“Pinch me! I must be dreaming…” A reality check is a conscious effort to determine whether your current perception of your environment and your self-awareness is indeed a perception of the real world. Due to its intricacies and peculiarities, the human mind seems to be extremely good at tricking itself into believing that dreams are reality. For some reason, the mind is designed to keep dreams and reality separate, by “selling” dreams as reality when it conjures them up. This is the sort of natural balance that oneironauts look to break through lucid dreaming. One of their most effective tools in this regard are reality checks.
When used for lucid dreaming, reality checks harness the power of habits. Lucid dreamers use such reality checks during their wakeful lives. As they develop them into a habit, the likelihood of reality checks popping into their dreams increases. Oneiranouts hope that through such an in-dream reality check, they can recognize the fact that they are dreaming and achieve lucidity.
The science surrounding reality checks is not only tenuous, it is by no means exact either. No amount of reality checking can guarantee in-dream lucidity in any shape or form. Also, some authority sources consider consciousness within a dream a paradox.
That said, lucid dreaming does exist, and by all measures it is a fantastic and potentially very useful experience.
Again: the goal here is to ask yourself whether you are dreaming, within a dream. Then, you can obtain an answer to that question through a reality check. Lucid dreams which are induced through reality checks are known as DILDs (Dream-Induced Lucid Dreams) in contrast to WILDs (Wake-Induced Lucid Dreams), in which you go straight from the waking consciousness to dreaming lucidly without losing awareness.
While there is plenty of literature out there about reality checks, not many authors point out the fact that there are two basic types of reality checks:
Physical and Mental Reality Checks
Of these, the physical checks are easier to perform and therefore more popular. According to frequent lucid dreamers, combining the two types of reality checks is the most productive. Also, this sort of approach may provide a longer term solution to the issue of habituation which kills the effectiveness of reality checking over time. More on that towards the end of this piece though.
Physical Reality Checks
This type of reality check is about performing a physical deed (like pinching yourself) or some kind of psychical interaction with the dream environment (attempting to push your hand through a wall/table).
Physical reality checks provide an immediate and definitive result. This result should- under normal circumstances – allow you to recognize whether you are dreaming or not. As already stated however, there is nothing “normal” about lucid dreaming. Sometimes, even when in possession of definitive proof, the mind will concoct some far-fetched explanation to prevent lucidity.
The Spinning Top Physical Reality Check
Inspired by the 2010 movie Inception, the spinning top works well as a physical reality check option.
Make it a habit to take a top with you wherever you go, and give it a spin every now and then. As the laws of physics impose their presence, the top slowly runs out of momentum and it spins to a halt.
In your dream environment, the laws of physics obviously do not apply. When spurred on by your waking life habit, you give your top a spin in a dream, you will notice that it may not ever stop spinning. Your brain may however try to cook up an explanation for this. Since your analytic mind is at pause while dreaming, you are likely to readily accept any such explanation, no matter how far-fetched.
Your brain may even attempt to prevent you from using your reality check. You might find yourself unable to spin the top, or you may not find it at all.
I personally use this reality test with the “Forever Spin” Top. For Dream Work, I recommend going with a Silver Top because silver provides protection from nightmares and night terrors while promoting psychic and lucid dreams.
Pushing Your Fingers Through the Palm of Your Hand
This reality check is one of the most basic and popular ones. Simply try to push one of your fingers through the palm of your other hand. Do this several times a day while awake.
If you attempt it in a dream, you might find that your finger goes through without problems. The same check can be performed pushing your fingers into a wall, through a table, etc.
While we are discussing hands and fingers: simply look at your hands while dreaming. They are usually not normal: you will have fewer or more fingers or generally garbled-looking hands.
Putting Your Hands Together
Simply attempt to push your hands together, while interlocking your fingers. In waking life, this little experiment yields an easy-to-anticipate result. In a dream, you will find that your hands go through one another, without exerting any pressure.
In real life, Earth’s gravity is quick to make your limits very obvious, every time you attempt a jump. In a dream, things happen a little differently.
Make it a habit to attempt a little jump a few times through your wakeful day. It does not have to be a maxed-out high jump. Any little skip will do fine.
