Virtual Reality and Dream Research

VR will revolutionze dream research

Posted Jan 22, 2017

2016 was suppose to be the year that Virtual reality (VR) really took off to become the new cutting edge of the ongoing high tech revolution. But that didn’t happen. Although significant advances have been made in bringing VR headsets and apps to market and there is great enthusiasm for VR among all sectors of the high tech world and their customers, VR has not yet hit pay dirt. But it will.

2017 will likely be the year for VR. The things that are blocking its adoption by the mass market will be effectively addressed in 2017. These blocks to mass adoption are serious. They include nausea and sickness induced by prolonged immersion in a VR environment; the de-personalization/dissociative effects of prolonged VR and the absence of any really excellent VR environments/games/adventures and apps. These problems will be solved in 2017 and VR will lead a new revolution in the high tech industry…from new social media apps to games and entertainment to highly effective educational and health interventions.

But what I want to talk about here is how VR will revolutionize the study of dreams. Virtual reality (VR) has been defined as the "use of interactive simulations created with computer hardware and software to present users with opportunities to engage in environments that appear and feel similar to real-world objects and events" (Lam et al., 2006). VR has previously been used effectively to treat phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder and body image disorders and to train motor skills in athletes, military skills in soldiers, surgical skills in surgeons, and design skills in architects and engineers. VR, in short, provides an ideal learning environment for any task that can be simulated in VR in that it allows for high fidelity repetition of the target task and unlimited practice trials that are as close to real thing as possible without being the real thing. Most importantly for dreams is that VR creates high fidelity simulations of visual environments that are extraordinarily "dream-like", and VR allows the viewer to interact with those environments in precisely the same ways the dreamer interacts with the visual environment presented to him in the dream.

Therefore VR can enable simulated practice of functional tasks with respect to dreams including viewer control of the unfolding imagery presented in both the dream and the VR environment. If VR can enhance control of visual imagery processes in people who use VR then it can be used as a tool to productively interact with dream images. VR should be able to help people become lucid during dreaming and then to control images during the lucid state. VR may facilitate deeper engagement with the imagistic and narrative re-scripting process in treatment therapies that rely on cognitive behavioral techniques that require that one enhance one’s control over one’s imagery processes. For example, VR may be an ideal vehicle with which to develop control over frightening mental imagery characteristics of nightmares in children and adults.

If VR can be used to facilitate the learning of mental control over imagery, it has to cautioned that VR can also lead to the opposite result if used improperly. That is if the individual simply loses himself in a fantasy environment without any attempt to morph or control VR images then he may end up with less control over imagery processes. In that case he will walk around in a dazed, dissociated state for hours after immersing himself in the simulation. While there may be times that it is OK and even fun to become utterly passive and lose oneself in a fantasy environment, it is will likely induce costs in terms of cognitive control over one's won imagery processes.

Inducing lucid dreams, treating nightmares. What else might VR portend for dream research? We can create VR apps that reproduce the known phenomenologic properties of typical dreams; i.e. the number of characters, the visual background and luminance properties, the typical actions occurring in dreams and so forth. Then we measure the effects of immersing oneself in this VR environment on nighttime dream patterns. We then vary systematically the properties in the VR environments and measure subsequent effects on nightly dreams. What are the effects for example of increasing levels of aggression, of unfamiliar characters, of sexual activity etc in the dream-VR environment on subsequent nightly dream content? In other words do VR-dream properties prime or change similar properties in the nightly dreams? If so then we finally have a tool that reliably manipulates nightly dream content and that tool will revolutionize dream research.


Virtual reality training for stroke rehabilitation.

Lam YS, Man DW, Tam SF, Weiss PL. NeuroRehabilitation. 2006;21(3):245-53. PMID: 17167194