(ORDO NEWS) — For the first time, researchers have conducted “talks” involving new questions and math problems with “lucid dreamers” who know they are dreaming. The findings suggest that humans can receive and process complex external information during sleep.
In Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio enters other people’s dreams to interact with them and ferret out the secrets of their subconscious. Now it looks like this sci-fi story is one step closer to reality.
For the first time, researchers have conducted “conversations” involving new questions and math problems with lucid dreamers – people who are aware that they are dreaming. Results from four labs and 36 participants suggest that humans can receive and process complex external information while they sleep.
“This work challenges fundamental definitions of sleep,” says cognitive neuroscientist Benjamin Baird of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who studies sleep and dreaming but was not involved in the study. Traditionally, he says, sleep is defined as a state in which the brain is turned off and unaware of the outside world.
Lucid dreams (lucid dreams) are first mentioned in the writings of the Greek philosopher Aristotle in the fourth century BC, and scientists have observed them since the 1970s in experiments on rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when dreams are most common.
Every second person has had at least one lucid dream, about 10% of people have them once a month or more often. Although this ability to be aware that you are in a dream, and even to control some aspects of it, is rare, it can be improved through training.
Several studies have attempted to communicate with lucid dreamers by using stimuli such as lights, bumps, and sounds to “enter” their dreams. But they recorded only minimal reactions from sleepers and did not include complex communication.
Four independent teams in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the US have attempted to go further and establish complex two-way communication during dreams, using speech and asking questions that sleepers have never heard in the learning process. They recruited 36 volunteers who included both experienced lucid dreamers and those who had never seen lucid dreams before but remembered at least one dream a week.
The researchers first taught participants to recognize when they were dreaming by explaining to them how lucid sleep works and by showing them the cues—sounds, lights, or finger tapping—that they would give during sleep. The idea was that these cues would signal to the participants that they were dreaming.
Sleep sessions were scheduled at different times: some at night, when people usually go to bed, others early in the morning. Each lab used different ways of communicating with sleepers, from verbal questions to flashing lights. Sleepers were asked to signal that they had entered lucid sleep and respond to questions by moving their eyes and face in certain ways—for example, turning their eyes to the left three times.
As the participants fell asleep, the scientists tracked their brain activity, eye movement and facial muscle contractions – common indicators of REM sleep – using EEG helmets fitted with electrodes. Of the 57 sleep sessions, six people showed that in 15 of them they had lucid dreams.
In these tests, the researchers asked dreamers simple yes or no questions or math problems like eight minus six. To answer, the dreamers used the cues they had been taught before falling asleep: smiling or frowning, moving their eyes repeatedly to signify an amount, or, as in a German lab, moving their eyes in Morse code patterns.
The researchers asked 158 questions to dreamers who answered correctly 18.6% of the time, according to Current Biology today. The dreamers gave an incorrect answer to only 3.2% of the questions; 17.7% of their answers were unclear, and 60.8% of questions remained unanswered.
The researchers say these numbers show that communication, even if it is difficult, is possible. “It’s a proof of concept,” Baird says. “And the fact that different labs have used all these different ways to prove that this two-way communication is possible… makes it even more compelling.”
After a few questions, the dreamers were awakened and asked to describe their dreams. Some recalled that the questions were part of the dream: One dreamer spoke of math problems coming from the car radio. Another was at a party when he heard the researcher interrupt his sleep like a movie announcer to ask him if he spoke Spanish.
According to the lead author of the experiment, Karen Concoley, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, the experiment allows for a better study of dreams.
“Almost everything that is known about dreams has been based on retrospective reports received in the waking state, and these can be distorted.” Concoli hopes the technique could be used therapeutically in the future to influence people’s dreams so they can better deal with trauma, anxiety and depression.
According to Baird, “talking” in a dream can also help the dreamer solve problems, learn new skills, or even come up with creative ideas. “Sleep is a highly associative state that can have benefits when it comes to creativity.”
University of Rochester cognitive neuroscientist Michelle Carr, who was not involved in the study, says she is excited about this future application. But she stresses that flashbacks cannot be replaced. “When you’re asleep, your ability to report is very limited,” she says.
Changing people’s thoughts while they sleep is still science fiction, says co-author of the study, cognitive neuroscientist Ken Paller, also at Northwestern University.
However, he considers the experiment an important first step in communicating with dreamers; he compares it to the first phone call, or to talking to an astronaut on another planet. Dreamers live in “a world made entirely of memories stored in the brain,” he says. Now researchers seem to have found a way to communicate with people in this world.
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