If your habit then carries through to your dreams, you will notice that the landing after your jump is a much softer one. You may even hover for a while, or take off flying.
Attempting to take off may not be the most practical reality check for real life. Unless you’re alone and safe from the eyes of the public, you may want to cut this one from your list.
Flying on the other hand is one of the greatest experiences in a dream. While it is not easy to perform in a dream either, it can definitely be considered a sign that you are dreaming.
Turning on the Light
Within a dream, technology, various devices and machinery in general tend to not work the way they do in real life. In fact, most of the time such contraptions malfunction.
Switching on the light is yet another one of those mundane actions that seemingly lend themselves well to reality checking.
In a dream, light switches will most often not work, so that can be a telltale sign you are not experiencing reality. Again, instead of being an asset however, the mundane nature of the act itself works against the efficiency of the reality check.
Taking a Look at a Clock and Trying to Tell Time
As simple an exercise as this is in your wakeful life, it is quite impossible to perform in a dream. Since this gesture is one that you likely perform scores of times every day, it may theoretically lend itself well to reality checking.
This apparent advantage is a major liability however. Reality checks need to be performed a certain way for them to be effective and a mundane gesture such as checking the time does not fit the bill.
In a dream, it is quite impossible to make out the numbers on digital time pieces. Even the hands of analog clocks may be missing or appear garbled.
Driving a Vehicle (and Generally Using Machinery)
As mentioned, in-dream machinery tends to malfunction. When you drive a car for instance, it will not respond to steering/braking/acceleration, the way it does in real life.
Again, the efficiency of this reality check may be hindered by the mundane nature of the real life act. In some cases however, that may in fact help it. For someone working with a power drill during the day, it is much easier to have a dream involving the machinery. It will also be more obvious for such a person when the drill malfunctions.
Trying to Catch a Glimpse of Your Own Nose
In real life, when you close an eye and try to look at your nose with the other, you will catch a glimpse of its side. In a dream, you will never see your nose.
This reality check is not about a mirror: that is a different one. You do not need a mirror to see the side of your nose in real life.
This one is an easy check to perform during the day and it will not expose you to ridicule. It should theoretically work well within a dream too, especially if you combine it with another physical or mental reality check.
Looking at Your Reflection in the Mirror
In real life, you are bound to take a few looks at your reflection in the mirror every single day. When using it for reality checks, make sure you think hard about whether or not your crisp and clear reflection is indeed reality. Doubt what your mind readily tells you in this regard and then convince yourself.
That is the only method to work your way past the problem posed by the mundane nature of the check.
In a dream, mirrors will either not reflect you, or your reflection will be hazy.
Clasping Your Nose Shut and Trying to Breathe Through it
This reality check is in fact a very good candidate efficiency-wise. It is not based on a mundane act, therefore it does not pose any issues associated with some of the above discussed reality checks.
Whilst in reality, you will find it impossible to breathe through your nose when you have it pinched shut, in a dream, you will be able to breathe just fine. If you manage to remember to do this one in a dream, your “impossible” result is almost guaranteed.
Checking Your Tattoos or Other Bodily Marks
In waking life, you know where your tattoos or possible birthmarks are. In a dream, you will find that they are either completely missing, or they have changed.
Such “constants” cannot possibly morph around unless you are indeed dreaming.
Biting Your Tongue
Make sure you do not overdo this one, as it can be quite painful. Pain is in fact what you are looking to achieve through this reality check, but you only need it in moderate amounts.
In a dream, biting your tongue will not result in pain. You may also find yourself unable to bite your tongue at all.
The Colors of Various In-dream Objects
In waking life, the color of a given object is a constant: it always remains the same.
While you are dreaming however, this is not necessarily the case. Try to take note of the color of an in-dream object, then look away. When you look back, note if the color has changed. If so, you are in a dream.
Taking Your Glasses Off
This one is of interest to oneironauts with poor eyesight, who normally wear glasses. In real life, when they take their glasses off, their eyesight immediately deteriorates.
Take off your glasses in a dream and see what happens. If your eyesight remains unaltered, you are definitely dreaming.
