We’ve long been fascinated by dreams, and even the possibility of entering and altering them – you’ll have seen this crop up in tons of films, from Inception to the Nightmare on Elm Street series. And, as bizarre as it initially appears, new research suggests that this concept isn’t as far removed from reality as it first appears.
In a paper published in Current Biology, teams of scientists from four countries found that it’s possible to communicate with people who are actively dreaming. And this communication stretched far beyond simple information, with dreamers responding to maths problems, deciphering Morse code and even replying to the outside world in real time. This research could revolutionise the study of dreams and sleep, and offer an unprecedented window into our minds.
This study built on a type of dreamers known as lucid dreamers – essentially, people who are aware that they’re dreaming. Although it was first referenced by Aristotle, scientists have been able to observe it since the 1970s in experiments about the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep, when most dreaming occurs. About half of people have experienced at least one lucid dream, and around 10% of people experience them at least once a month. Incredible though it sounds, the ability to recognise you are in a dream – and even control some aspects of it – can be enhanced with training.
Studies in the past… only recorded minimal response and certainly did not involve complex transmission of information
A number of studies in the past have attempted to communicate with lucid dreamers, using stimuli like lights and sounds, but they only recorded minimal response and certainly did not involve complex transmission of information. This study tried to go further, with four independent teams in France, Germany, Holland, and the US attempting to establish complex two-way communication.
The teams recruited 36 volunteers, including experienced lucid dreamers and those who had never experienced one. They were trained to recognise when they were dreaming through cues – like lights or finger tapping – that they would present while the participants slept. The researchers scheduled nap sessions and trained the sleepers to signal once a lucid dream had begun in particular ways. The scientists monitored their brain activity, eye movement and facial muscle contractions (common indicators of REM sleep), and then asked simple yes or no questions or maths problems – the dreamers replied with signals they had been taught before falling asleep.
The researchers asked 158 questions of the lucid dreamers, who responded correctly 18.6% of the time. The dreamers gave the wrong answer to only 3.2% of the questions; 17.7% of their answers were not clear and 60.8% of the questions got no response. The researchers say these numbers show the communication, even if difficult, is possible.
According to Benjamin Baird, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin who was not involved with the study, “it is proof of concept. And the fact that different labs used all these different ways to prove it is possible to have this kind of two-way communication […] makes it stronger.”
According to lead author Karen Konkoly, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, the experiment provides a better way to study dreams. She said, “almost everything that’s known about dreams has relied on retrospective reports given when the person is awake, and these can be distorted.”
It is possible that lucid dreaming could be used therapeutically to influence people’s dreams so they can better deal with trauma, anxiety and depression
Konkoly hopes that this technique demonstrates the possibility of gauging information about dreams from dreamers, and noted some potential clinical applications: it is possible that lucid dreaming could be used therapeutically to influence people’s dreams so they can better deal with trauma, anxiety and depression. Some of the participants reported that the questions had become part of the fabric of their dreams, which suggests it is possible to alter them to an extent.
The team writes: “The scientific investigation of dreaming, and of sleep more generally, could be beneficially explored using interactive dreaming. Specific cognitive and perceptual tasks could be assigned with instructions presented via softly spoken words, opening up a new frontier of research.”
It’s true that a lot more work needs to be done, but this study is a truly fascinating one in its own right, shining light into the largely-unexplored world of our own minds. Next time you’re asleep, be careful – you never know what you may be saying.