that's sort of like the most common kind of form of lucid dreaming. But some people actually can train themselves, or some people just do this naturally to have really intense and more prolonged lucid dreams. And sometimes you can actually take control of what's happening in the dream.

Dominique: Do you think that lucid dreaming serves a purpose?

Alice: I think it serves all kinds of purposes. I mean, you can read a lot online or in books about all the ways that you can kind of like, use lucid dreaming as a, almost a life hack. And you can use it to cure your nightmares, which I mean, I think is - can be really powerful for some people. Particularly people who have recurrent nightmares sometimes find that if they can become lucid in the nightmare and take control, change the ending that is terrifying, then they can kind of banish that nightmare. 

I mean, I just appreciate them because they're really enjoyable and interesting and unusual. And, um, you know, other than, like, you know, maybe drug experiences, altered states of consciousness aren't that easy to access in our lives. So I think they're just — it's just really cool to be like, “I'm in bed and I'm also somewhere else.” 

Dominique: One of the things I found most interesting leading up to this was that I had had a lot of dreams growing up about being able to fly, or like having telekinesis and feeling so in control and having so much vivid imagination within those. And trying to recreate that in this last week, the closest I got was being able to throw a punch. Usually in dream, I can't help myself. I'm stuck in molasses. I just can never quite make contact with anyone. But I was able to throw some punches this week.

Alice: Nice work! I'm so glad to hear that some of that worked for you.

Dominique: So how many dreams does a person have in a single night?

Alice: Well, it's more than most people think. A lot of people think that they don't dream very often or that they don't dream at all, because most people who aren't making an effort to pay attention to their dreams will remember, like a little bit of a dream once or twice a week. 

But we are actually all dreaming every night. And you're dreaming every time you have a REM cycle. So depending on how long you sleep, you'll probably go through, like anywhere from three to five REM cycles each night. And the REM cycles get progressively longer. The longer REM periods correspond with more vivid, intense story-like dreams. So those dreams that — the dreams that people tend to talk about and think of when they think of dreaming, tend to be the ones that you have towards the end of the night, in the morning. And that's when you're having your longest REM period. Whereas the dreams that you have earlier in the night, they're like simpler. They're more just kind of — you're replaying little things that happened during the day. You’re just kind of warming up. (Dominique: Yeah.) And then I'll also just add, depending how often you wake up during the night, if you're someone who just sleeps through the night and, you know, wakes up seven or eight hours later, you're probably only going to remember your most recent dream. If you suffer from insomnia or you wake up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you are probably going to have more opportunities to remember those dreams that you're having in the middle of the night.

Dominique: That explains a lot for me. So I am an insomniac, and I remember, like every dream I’ve ever had since childhood.

Alice: Wow. Yeah.

Dominique: So when it comes to dreaming, there's a lot of pseudoscience and dream interpretation, and then there are studies and research that the scientific community considers to be valid. In your own reporting, how do you make room for all of these things to exist concurrently?

Alice: I mean, this was probably the biggest challenge of my research, but also maybe the most fun thing about it, was that dreams are just something that touch on so many different areas of study and of, of human thought. And you can't just approach them in a purely hard science way. Because they do have this sort of mysterious element.

Uh, scientists have come up with some really creative ways to study them. So now, I mean, there's great brain scanning technology. Scientists can look at the brain while someone is asleep in a sleep lab and look at, you know, which parts are activated, which emotion centers are activated, even tell sort of, to a certain extent, like if they're experiencing a positive dream or a nightmare. 

Some of my favorite studies are like — there was one where the researchers would put recording devices in people's bedrooms and record the utterances that people made in their dreams, that sleep talkers made, and then analyze those words to see kind of like what people are dreaming about. 

You know, I mean, there's also a lot of the older studies do rely on people's reports of their own dreams. And there are amazing, like historical sources of dream diaries dating back hundreds and hundreds of years and people who kept dream diaries every day through their entire lifespans.

Dominique: So we spend a lot of our lives sleeping. We all know that and we spend, I think, you know, a surprising — to most people — amount of our lives dreaming. (Alice: Mm-Hmm.) Do you think it's possible for our dreams to shape or change our own personalities? Hmm.

