Visitors familiar with some of the terminology associated with dream work will probably have run across the term reality check before. I’ve written before about how you can employ reality checks to increase your daily awareness and make it easier for your brain to realize you’re dreaming. Along with meditation, daily reality checks are one of the most reliable ways to get more lucid dreams. In this article, we’ll review some of the different kinds of reality checks you can incorporate into your everyday life, as well as the reasons why they work to help you differentiate between waking reality and the dream world.
Reality checks are a series of practices or observations you can perform daily to verify that you are in fact, awake and that the world around you is real rather than a dream. It may seem obvious that you’re awake right now, yet how many times have you awoken from a vivid dream— even one with totally unrealistic content— and thought, “Well, it seemed real at the time”? The key to how the reality check works is that if you perform reality checks consistently while awake, eventually you’ll think to perform them in a dream, hopefully with unrealistic results that will hopefully help your brain realize it’s dreaming.
The reality check takes advantage of established differences between waking and dream realities. Some of these differences have been debunked through experiments with lucid dreamers: for instance, there is actually little time dilation in dreams; scenarios take about as much time to play out in dreams as in real life. Yet other aspects of the dream world seem ingrained in the experience, and difficult for even accomplished lucid dreamers to change. You can use reality checks to test for these physical differences.
For instance, place, time and causality are frequently inconsistent in dreams. In a dream, you’ll often find yourself in medias res, or “in the middle of things” without any memory of how you got to a certain place or started participating in the dream scenario. To take advantage of this common property of dreams, during the daytime practice asking yourself the logical steps you’ve taken to get to a certain place. Think through the actions you had to take to get to work, a friend’s house, or wherever you are when you perform the reality check: did you take a bus or car to get there, or did you simply appear? You might call this the “How did I get here?” reality check. If you can’t remember a clear and logical chain of events that led you to a certain place or activity, you might be dreaming.
The fundamental rules of physics are also different in dreams, a good thing for lucid dreamers who want to do fun things like fly and teleport across vast distances. Physics testing also forms the basis of a solid set of dream reality checks. For example, it’s often difficult or impossible to change the light levels in a dream. You can perform a reality check by trying to alter light levels: switch lamps on or off, or flip wall switches around you. If the light levels don’t change, you’re probably dreaming.
Also, gravity and your sense of embodiment are often floaty and inconstant in dreams: you can check gravity either by jumping up and down yourself or tossing a small (non-breakable) object into the air and watching it fall. Does jumping feel different than in real life— easier, or perhaps you can’t feel yourself performing the action at all? If you decide to toss around an object, watch its behavior: does the object rise or fall slower or faster than would be logical if you were awake? Can you control its motion by thinking about it? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, there’s a strong likelihood that you’re dreaming. Physics testing in dreams is also a good way to practice controlling your dream reality once you achieve lucidity: I’ve been able to make objects levitate, and even fly around the dream environment at my direction, just by pointing at them! These kinds of small changes can be a gateway to better control over your dream world in subsequent lucid dreams.
Dream characters provide another kind of reality check: as in real life, in dreams you can ask people around you questions about the situation you find yourself in: “How did we get to this Thai restaurant on Mount Everest, anyway?” Or even more simply, you can ask them if you’re dreaming, and dream characters will sometimes answer yes! This reality check isn’t the most reliable by itself (dream characters may just as often deny that you’re dreaming), but performing it can alert you to do additional reality checks if you don’t get satisfactory or logical answers from those around you.
It’s often hard or impossible to read in dreams: you may be able to read something one second, only to have the words become gibberish or appear to be in a foreign language the next. Thus, picking a fragment of text to reread (the title of this article, for example) is another effective reality check. If the words change or seem illegible on a second reading, you may be trying to read in a dream.
Finally, how do you know when to perform reality a check? Other than setting certain times of day to do them (when you first wake up, for example), you can use dream signs as a signal that a reality check is needed: dream signs are objects, people, colors, situations, etc. that frequently appear in your dreams. One of the purposes of dream journaling is to help you identify your dream signs. Whenever you notice one of your dream signs, you can take it as impetus to perform a reality check on the spot. With luck, you’ll eventually discover your reality doesn’t hold up, and find yourself in a dream that you then have the power to direct into something much more interesting!