Since the dawn of mankind, our dreams have captivated, confused, and even terrified us, yet the advent of modern neuroscience has opened up the possibility of finally demystifying and controlling our nocturnal cognition. While we’ve still some way to go in our quest to unravel the mysteries of sleep, recent breakthroughs have enabled scientists to induce lucid dreams in slumbering volunteers, and the latest evidence suggests that it may even be possible for people to communicate while dreaming.
The term lucid dreaming refers to the awareness of being in a dream, and many who experience this odd state of consciousness find that they are actually able to control many aspects of their dream. It is estimated that around half of us will have at least one lucid dream at some point in our lives, although researchers have been experimenting with methods to trigger the phenomenon in order to be able to study it.
To that end, a recent study found that techniques including “reality testing” – whereby a person trains themselves to continually check if they are truly awake – can help to increase the frequency of lucid dreams. This effect can be enhanced by combining reality testing with mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (MILD), which involves waking up after five hours of sleep and setting the intention to realize that one is dreaming, before going back to sleep.
Describing his work on lucid dreaming in an interview with Technology Networks, Professor Ken Paller of Northwestern University explained how he and his colleagues have successfully induced lucid dreams using sounds that encourage people to test their reality while asleep. For instance, merely asking the question “are you dreaming right now?” appears to trigger a sense of awareness in sleepers that can lead them into a lucid dream.
Amazingly, Paller found that he was even able to communicate with some people while they were in the midst of a lucid dream. In some cases, dreamers successfully answered basic math problems by signaling their response with their eyes.
Incredible as this may be, the truth is that we still don’t really have much of an idea about how lucid dreams differ from regular dreams in terms of brain activity. To date, only one brain imaging study has been conducted, involving a single lucid dreamer.
While the results from that study will need to be backed up by further research, they do make for fascinating reading. For instance, “lucid dreaming was associated with a reactivation of areas which are normally deactivated during REM sleep,” including areas of the prefrontal cortex that are needed for critical thinking and the ability to question our reality.
“This pattern of activity can explain the recovery of reflective cognitive capabilities that are the hallmark of lucid dreaming,” write the study authors.
As research into this fascinating aspect of cognition deepens, scientists are keen to discover whether lucid dreams can be used as a means of overcoming trauma, by allowing people to resolve painful memories in their sleep. At the same time, Paller is hoping to learn more about the nature and content of lucid dreams, and says that he hopes to one day train people to describe their lucid dreams in real time by moving their eyes to communicate in morse code, or by looking at letters on a keyboard.