Alice: Hmm. I mean, personally, change is a tough thing to assess. But I mean, I think dreams can absolutely have a really serious impact on our mood. That was sort of one of the reasons that I got interested in this topic because I've always had very vivid dreams. Like you, I wake up in the night sometimes. And I just would find that dreams, particularly bad dreams, could really just change the way I felt all day. (Dom: Same) Because they're, you know, OK, they're not real in the sense that they're not really happening, but they're real in the sense that you're having a real emotional response. And you can have a real physiological response, too. In a nightmare, your heart might be racing, you might wake up sweating. That fear response doesn’t just totally turned off when you wake up. You can have a kind of hangover from those dreams.

Dominique: Absolutely.

Alice: And I mean, yeah, one of the things that I talk about in the book is how in the past and in most cultures, dreams were much more a part of daily life. There was a long tradition of people treating dreams as premonitions and trying to use them to, you know, make decisions individually and as a group — people waking up in the middle of the night and talking about their dreams with their family. And we just have sort of fewer outlets for that now.

Dominique: Yeah, I, that's something that I revealed to my coworkers yesterday is that the women in my family, like a couple of generations back, believe that their dreams have some like future-telling elements to them. So reading these findings in your book has been very interesting, particularly for me as a science-minded person. (Alice: Yeah.) But someone with a background of women in my life saying, “I had a bad dream. You know, don't take I-75 today,” or something to that effect.

Alice: Yeah! But I mean, I think dreams can be useful in that way because I think in, you know, all throughout the day and throughout our lives, we're just, we're exposed to so much information. And we have to edit most of it out, just in order to, to function. But in our dreams, sometimes the dreams are kind of saying like, “Oh, like, you know, you registered this little warning sign,” or, “This thing that you think is going well, isn't going that well.” And they're kind of saying, “Hey, like, pay attention to this.” So I think they can be useful in that way.

Dominique: How does lucid dreaming offer an escape from reality?

Alice: The first time that I got into lucid dreaming, it was one summer and I was in college and I was on an archeological dig in Peru. And it was kind of a hard time. We were in this tiny house. There wasn't any internet. I was living with, you know, six people. And as much as I love them, I was craving more excitement. And I needed — it was a time when I really wanted an escape. And that was when I started training myself to have lucid dreams and it really worked! It really made — it made my days of digging in the sand, which were kind of monotonous, more interesting because I would use the time to do reality checks. And then, it made the night times more exciting because I was like, “I am going to leave this dig in my dreams.” 

Dominique: I remember reading about your experience, starting lucid dreaming, and as well, I believe it was a retreat that you took to — is it Stephen LaBerge? (Alice: Yeah.) His eccentric and interesting ways of creating a place where lucid dreams can flourish. (Alice: Yeah.) And they actually — both of those things I read before bed and had a non-lucid dream about lucid dreaming.

Alice: Oh my god, yeah, that is such a thing. I feel like that's like a step on the way to lucid dreaming. When you're like thinking about lucid, the idea of lucid dreaming enough that you're like — (Dominique: Absolutely.) Yeah, Steven Laberge is such an interesting figure, and I think he really epitomizes the idea we were talking about before of like, this kind of bridge between science and less scientific modes of thought. Because Laberge is absolutely a scientist. He has a Ph.D., at Stanford. He has a really important role in the history of the science of lucid dreaming. He was the first person to prove in a laboratory that lucid dreaming is a real phenomenon. And he did that in an incredibly innovative way where he trained himself. He first trained himself to become so good at lucid dreaming that he could actually communicate with other people from within the dream state. So when we're — 

Dominique: No, you're joking, that's what my dream was about!

Alice: I mean, he must be…

Dominique: That’s wild! 

Alice: Yeah, it is, and it's like, it sounds like science fiction. And it was so ahead of its time. When we're in REM sleep, basically our whole body is paralyzed. Our muscles are not moving, except for our eyeballs. That’s rapid eye movement. So he came up with this idea that he would go into lucid dream while people were watching him — like lab assistants, machines were confirming he was asleep — and he would move his eyeballs in a special pattern. So he would go like right, left, left, right or whatever to like signal that he was in a lucid dream and he'd remember to do this task. And then he, like, spelled out things in Morse code by like moving his eyeballs like, really crazy. So, yeah, he was a scientist, but he then basically went and had — took his career in a different direction and started leading these retreats in Hawaii to teach people about lucid dreaming, which I was lucky enough to go on a few years ago.  

