Dreams take us to an alternate reality while we sleep soundly. Therefore, you may not expect that a person in the middle of a vivid dream will be able to perceive incoming questions and provide them with answers. But a new study led by researchers at Northwestern University shows that they can, and did, develop an app for those who wanted to try it at home.
With partners at three universities around the world, they confirmed that real-time dialogue with a person who dreams is possible, and that the dreamers were able to solve simple math problems and answer yes or no questions.
The researchers studied 36 volunteers who aimed to have a lucid dream, in which a person is aware that they are dreaming.
Using polysomnographic data, they were able to confirm that study participants had reached REM sleep, the phase of rapid eye movement in which lucid dreaming can occur.
“We found that people in REM sleep can interact with an experimenter and participate in communication in real time,” said lead author Ken Paller, professor of psychology and director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Northwestern. “We also show that dreamers are able to understand questions, participate in working memory operations and produce answers.
“Most people would predict that this would not be possible, that people would wake up when asked a question or not answer, and they certainly would not understand a question without misinterpreting it.”
While dreams are a common experience, scientists have not yet adequately explained them. Relying on a person’s dream account is also fraught with distortions and forgotten details. So Paller and his colleagues decided to try communicating with people during lucid dreams.
The researchers realized that finding a means to communicate could open the door in future research to learn more about dreams, memory, and how memory storage depends on sleep, the researchers say.
They also used a rotten egg smell to associate it with smoking, which made the dreamer less inclined to smoke the following week.
The article is unique in that it includes four independently conducted experiments using different approaches to achieve a similar goal. The studies were conducted at the Sorbonne University in France; University of Osnabrück in Germany; and the Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands.
“We put the results together because we feel that combining the results from four different labs using different approaches provides more compelling attest to the reality of this two-way communication phenomenon,” said Karen Konkoly, Ph.D. psychology student at Northwestern and lead author of the article published this month In the diary Current biology.
“In this way, we see that different means can be used to communicate.”
How this can be useful to people
One of the individuals who was successful with two-way communication had narcolepsy and frequent lucid dreams. Among the others, some had a lot of experience in lucid dreams and some did not. In general, the researchers found that it was possible for people, while dreaming, to follow instructions, do simple math, answer yes or no questions or distinguish the difference between different sensory stimuli.
They may respond by using eye movements or by contracting the facial muscles. The researchers refer to these successful conversations as “interactive dreams” and chose questions with known answers to be able to assess whether the participants’ answers were correct.
Konkoly says that future studies on dreams could use these same methods to assess cognitive abilities during dreams instead of being awake. They could also help verify the accuracy of post-waking dream reports. Outside of the laboratory, the methods could be used to help people in a number of ways, such as solving problems during sleep or offering nightmares novel ways to cope. Follow-up experiments conducted by members of the four research teams aim to learn more about the connections between sleep and memory processing, and how dreams can shed light on this memory processing.
There’s an application for that …
Students in Paller’s lab group have developed a smartphone app for Android devices that aims to make it easier for people to achieve lucidity during their dreams. Information about the lucid app and the link to download it are available at Paller’s cognitive neuroscience lab site, here.
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