Flying Dreams Induced by Virtual Reality

A recent study stimulates flying dreams in the sleep laboratory using a VR task.

Posted Sep 29, 2020

Flying dreams are a unique and sought-after dream experience, often associated with feelings of excitement and enjoyment. Despite high interest in experiencing flying dreams, relatively little experimental research has explored this phenomenon.

One recent study aimed to induce flying dreams in participants through the use of a virtual reality flying task, and a subsequent nap in the sleep laboratory. During this study, participants first completed a five-day dream diary to obtain baseline levels of flying dreams.

Participants then visited the sleep laboratory. They completed a VR-flying task for 15 minutes, in which they had to ‘fly’ through various vast landscapes attempting to go through a circuit of green circles, while avoiding red circles. Participants used two handheld controllers to ‘fly’ through the landscapes, with speed controlled by how close or far the controllers were from their body.

Following the task, participants were hooked up to polysomnography, and then had a two-hour opportunity to nap (or to read in the control condition). At the end of the nap, participants reported their dream and rated their dream on several attributes, such as the amount of emotion, lucidity, and laboratory or task references in their dream, along with sensory and bodily elements in the dream.

Finally, participants completed 10 more days of a dream diary at home. In all, 137 participants completed the study (52 Male; 84 Female; average age ~24 yrs).

The data included 473 home dream reports from prior to the lab visit, 85 lab dream reports (65 REM and 20 NREM) and 787 post-lab dream reports. (A total of 1345 dream reports!).

Judges read the dream reports and scored them based on the presence or absence of assisted or unassisted flying (i.e., flying with or without use of a mechanical apparatus in the dream).

Results show that the VR task led to a four-fold increase in flying dream frequency from Baseline dreams (1.7%) to Lab dreams (7.1%). Flying dreams also occurred in 4.1% of all Post-Lab dreams, although they reached a peak on the first night following the lab visit, with over 10% of dreams on the first post-visit night containing flying elements.

The majority of flying dreams reported in the lab (83%) or following the lab visit (78%) were related in some way to the VR experience, such as incorporating the VR environment (mountains, colored circles) or technology (controllers, VR room) into dream content, e.g., ‘…I’m gliding at ground level near a mountain, I go back up, then down in a series of colored circles…

Of interest, flying dreams were experienced more often by frequent lucid dreamers, and in three cases occurred within lucid dreams: ‘…I found myself in a dream completely lucid…I succeed in flying away…’; ‘Oh my god, my first lucid dream…I imagined myself flying really fast…’; ‘…I realize it’s a dream…jump out the window…the feeling of flying is so intense that I wake up…’. Furthermore, flying dreams also seemed to be characterized by higher levels of control, a common feature of lucid dreaming, e.g., ‘…I could control my propulsion as if I was Superman—incredible…’, or ‘…I can control the box with my two hands and fly away…

Finally, the researchers suggest that dream-flying is similar to the waking-state phenomenon of vection—the illusion of self-motion. Vection is central to creating the sense of flying during VR, in that the changes in visual scenery create the illusion of self-motion. A real life example of vection would be seeing a train moving alongside you while sitting in a stationary train, which creates the impression that you're moving in the opposite direction.

Several flying dreams seemed to similarly demonstrate changes in visual scenery that would correspond with self-motion: ‘…I had an impression of flying and seeing landscapes and cities appearing before my eyes…’, ‘…I’m moving fast through the world by running and flying over frozen multicolor plains…’,‘…I could see the Australian continent getting closer with dangerous speed…’.

Vection can also be induced through non-visual senses. For instance, changes in the volume of sound can alter the perceived speed of forward/backward motion, whereas changes in the pitch of sound can instill illusions of upwards/downwards motion. Similarly, cutaneous sensations can alter perceived motion, for instance, a fan blowing against the face can enhance a sense of self-motion. The flying dreams in this study sometimes showed evidence of non-visual vection, including: auditory vection, ‘…I heard a big BOOM and a constant noise as if I had plane propellers at the end of my arms’; or cutaneous vection, ‘…I could feel the speed and the sound of wind and vibrations all over my body…’.

Overall, the brief VR task successfully increased the frequency of flying dreams in participants, with a five-fold increase in unassisted flying dreams from baseline (1.3%) to lab dreams (7.1%), and an eight-fold increase from baseline to the first post-lab night (10.6%). Could VR be the key to inducing flying dreams on demand?

References

Picard-Deland, C., Pastor, M., Solomonova, E., Paquette, T., & Nielsen, T. (2020). Flying dreams stimulated by an immersive virtual reality task. Consciousness and Cognition, 83, 102958.