Dominique: Yeah. Well, shout out to him and the non-lucid dream I had, where he walked me and my coworker, Georgia, through the process of lucid dreaming together in a secondary dream.

Alice: I mean, I wish I could meet the Stephen LaBerge in your dream and compare him to the one I met in real life.

Dominique: He was great! He had visual aids. He was like, he was so profound. He was like, “Lucid dreaming, it's like being able to breathe underwater.”

Alice: I mean, totally sounds like stuff he would say.

Dominique: So to close things out, what is the most interesting lucid dream you've either experienced or heard about?

Alice: I mean, I actually remember one that Steven Laberge talked about. He was probably in his 70s when I met him, when I went on his retreat and he talked about this dream that was very poetic and definitely very meaningful to him, that was about mortality. And in the dream, he talked, he talked about like merging with the universe and like becoming a drop of water. And he said that it really diminished his fear of death. So that sounded very … would love to have a dream like that.

Dominique: Yeah, no, that would be, I think, the ultimate escape from reality.

Alice: Yeah.

Dominique: Well, is there anything else that you would like to add?

Alice: I guess I would just add for people who are interested in lucid dreaming, before you start trying to lucid dream, I always recommend that people first just work on their regular dream recall. Lucid dreaming is sort of just like a more advanced dream recall. And it's easier for most people to improve their dream recall than to fully start lucid dreaming. Sounds like, you know, you already remembered a lot of your dreams, so you'd have a very good head start. But for other people, most people can pretty easily improve dream recall just by thinking about their dreams more during the day, keeping a dream journal at night is probably my favorite tool. Just like, keep something by your bed. It can be your phone. It can be a computer. It can be a physical notebook. And just remember to write something every morning, even if it's just like, “I don't remember anything,” just to keep that habit. When I was doing that for the book I was, I was remembering like, literally four dream dreams every night. The more you kind of incorporate dream talk and dream thoughts into your day. So listening to a podcast like this or, you know, reading an article or a book about dreams, the more likely you are to remember your dreams.

Dominique: All right. Well, that's fantastic. You heard it here, folks. Talk about those dreams. Write them down. And thanks so much for your time, Alice. This was really lovely.

Alice: Thank you so much.

Dominique: You can learn more about Alice and her work at or follow her on Twitter @alicelrobb.

While I still haven't accomplished a full fledged lucid dream, I haven't given up just yet. I'm still trying to experience that subconscious escape that Alice and Stephen LaBerge so beautifully described. It sounds like a magical place made just for me, by me. And in today's world, who couldn't use a bit of sanctuary? 

On that note, we'd like to leave you with something extra special. It's called a dream meditation, a sort of journey our Senior Producer Georgia Wright put together for you to experience. You can listen to it as you lie in bed, sit in the sun or take a break from work. Simply find a safe place to close your eyes, get comfortable and prepare to be whisked away.

Georgia: Deepen your breathing. Relax your muscles. Let everything else that has been sitting on you today simply wash away. And here we go into your mind's eye. You're lying on a beach at night. You seem to have crashed your wooden dinghy. It lays there in a shambles next to you. Oops. The weather is mild. The ocean calm. You don't really understand how you arrived. That's OK. It doesn't matter anymore.

You're here now.

You dig your feet into the sand. Cool and sparkling with tiny pieces of quartz, brick and sea glass. Above your head, the night sky is vast and inky black, dotted with glowing constellations and two enormous moons. Occasionally, the dark silhouette of a bird flits across a moon like a shadow puppet. Slowly, you slip into the ocean, the saltwater is cool against your skin. You wade in up to your knees, then your thighs, your belly, your shoulders — and finally, you dive under. To your surprise, you realize you can breathe underwater. In fact, as you propel your body through the ocean, you take a long, deep breath and somehow it's more satisfying than any other breath that has passed through you this year. 

So good of your body to do this for you. Breathing is so delicious. 

