What People Choose to Dream About: Sex and Flying

an artistic image of a flying woman.
(Image credit: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock.com)

Trying to fly and having sex are the two most popular activities that lucid dreamers — people who are aware that they are dreaming, and can control their dreams to a certain extent — aim to do in their dreams, according to a new study.

The researchers surveyed about 570 people who said they've experienced lucid dreaming, and asked them what they've dreamt about, and whether they just observed their dreams unfolding or they actively aimed to change the dream. The researchers also asked the participants which activities they decided — when they were awake — to try to do in their dreams.

About 350 of the participants provided examples of the actions they planned in wakefulness to accomplish in their lucid dreams. Most often, participants wanted to try things that are impossible in waking life, such as flying, doing magic, breathing under water, talking with animals, being someone else and time travel.

But the participants also reported planning to carry out everyday activities in their dreams, such as having sex and doing sports. Lucid dreamers also reported intending to communicate with dream characters, change the scene or perspective, or carry out aggressive actions such as fighting, killing and robbery.

"Of all waking intentions, flying was the most popular one," the researchers said in their study, published in the summer issue of the American Journal of Psychology. [7 Mind-Bending Facts About Dreams]

The results of the survey also showed that "lucid dreamers are likely to be active in their lucid dreams, and aim to accomplish different actions, such as flying, talking with dream characters or sex, yet they are not always able to remember their intentions and successfully execute them," the researchers said.

About half of the time, the participants didn't remember their intentions, and when they did remember, they weren't always successful in acting them out in their dreams, because they woke up or faced difficulty in carrying out their plans, according to the study.

Controlling the dream to change the reality

It's not clear how or why lucid dreams occur, but the phenomenon has long fascinated scientists because it incorporates self-awareness and control, which are elements of wakefulness, into dreaming.

"Young children seem to have lucid dreams more frequently, and the frequency drops at about age 16, which suggests that lucid dreaming might be a natural phenomenon occurring in a developing brain but could be lost in adulthood," the researchers said.

It's been suggested that tapping into lucid dreaming could be helpful in treating psychological problems such as frequent nightmares or post-traumatic stress disorder. A previous survey of about 300 lucid dreamers found that the majority of lucid dreamers used their dreams to have fun and to change nightmares into pleasant dreams. About 30 percent of lucid dreamers also reported using lucid dreams for problem solving and creativity.

Some people experience lucid dreams more often than others, and some never experience one in their lifetime. However, some people report they have gained lucid dreaming abilities through training themselves with specific exercises.

In the study, the researchers asked the participants about the frequency of their lucid dreams and the age at which their first lucid dream occurred. The responses showed that, on average, lucid dreamers had three or four lucid dreams each month, with some people reporting up to nine lucid dreams per month. About 60 percent of the participants had lucid dreams at least once a month and were considered frequent lucid dreamers.

A person's first lucid dream can occur as early as age 3, but it seems most likely to happen around ages 12 to 14. However, lucid dreams become much less likely to begin after age 25, the researchers said. In this study, the participants had their first lucid dream when they were on average 14 years old, and in most cases, it happened spontaneously and without lucid-dream training, according to the study.

Email Bahar Gholipour. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Originally published on Live Science.

Bahar Gholipour
Staff Writer
Bahar Gholipour is a staff reporter for Live Science covering neuroscience, odd medical cases and all things health. She holds a Master of Science degree in neuroscience from the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris, and has done graduate-level work in science journalism at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She has worked as a research assistant at the Laboratoire de Neurosciences Cognitives at ENS.