Sounds great: Scientists are manipulating dreams to prevent nightmares

It’s  estimated that at any given time, around 4% of adults suffer chronic nightmares but researchers in Switzerland have a new approach which will be music to the ears of night-terror-sufferers.

Nightmare depiction - face coming out of a dark background
Around 4% of adults suffer chronic nightmares. Credit: Fotokita/Getty Images

Basing their study on the relationship between the types of emotions experienced in dreams and our emotional well-being, researchers have investigated how to help people by manipulating emotions in their dreams.

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Imagery rehearsal therapy involves the patient rehearsing their dream to have a positive conclusion. Credit: FatCamera/Getty Images

Traditional methods to help chronic nightmare patients involves ‘imagery rehearsal therapy’, during which they are coached to rehearse the dream scenario during the day and redirect it towards a more positive ending. A 2021 study of 28 participants showed 3 in 5 patients benefitted from this approach, however, it doesn’t work for everyone.

In a study from Geneva University, over a two-week period, researchers asked a group of 18 patients to create an association between the positively redirected version of their dream and a sound during an imagination exercise. The patients then wore wireless headbands during night which would play the specific sound during the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep – when nightmares typically occur.

Read more: Explainer: cheese and weird dreams?

Ghost hovering above the bed of a sleeping girl
Combination therapy participants had a decreased incidence of nightmares, even three month later. Credit: Cavan Images/Getty Images

When compared to 18 patients who undertook only the image rehearsal therapy, those who received the combined rehearsal and sound therapy had fewer nightmares. This trend continued even after three months post-intervention, with those receiving combination therapy also reporting experiencing more positive emotions such as ‘joy’ in their dreams.

“We were positively surprised by how well the participants respected and tolerated the study procedures, for example performing imagery rehearsal therapy every day and wearing the sleep headband during the night,” says Lampros Perogamvros, senior author of the study and a psychiatrist at the Sleep Laboratory of the Geneva University Hospitals and the University of Geneva. “We observed a fast decrease of nightmares, together with dreams becoming emotionally more positive. For us, researchers and clinicians, these findings are very promising both for the study of emotional processing during sleep and for the development of new therapies.”

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