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New Frontiers in Lucid Dreaming

Lucid dreaming is being used as a research tool to better understand dreams.

Key points

  • A lucid dream is one in which the dreamer is consciously aware that they are in a dream.
  • Experiments have shown that it is possible to communicate with individuals in the lucid dream state.
  • A recent study has extended significantly the methods for communication with lucid dreamers.
Photo by Evgeni Tcherkasski on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Evgeni Tcherkasski on Unsplash

Dreams are a strange realm that we all visit, and yet we often have only the vaguest memories of the unusual places and events we experience there. In the last century, methods such as polysomnography emerged that allowed for a more scientific study of dreams. But progress is difficult because we have to rely on reports of dreams that are given after the dreamer awakens, and we lose detail as soon as we emerge from the unconscious into the conscious state. Memory of dreams tends to rapidly decay.

For some time researchers have tried to devise ways to more directly access the dream world and get real-time rather than after-the-fact information about dreaming. As it turns out, lucid dreaming may offer a portal into this other realm.

What is lucid dreaming?

Lucid dreaming is the conscious awareness of being in a dream and potentially having some ability to control the dream as if the dreamer were the director of a movie. This phenomenon has been investigated at least since the 1800s and was significantly advanced by research carried out by Stephen LaBerge in the 1970s and 1980s. He developed methods for helping people learn to have lucid dreams and techniques for potentially accessing the dreaming person’s consciousness.

Have you ever experienced lucid dreaming? Having a dream in which you are vividly aware that you are dreaming? If you have had this experience you may also have had the sense that you could shape the dream, change it, and change the feelings you are having in the dream. This ability to be aware of and change dreams has been useful in helping people with PTSD deal with the frequent nightmares that are often symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Is it possible to communicate with dreaming people?

It appears to be possible to communicate with people who are having lucid dreams while they are in the lucid dream state. LaBerge developed a research technique in which participants who were consciously aware that they were dreaming could signal researchers using eye movements. Later research built upon this work to further investigate the nature of lucid dreaming (e.g., Erlacher & Schredl, 2004). As you can imagine, most of these studies have had small numbers of participants, given the difficulty of finding participants who are proficient lucid dreamers, and the challenges of conducting the research. In these studies, the dreamers are able to use prearranged eye movements to send signals to researchers when they have entered the lucid dream state and have the awareness of being in the dream.

New research is showing unexpected possibilities for lucid dreaming.

A recent study by Konkoly et al (2021) has significantly extended previous research. This study was complex and was conducted by scientists in the United States, Germany, France, and the Netherlands. Each group used somewhat different experimental techniques but all used polysomnography to verify REM sleep. REM sleep has certain characteristics that help to distinguish it from both the waking state and from deep sleep. While the EEG patterns in REM sleep are similar to waking patterns, there are also characteristic rapid eye movements as well as the loss of voluntary muscle tone (to prevent acting out the dream). By using polysomnography and blinded raters it was possible to detect both REM sleep and the responses of the participants.

There were 36 participants in the study. Most were either frequent lucid dreamers or had at least some experience of lucid dreaming. There was one participant, in France, who had been diagnosed with narcolepsy, a neurological disorder that is characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness, parasomnias such as hypnagogic imagery and sleep paralysis, and cataplexy (temporary paralysis that occurs during the day, usually in emotionally charged situations).

Each of the groups used various methods to elicit lucid dreams. The American researchers used a method to train lucid dreaming in which sensory stimulation was provided prior to sleep and then again during sleep. To obtain lucid dreams, the German researchers used the method of waking the participants from sleep for a period of time and when the participants fell back to sleep it was with the intention to have a lucid dream. The French participant with narcolepsy was an accomplished lucid dreamer prior to the study. Like the American group, the researchers in the Netherlands used sensory stimulation prior to sleep and then again during sleep.

The American group worked with 22 participants who had reported remembering one or more dreams a week. They used spoken math problems as the task presented to the participants and eye movements as the signals from the participants. The German group worked with 10 experienced lucid dreamers. They used tones and lights to present math problems to the participants and eye movements as the output signal from the dreamers. The French group worked with the participant with narcolepsy and asked yes or no questions or asked for discrimination of light, touch, and speech stimuli and facial muscle contractions were used as the output answers. They obtained spontaneous lucid dreams experienced by the participant. The group in the Netherlands worked with three experienced lucid dreamers. Spoken math questions were used as the task, and eye movements were used for the participant output.

Altogether, 82 sessions with attempts at two-way communication were tried. Of these, 57 sessions had REM sleep. Of these, 15 sessions were found to have signal-verified lucid dreaming. The eye movements and muscle contractions used as responses to the tasks were scored by three raters and one experimenter. At least three of the four had to agree on whether or not a signal was present. Across 158 trials, there were 29 correct answers, 5 incorrect answers, 28 ambiguous answers, and 96 non-responses.

While this would not be a very impressive response rate for these same participants while awake, it is rather amazing that correct answers could actually be obtained from sleeping people at all. For example, one participant signaled that they were in a lucid dream using the prearranged eye movements. Alternating colored lights were given in the form of the math problem “4 – 0” in Morse-code. The participant used left and right eye movements to give the answer.

The subjective experiences reported by participants offer some insight into how this process works. Upon awakening, participants reported that the questions could seem to be coming from outside the dream or were superimposed onto the dream. They also described how the questions could become part of the dream itself as if, for example, the question were coming out of a radio. Clearly, more work will be needed to better understand the process of taking in, processing, and reporting out information from the dream state.

Exploring the dreaming mind

Evidence was found that lucid dreamers could analyze novel perceptual information, keep information in working memory, and answer questions. Upon hearing about this study, a colleague of mine worried that this could lead to new demands for workers. As he said, “I just hope that no one tries to monetize this, e.g., ‘well, since you can do work in your sleep, I’ll pay you $1.50 per hour to come up with a new logo for the company!’” For now, this seems an unlikely concern as there is no fully reliable way to assure that a dreamer will enter the state of lucid dreaming, the methods of communication are thus far crude and cumbersome, and the responses are limited in the amount of information that can be processed and communicated.

On the other hand, this does appear to be an interesting new research tool for exploring the dreamworld and better understanding the abilities of the mind, which consistently seem greater than we could ever have expected.

References

Erlacher D., Schredl M. (2004). Time required for motor activity in lucid dreams. Perceptual and Motor Skills. 99(3 Pt 2),1239-1242. doi: 10.2466/pms.99.3f.1239-1242. PMID: 15739850.

Konkoly, K. R., Appel, K., Chabani, E., Mangiaruga, A., Gott, J., Mallett, R., Caughran, B., Witkowski, S,, Whitmore, N. W., Mazurek, C. Y., Berent, J. B., Weber, F. D., Tu ̈ rker, B., Leu-Semenescu, S., Maranci, J., Pipa, G., Arnulf, I., Oudiette, D., Martin Dresler, M., & Paller, K. A. (2021). Real-time dialogue between experimenters and dreamers during REM sleep, Current Biology. 31, 1–11, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2021.01.026 (in press).

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