Interactive dreaming

Scientists say they’ve achieved an “outlandish” phenomenon, showing that it’s possible to have two-way dialogue with people in real time while they’re dreaming.

Their goal was “akin to finding a way to talk with an astronaut who is on another world,” write Karen Konkoly from Northwestern University, US, and colleagues, “but in this case the world is entirely fabricated on the basis of memories stored in the brain.”

The researchers showed that people can respond to questions posed to them while having a lucid dream (a state of being aware that you’re dreaming and possibly gaining some control), hold information in working memory to make a simple maths calculation and communicate their answers using specified eye movements or contraction of face muscles.

Remarkably, while lucid dreams are rare and hard to create wilfully, the researchers used a newly developed procedure called Targeted Lucidity Reactivity to train people to have one.

The study was conducted independently by four teams from the US, Germany, France and the Netherlands, all with the same goal but slightly different methods which the team says strengthens the validity of the findings. It is published in the journal Current Biology.

People have long been fascinated with dreams; their purpose, benefits and how they’re created. Until now, answers to these questions have been largely elusive, not least because waking dream memories tend to be distorted and fragmented.

The researchers thus wanted to see if it’s possible to gain insights into people’s dreams while they are experiencing them.

For the experiment, they recruited 36 volunteers and trained them to indicate when they were having a lucid dream, and how to respond to questions from the experimenters, while sleeping. They were not told which specific questions they would be asked.

Questions required yes-no responses or solving spoken maths problems such as 8 minus 6 or 4 minus 0. Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, the dreaming phase, was confirmed using polysomnography, and sensory stimulation was used to communicate with the dreamers.

Once communication was established, the experimenter woke the dreamer up for a report of their experience.

In 26% of sessions participants successfully indicated they were in a lucid dream, and in 47% of those gave at least one correct response – including people who had not previously experienced lucid dreams.

The findings “refute the common belief that it is pointless to try to communicate with people who are asleep to gain knowledge about their dreams,” the team writes, “and the assumption that they cannot respond in any meaningful way while remaining asleep.”

They suggest it could unlock new realms of scientific dream exploration.

“Our repeated demonstrations of successful interactive dreaming now provide a new way to gain knowledge about dreams,” says senior author Ken Paller. “Further research along these lines will hopefully reveal more about conscious experiences of dreaming and how they may differ from waking conscious experiences.”

It also opens the door to further understanding the value of sleep for the brain, he adds. “For example, sleep cognition is likely valuable for maintaining memory storage, for using our memories creatively, for problem solving, and even for general wellbeing.”

Other possibilities he foresees are targeting people’s individual needs such as practising skills, spiritual development, nightmare therapy and other psychological applications.

People who want to try experiencing lucid dreams from the comfort of their own homes and help develop and improve the technique can take part by downloading a smartphone app – currently only available for Android phones.

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