Flipping a Coin
Since the laws of physics do not work in the realm of dreams the way they do in waking life, everything that involves jumping or the tossing of an object, may produce a realization that you are dreaming.
The coin flip reality check is about simply flipping a coin and expecting it to float. In waking life, it will obviously not float. If it does, you are in a dream.
Playing a Song
If you happen to hear a song that you know playing, pay closer attention to it. Does it sound the way it is supposed to sound, or does it have certain elements (such as a bass line) missing?
This too can be a valuable reality check.
Catching a Glitch in the Detail Matrix
Pay closer than normal attention to details of your environment. Note various patterns in brick walls or floor tiles. Look away briefly, then look back. Have the details changed?
If they have, you are indeed in a dream.
Trying to Read or to Look at Some Text
Text-reading is a classic physical reality check. The part of your brain which deals with such complex exercises is at pause while dreaming. Therefore you will find it impossible to make out what the text says. Or, you may be able to read it, but as soon as you turn away and look back, you will find it changed to something else.
To take this check further, you may attempt to write something yourself. You will likely find that you are unable to do it.
Using a Phone
Nowadays, phones are ubiquitous. As such, they are highly likely to pop up in your dreams too.
Take a closer look at your phone. Check if the digits/numbers on it are where they should be. Your smart phone display is one of the things that are almost impossible to replicate in a dream.
If you notice that you cannot read any numbers or text on your phone, or that the display is hazy or obstructed by something, you are dreaming.
The Scene Shift Reality Check
This one originates from the movie Inception as well. Whenever you begin dreaming, you find yourself in the midst of a setting/scene, without knowing (or ever questioning) how you got there…
You go through quite a few scene shifts in your waking life as well. Therefore, you get plenty of opportunities to work on this reality check. Whenever you find yourself in a new setting, ask yourself how you got there and try to doubt your explanation.
Within a dream, you will not be able to provide such an explanation at all. This reality check is a sort of hybrid between the physical and the mental.
Changing Up Your Appearance
This one might be a little radical for some, but it is in fact a pretty subtle, and potentially very effective reality check.
Grow a beard for instance. Then, during the day, check every now and then whether it is still where it should be.
If you suddenly find your recently acquired facial ornament missing, you probably just caught yourself dreaming.
Mental Reality Checks
Unlike a physical reality check, a mental one does not require you to perform a physical act. Instead, it is a simple mental exercise. Due to the state of the brain during sleep and dreaming, even such simple mental exercises are borderline impossible to perform.
This is one of the reasons why mental reality checks are generally less favored by oneironauts.
Trying to Remember the Past
In a dream, it is impossible to recall even the near past. In real life, such a mental exercise is extremely simple, while not being very mundane either.
Just ask yourself what you were doing ten minutes ago.
It requires some degree of mental focus of exactly the same type you will need in the dream to ask that same question.
The problem is that most dreamers will likely find themselves unable to produce that kind of mental focus in-dream.
Trying to Recognize People in Your Dream
In our waking life, we recognize people around us all the time, automatically. Sometimes it takes a bit of memory-gymnastics to pinpoint from where exactly we know certain people.
With that in mind, the same practice hardly seems practical within a dream. That said, this exercise is considered a reality check. On the upside: if you can muster that type of mental focus within a dream, you’re probably very close to achieving lucidity anyway.
Reconstructing Mental Links to Certain In-dream Objects
If you thought trying to recognize in-dream people was an intricate mental exercise, try establishing mental links to objects…
Take a hamburger on the table for instance. Try to remember the last time you had a hamburger. In a dream, you will not be able to establish such connections.
Asking Questions about Yourself
In waking life, you know exactly who you are, and chances are you ponder quite a bit where you are going in life.
In a dream on the other hand, you will most likely not be able to answer such questions. If you find yourself unable to even establish who you are, you are most likely dreaming.
To many, mental reality checks may seem paradoxical. After all, while dreaming, the logical part of the dreamer’s brain is shut off. Therefore intricate mental exercises of the types described above are normally well above its abilities.
