Imagine that you’re standing on a mountaintop when an angry pit bull charges up and clamps its jaws around your hiking boot. You are terrified… but then you exclaim, “You’re no real threat,” and fearlessly grab the dog by the scruff of the neck and bring it up to eye level — at which point it licks your face like a friendly puppy.

This is a dream, but not the usual type of dream we all have several times a night. Instead, the scenario above illustrates a lucid dream, one that differs in an essential way from a regular dream or nightmare — because the lucid dreamer realizes that he or she is dreaming while the dream is occurring. And rather than being helpless to control the action, the lucid dreamer can actively work to influence the elements of the dream.

Though lucid dreaming sometimes occurs spontaneously, it is a skill you can develop — and doing so has valuable benefits, according to Jayne Gackenbach, PhD, a psychology professor and dream researcher at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. While a regular dream might provide inspiration or insight, a lucid dream can deliberately focus that process, helping you to…

Face down nightmares, diminishing their power to terrify — for instance, by letting you purposely turn that ferocious dream hound into a harmless pup.

Creatively solve real-life problems. Lucid dreamers often actively look for and find in their dreams the answers to specific questions that eluded them when awake — about, say, how to improve their athletic performance or fix an error in a project they are working on. One reason this can happen is that, during dreaming, the mind handles many basic tasks involved in learning, memory and information processing.

Resolve psychological conflicts. Examples: If you’re not sure whether you want to quit your job, you can rehearse your resignation in a lucid dream and see how it makes you feel. This might give you a more insightful result than simply imagining resigning while you are awake because dream images are so much more vivid than waking mental imagery. If you’re struggling with grief, a lucid dream can provide an opportunity to feel as if you are saying the things you wish you had said to a loved one who has passed away… thus bringing a sense of closure.

Reduce anxiety and promote inner calm, just as the stress-relieving technique of guided imagery does — because lucid dreaming is a particularly vivid form of imagery.

Have fun experiencing unlikely or impossible things, such as meeting a movie star, making love with an old flame or breathing underwater like a mermaid.

Dr. Gackenbach noted several ways to encourage lucid dreaming. She credited many ideas to psychophysiologist Stephen LaBerge, PhD, a pioneer in the field of lucid dreaming research, with whom she coedited the classic book Conscious Mind, Sleeping Brain.

To hone your lucid dreaming skills…

Get enough sleep. Approximately every 90 minutes during sleep, you complete a cycle that includes light sleep, deep sleep and the rapid eye movement (REM) stage. While each 90-minute cycle includes each of these stages, the duration of the various stages changes through the night. The REM stage — which tends to produce dreams that are emotionally evocative and easiest to recall — lasts only about five minutes at the beginning of the night… but by early morning, REM may last half an hour or so. Therefore, if you don’t have time for sufficient sleep, you cut off the longest dream stage. How much sleep is enough? According to the National Sleep Foundation, the average adult needs seven to nine hours of sleep per night.

Before you fall asleep, briefly focus on your goal for your lucid dream, such as solving a particular problem or making an important decision — this increases the likelihood that you’ll dream about that issue. If feelings that were stirred up during the day get in your way, write about those feelings in a journal to “clear your emotional slate,” Dr. Gackenbach suggested — then you’ll be better able to focus on your goal.

As soon as you wake up, try to recall your dreams. Instead of jumping out of bed, lie quietly with your eyes closed and think about what you dreamed… or immediately write down your dreams in a journal. If no dream images come to mind, try to remember the mood or emotions of your dream. Purpose: Developing dream recall skills helps you identify recurring features or patterns in your dreams, which prepares you for the technique below.

Learn to recognize your personal “dreamsigns.” Dr. LaBerge coined this term to refer to things that occur in dreams that are incongruent with waking life, such as flying like a bird… or objects or people that often recur in your dreams, such as zebras or a particular friend from childhood. Once you identify your dreamsigns, you are more likely to be able to say to yourself — while you are still asleep — “Oh, this must be a dream because I am seeing zebras.” At that point, you have brought lucidity to your dream state!

When you realize that you are having a lucid dream, stay calm and focused. Dr. Gackenbach said that she used to get so excited upon recognizing that she was in the midst of a lucid dream that she would wake up. Helpful: In his book Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming, Dr. LaBerge suggests that you can prevent a premature awakening by stretching out the arms of your dream body and spinning like a top — perhaps because even imaginary spinning activates a mechanism in the inner ear believed to be associated with REM. Then you can continue with your lucid dream, deliberately directing the action in a way that brings you pleasure or lets you look for insights or answers to real-life problems.

Caution: Purposely exploring lucid dreaming is safe for most people. However, Dr. Gackenbach cautioned against it for anyone with schizophrenia, psychosis or a history of hallucinogenic drug use. For such people, lucid dreaming may contribute to confusion as to whether it is the dream world or the waking world that is real.