You sink farther and farther into the ocean, watching tangles of seaweed and curious fish float by. The water around you changes color from indigo to teal to cerulean to violet. A little farther away in the water are some memories fading in and out. Look at them now blurring past. Is that the most delicious breakfast you ever tasted? The moment a little kid smiled at you on the train. Your childhood pet lying in the sun. The murmured, “I love you” of a parent putting a Band-Aid on your scraped knee. The laughter of your best friend echoing. A perfectly soft pillow. Your favorite flower. The one that smells like home. A song you loved from way back when. 

Suddenly, the memories vanish and you're falling. A skydiver, plummeting through layers of atmosphere. Layers of the Earth, fossils from the Paleolithic era. The heat of lava, something deep and primal until — pow! — you burst from the mantle into the sky and falling turns to flying. 

Mountains rise around you. Monumental peaks shuttering up through the Earth coated in snow. You've never heard nor seen of a range as massive as these. They make you feel tiny as a beetle. You cartwheel in the air, swoop like a bird of prey, tumble like a gymnast. Then you notice on the side of one of the mountains, there's a slope that looks a little different than the others. Greener. It’s dotted with colorful houses, each alive and aglow, with a different magic inside. You whir through the air, quiet and stealthy and peer in the window of the first house. It's packed with people enjoying a lively party. Is that your old piano teacher? The guy from the corner store? A live band is playing music. Some folks are dancing. You watch a young woman and a young man share a laugh. They look oddly familiar. He tips his head back to down the liquor in his cup before a third friend arrives and drags them begrudgingly to the dance floor. Wow, you haven't seen half these people in ages. They tug at the distant recesses of your memory. Slowly, you see their faces light up one by one, as they begin to really get into the music. Their smiles fill you with warmth. 

You float to the next window. The House is filled with a tiny model of the Solar System. No, not a model. Actual planets hanging in the air. It's like you're peering in at the Milky Way. A tiny comet flies past. The planets swivel to look at you. They have faces. They want to talk. But when they open their mouths, all that comes out is Ave Maria. You retreat. 

Next up is a greenhouse, or maybe it's a terrarium. Either way, it's massive and paned with glass, vines and fronds and enormous palm trees pulsing and growing in front of you. Flowers expand, contract, bloom, wilt and die. They photosynthesize before your very eyes. They hum. A self-contained ecosystem, complete with a fog of clouds gathering at the slanted glass ceiling, precipitating fat raindrops. The water cycle in miniature. 

Somehow, the next house is a cavern deep underground, studded with stalagmites and stalactites. In the center is a vast pond of milky green water. Purple crystals twinkling on the wall. You half expect the mast of a pirate ship to emerge from the lake, tangled rigging and worn sails, but it remains still, and glassy. Other than the steady drip, drip, drip of time. That's what this is, after all. The lake of time pooling infinitely. 

When you enter the last house, it's not a house at all. It's just a feeling of comfort. It holds you, sings to you, gently. Your skin is warm, your belly is full. Your mind is at peace. You are so complex, an ecosystem contained within a humble human body. Atoms and cells multiplying and dividing. Heart beating. Pumping blood. The senses that afford you every pleasure, every pain. All contained within the casing of your thin and precious skin. How lucky you are to have these places to come to whenever you want them. How lucky you are to have this body, this mind. Everything you could ever need. Every dream you could possibly imagine. It's all right here inside you.

Dominique: Adult ISH is produced by YR Media, a national network of young journalists and artists creating content for this generation. 

Our show is produced by Georgia Wright, Nygel Turner and me. Dominique French. 

Our executive producer is Rebecca Martin.

Original music for this episode created by these young musicians at YR Media: Christian Romo. Anders Knutstad and Jacob Armenta. 

Music Direction by Oliver Kuya Rodriguez and Maya Drexler.

Art for this episode by Brigado Bautista. Art Direction by Marjerrie Masicat. 

Creative Direction by Pedro Vega Jr. Special thanks to Eli Arbreton. 

We are also proud to be members of Radiotopia by PRX, an independent, listener-supported collective of some of the most amazing shows in all of podcasting. Find them at And if you haven't reviewed our show on Apple Podcasts, please be sure to do so. Five stars is much appreciated. You can also follow our show on all the socials @YRadultish. Sweet dreams!

Support the Next Generation of Content Creators
Invest in the diverse voices that will shape and lead the future of journalism and art.
donate now
Support the Next Generation of Content Creators
Invest in the diverse voices that will shape and lead the future of journalism and art.
donate now