The truth is however that there are different levels of consciousness and awareness. Mental reality checks are perhaps best used as complementary reality checks in the wake of physical ones. When your brain is already closing in on in-dream lucidity, such checks may bring it all about faster.
Through such mental reality checks, you may also extend your periods of in-dream lucidity.
The picture of mental and physical reality checks would not be complete without:
Stretching the scope of its definition, the Dream Sign can be considered a sort of reality check as well.
A dream sign is a person, an object, a location or anything else the dreamer notices within a dream, that clues him/her in on the fact that he/she is dreaming.
The problem with dream signs is that they do not fit any sort of generalized mold. They are unique to every person.
- You may see a person who is dead or inexistent, frequently in your dreams. Thus, whenever you see that person, you should know that you are dreaming, and you should become lucid.
- The presence in the dream of a person from your past, who has been out of your life for a while, is also such a sign.
- Various locations can also be considered dream signs. They do not have to be inexistent ones either.
- Certain in-dream objects may also acts as dream signs. If you see such an object frequently in your dreams, chances are you are indeed dreaming when you spot it again.
- Behaviors from certain in-dream characters can also be dream signs. This is especially true for characters who act in a peculiar, out-of-place manner.
- Dream guides are in-dream characters who guide people through their dreams. The presence of such a guide is obviously another very prominent dream sign.
- Possessing certain super powers in the dream is yet another give-away. You may be obsessed with certain physical accomplishments in real life. Such obsessions often carry through to dreams, where you gain super powers that help you accomplish those physical deeds with which you are obsessed. One relatively common reoccurring dream sign is the ability to breathe underwater. If you find yourself exploring an underwater realm, without any kind of issues breathing-wise, you are dreaming. In such cases, you will obviously not feel the pressure of the water either, no matter how deep you dive.
- There are certain reoccurring situations which may also act as dream signs. You may for instance dream that you have an exam coming up the following day and you haven’t studied properly for it. By recognizing such an in-dream situation for what it is – a dream sign – you can avoid a great deal of stress. You may even become lucid as a result.
The best way to discover dream signs that work for you is to keep a dream journal. Read your dreams often and try to find patterns that you experience often. By doing that, I discovered that my vision is almost always blurred in normal dreams. So now whenever I become aware that my vision is blurred, I realize that I’m dreaming and become lucid.
How to Properly Do Reality Checks
The theory of reality checks is simple: make them a habit in your waking life, with the goal of thusly transferring them to your dreams. There, they will help you achieve lucidity.
As straightforward as this theory is, the practice of reality checking is prone to failure from scores of different angles. This is why it is important to learn to properly do reality checks. Only this way can you maximize their effectiveness in bringing about in-dream lucidity.
The first key to proper reality checks lies in the way you do them in your waking life. As already alluded to above, simply going through your scheduled reality checks in a semi-automated manner will not suffice. This is why gestures that are already very much part of our daily routines, tend not to yield good results.
A proper reality check involves the doubting of reality. As we go about our daily lives, most of the time, we are not fully aware of our own surroundings.
When you are doing a proper reality check, you disrupt this flow of normalcy. You stop, take a moment and become truly aware of everything around you. Then, you begin seriously doubting reality. In the end, you convince yourself that proof indicates you are indeed experiencing reality.
Why is this ritual so important?
If you believe using a reality check in a dream and then successfully achieving lucidity within it is easy, you are woefully mistaken. You do not just need the ability to perform your reality check in-dream. You also need it to trigger the described mental processes to achieve lucidity.
As mentioned, the dreaming brain has a knack for explaining away the “impossible” results of your reality checks. You need to defeat it in this regard, and for that, you need to achieve a higher level of awareness.
This is what you also need to turn into a habit, in addition to performing your reality check. The reality check itself is not a goal. It is but a means of bringing about a higher level of awareness that will eventually usher you into lucidity.
Remembering to Do Reality Checks in Your Dreams
Remembering to do your reality checking ritual during waking life is easy enough. People set alarms, put up wallpapers and screensavers on their computers, develop certain rituals etc. Some use special items called totems, which remind them of reality checking whenever they happen upon them.
Remembering to do a reality check in a dream is an entirely different beast though. For this, the theory of dream continuity offers some guidance.
