L.Clear dreams, where dreamers become aware that they are dreaming, often allow control over the narratives of the dreams. Clear slumberers are free of the space and time that determine the waking life and can explore endless possibilities of the dream world. Clear dreaming could also help researchers look into the dream state in new ways. In a study published today (February 18) in Current biologyScientists show that lucid dreamers can process and exchange complex messages with the waking world.
In other studies of lucid dreaming, sleepers have signaled clarity in eye movements so researchers can distinguish brain activity during these episodes. To learn the content of these dreams, researchers still rely on the memory of the sleepers when they wake up. “Of course, this depends on the participant’s memories and can be distorted,” says Kristoffer Appel, sleep and dream researcher at the University of Osnabrück and at the Institute for Sleep and Dream Technologies in Hamburg and co-author of the study. To solve this problem, Appel and his colleagues tried to communicate with dreamers in real time.
In a proof-of-concept study, the sleep researchers recruited volunteers who were often clear dreamers or learned lucidity-inducing techniques. While the participants were dozing, the researchers used electroencephalography (EEG) analyzes of brain activity to confirm that they were sleeping. In response to yes / no questions and simple math problems, six participants answered a total of 29 questions with predetermined eye signals.
The scientist spoke to Appel to learn about research on communicating with lucid dreamers and the doors that could open to dream research, learning, and even entertainment.
Kristoffer Appel: First of all, it’s exciting to try something that is seemingly impossible – to communicate with someone who is asleep. So it’s pretty cool to try to interact with these people and see if you can actually get answers to your questions and if you can find new ways to do dream research. So this lucid dreaming study was an advance on what was previously done in other lucid dreaming studies. We have also tried to continue this line of research and find a way to convey actual messages with real content between the dream world and the waking world.
KA: This study was carried out by four independent laboratories in four different countries, which is also something special. . . . So the idea was to have someone who would achieve clarity and be in the dream state and then interact with them either via spoken messages or via beeps, flashing lights or tactile stimulation to bring messages into the dream. Also, have the person answer these messages either through eye movements that you can control from the dream, or through contractions of the facial muscles.
One of the study authors is sleeping in the laboratory. Electrical signals from his brain and eye movements are displayed on a computer monitor.
KA: In Germany I asked math questions using Morse code. For example, for the question “three plus one” it would be something like “dih dih dih diiiih diiiih” for “three”, then “dih diiiih diiiih dih” for “plus” and then “dih dih dih diiiih diiiih” for “one. ‘ These beeps are presented to the test person sleeping in the sleep laboratory. And they include this suggestion in their dream. For example, in their dream they are at a bus stop and there is a ticket machine and it beeps. And they recognize: “Okay, that’s the message from the waking world and I have to understand what a math problem that is. ”
So they decipher this in their dream and find out: “It is three plus one. Now I have to send the answer to that question. ‘And they do that either by moving their faces or by moving their eyes left and right. So in this case the answer is four. So they move their eyes left and right four times, which can be recorded in the sleep laboratory. This is how this communication worked in the German case.
Other laboratories, the French and American laboratories, and the Dutch laboratory used only spoken language. So they asked the participant, “What is three plus one?” And the participant included all of this spoken text in his dream, so maybe as a kind of narrator’s voice like in a film. The French team also used normal questions. For example: “Do you like chocolate?”
KA: The most important finding was that it is possible to interact and exchange messages with a sleeping person. . . and have the answer in real time without [the dreamer] Wake up, brought back to the sleep laboratory experimenter. And of course that has a pretty big impact. This view that people are cut off from the waking world while they sleep needs to be updated. This is basically a new way to study and understand dreams.
KA: Previous studies on lucid dreaming [have used] Eye movements to time stamp some events in the dream. But here you have these complex questions and complex answers where you need to maintain fairly sophisticated cognitive skills. Decoding morse code while dreaming is not so easy. It is also much more complex just to remember the task you are supposed to perform and how to do it than before.
KA: There are all kinds of uses. In the short term, this is an important study for dream research as we can now examine the dream state directly and interactively. In other scientific and psychological experiments, it is normal to be able to interact with your participant and ask questions, but of course it is not that easy when you are asleep. So this is the first step in how this can be possible.
It is possible to interact and exchange messages with a sleeping person. . . and have the answer in real time.
—Kristoffer Appel, University of Osnabrück and Institute for Sleep and Dream Technologies
But it may have some real-world uses as well. For example, learn while you sleep. That you can actually transfer new knowledge to sleep. . . and then remember it when you wake up. This is kind of a dream of every student – to learn the vocabulary for the Latin test while sleeping. But you can also use it for psychotherapy or apply a new form of nightmare therapy to support the patient in real time with nightmares and to coach them somehow. Also for problem solving or for creative purposes – maybe artists, writers or composers can use them to dream of works and transfer them directly to the real world without forgetting them when you wake up. And of course for entertainment. One day we might have some kind of guided dream where instead of reading or watching a James Bond movie, you are actually James Bond yourself in your dream.
KA: There are many different things. For example, how does dreaming work? What actually influences dreams? When there are some stimuli that are included in the dream and some that are not included in dreams. How does the narrative of a dream develop? If you can somehow manipulate the course of the dream, you may learn more about how the brain normally does it with and without this intervention. So you could find out many things about dreaming.
KA: One thing that I find really exciting is how you can actually add complexity to messages. Instead of just asking yes / no questions or math questions, you could imagine answers being more complex than actually reporting what you see in your dream. Maybe you can report things like: “I see a house”, “I see faces”, “I see the beach”, “I am afraid,” I am happy. “There are a lot of things you want to communicate that are beyond yes / no. So I’m working on a method for this that uses more sophisticated eye movements to translate words and phrases into the waking world.
KR Konkoly et al., “Real-time dialogue between experimenters and dreamers during REM sleep”, Curr Biol, doi: 10.1016 / j.cub.2021.01.026, 2021.