Most people can learn to control their dreams and use them to overcome fears, nightmares and depression, according to a Stanford University dream researcher, though he has his critics.

Stephen LaBerge of Stanford's Sleep Research Center says he knows "lucid dreamers" who have overcome their fears of heights and snakes by confronting those fears in dreams. Lucid dreamers know they're dreaming and can direct the course of the activities they're imagining, he said at a recent Arizona Conference on Sleep and Cognition.LaBerge, a research associate in psychology, says he has worked with about 100 lucid dreamers over the past 11 years.

One lucid dreamer was able to greatly lessen his fear of heights during a dream by deliberately stepping off the edge of a tall building and floating away, LaBerge says.

Rosalind Cartwright of the Sleep Disorders Center at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Hospital in Chicago told of a recent study of depressed people who were able to change the endings to depressing dreams.

"They became aware in the dream that they were dreaming, then changed the ending to stop the badness," Cartwright says. "This technique also has a great deal of potential in treating nightmares."

LaBerge says lucid dreaming is a skill anyone can learn.

He predicts that lucid dreaming will become increasingly popular as a tool for self-exploration and self-help because "it's such a simple, straightforward, effective means of dealing with fears and exploring the powers of the mind."

In recent studies at the Stanford sleep lab, lucid dreamers have been trained to signal the onset and conclusion of their dreams by moving their eyes to the left and right repeatedly in a prearranged pattern. Subjects also have been taught to hold their breath, count to five, then exhale while they're dreaming, he says.

"These people are capable of remembering instructions given to them before sleeping, then executing them consciously while in sleep - they're aware of what they're doing," he says.

Critics charge that those subjects probably were awake, not dreaming, when they carried out the tasks. But LaBerge says important physiological indicators - brain waves, heart rate, respiration rate and others - demonstrate that those people were in deep sleep.

Critics also charge that LaBerge's experiments lack basic control measures and that subjects' reports of lucid dreaming are influenced by the researchers' expectations.

"Yes, there may be lucid dreaming, and yes, maybe you can use it to help yourself, but we don't yet know enough about the process," says David A. Dinges, co-director of the Institute for Experimental Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.