According to this theory, our dreams are a continuation of our waking life. We tend to dream about things we think about and do in real life. Whether these things are positive or negative is a different question. As long as they leave a deep enough mark on our psyche, we are likely to dream about them.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, we are most likely to dream about such things the first night after they happen. The second through the 5th nights, the likelihood of dreaming about such events decreases. On the 6th and 7th nights however, this likelihood increases yet again.
The best way to put this theory to the test is to pay attention to your dreams after you travel somewhere. You are only really likely to start dreaming about your new surroundings after you have been there for at least 6 days.
Knowing this, you know when you are most likely to have your reality checks pop up in your dreams.
When Should You do Your Reality Checks During the Day?
Doing a proper reality check every couple of hours makes perfect sense. This way, by the end of the day, you will have accrued some 8 reality checks.
You can also link your reality checks to some sort of event that occurs regularly throughout your day. For instance, you can do one after you go to the toilet.
Using a totem item (something you can carry around on your keychain for instance) is also an option.
To Sum it All Up:
- Achieve full awareness in your waking life reality checks. Focus on this aspect every time.
- Induce a state of doubt. You will need this when your reality check pops up in your dream. Without doubting your reality, your reality checks will be simple routine rituals and they will NOT help you achieve in-dream lucidity.
- Turn all this into a habit. Through the path explained by the dream continuity theory, this habit will carry over to your dreams. This is how you inject your reality checks to where you need them most.
Reality Checks Will not Always Work
Even if you do them properly, reality checks will fail quite a bit. The reason is that there are scores of variables involved in the equation of lucidity that we simply do not understand. The practice of reality checks only has anecdotal support, but that is all we have in this regard.
In some cases, oneironauts find that everything about their reality checks remains the same, whether they are awake or dreaming.
The most likely cause of such problems is the overdoing of one type of reality check. Improper focus during the reality check could also be a problem. Indeed most often, these two problems are correlated.
The solution is to mix up your reality checks and to combine physical ones with mental ones. If a reality check becomes automated, you will stop seriously considering whether you are dreaming or not. This defeats the very purpose of the exercise.
Yet another issue is that while you do your reality checks when awake, they never make it into your dreams.
Focusing too much on reality checks does not address this problem in any way. To be effective, the thought of the reality check needs to pop into your head effortlessly. Otherwise, it simply will not carry over to a dream.
Choosing some type of in-dream trigger is of the essence here. As a matter of fact, you will likely need to choose a multitude of such triggers, to be as effective in conjuring up in-dream reality checks as possible.
Problems Associated with Reality Checks
Even if you do everything right with your reality checks, several issues may hinder your quest for lucidity.
- First of all, there is the problem of remembering to do your reality checks while awake and in your dreams. To this, you may want to add the problem of transferring reality checks from waking life to dreams, via the dream continuity theory.
- Secondly: there is nothing natural about in-dream lucidity. Your brain seems to fight it every way it can. You need to defeat its opposition to lucidity through various tricks covered above.
- Thirdly, we have the daunting problem of habituation. What does it mean? Habituation is a medical term denoting the reaction of an organism to stimuli. While in the beginning, a given set of stimuli elicit a certain reaction, over time, the body reacts to the same set of stimuli in a less obvious manner. Given enough time, the reaction may disappear completely. The same is unfortunately true for reality checks. They may be useful for the stimulation of lucid dreaming, but they are hardly biologically relevant stimuli. As such, they are doomed to end up on the garbage heap of habituation.
What this means is that no matter how well a certain combination of reality checks works for you, over time you may have to resort to different solutions.
That said, it always makes sense to record what works. Make a note in your dream journal in this regard. As long as it helps you achieve lucidity, do not be afraid to “abuse” a given reality check or dream sign.
The Bottom Line
Reality checks are meant to accomplish two basic objectives:
- At the very least, they need to act as a Trojan horse of consciousness smuggled into your dreams.
- Ideally, they will also put you in an investigative state of mind. This will allow you to open up the Trojan horse and set lucidity free within your dream.
Read my Complete Lucid Dreaming Guide.