Science: Researchers communicate with sleepers during dreams
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Science: Researchers communicate with sleepers during dreams

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Researchers at four universities in Europe and the US have succeeded in having a real-time communication with sleeping subjects in the middle of a lucid dream.

In a normal dream, the dreamer accepts the circumstances and experiences as-is, no matter how counter-rational they may be.

A lucid dream, on the other hand, is one in which the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming. According to some lucid dreamers, that sudden awareness brings the possibility to direct the course of the dream from that moment on.

Until now, such claims have been impossible to substantiate. As we all know, a dream that was gripping, exciting or terrifying at the time becomes vague and formless on awakening, and reports by dreamers of what they just experienced even more so.

But now, researchers from psychology and cognitive neurology departments at universities in the US, France, Germany and the Netherlands have cooperated on a project allowing them to ‘converse’ in real time with subjects who are asleep and experiencing a lucid dream at that very moment.

The teams from Northwestern University, the Sorbonne, Osnabrück and Nijmegen looked at three types of subject: some who were already familiar with lucid dreaming; some who had never heard of it but were brought up to speed by the researchers, and one man suffering from narcolepsy who had frequent lucid dreams.

The paper published this week in the journal Current Biology explains the situation, in words hovering between the scientific and something more New Age.

Instead of waiting for dreamers to tell us about a dream after it has ended, when they have transitioned to the waking state, we sought to obtain evidence showing that it is possible to interview them about their dreams at the time they are experiencing them,” the paper says.

Our experimental goal is akin to finding a way to talk with an astronaut who is on another world, but in this case the world is entirely fabricated on the basis of memories stored in the brain. Demonstrating the viability of this “interactive dreaming”—when experimenter and dreamer communicate with each other in real time—would be a large step forward to promote future progress in dream research.”

The researchers passed messages to the sleeping subjects in the form of spoken words, beeping sounds, flashing lights and tactile stimuli. When the subject was in lucid dreaming – signalled by rapid eye movement (REM) and brain waves – the researchers were able to provoke a response from the subject, in the form of directed eye movements or signals sent by facial muscle contractions – signals pre-arranged between subject and team.

All four teams reported successful two-way communication – although not all subjects could recall the communication once they had awoken, and some rationalised the stimuli as dream artefacts – the voice of the researcher as a radio broadcast, for example.

The communications took various forms: maths problems, counting using tactile response, Morse code and sound/light discrimination.

Alan Hope
The Brussels Times