Dreams in which the sleeper knows they are dreaming and has some measure of control as to how the events pan out have been stimulated electrically, according to a new paper.
Lucid dreaming is the somewhat misleading name given to dreams where the dreamer is aware that they are in fact dreaming. They are not necessarily any clearer than other dreams, but the dreamer can often consciously control the course of the dream, making for a more intelligible experience.
References to what may be lucid dreaming go back more than 3000 years but the name originated in the late 19th Century. For almost a century the topic was treated with great suspicion. However, in the early 1980s PhD student Stephen Laberge had people who claimed to be able to lucidly dream move their eyes in a pre-agreed fashion while undergoing REM sleep, proving the phenomenon was real.
Since then there has been much enthusiasm from those who do not lucidly dream, or do so only occasionally, to find a way to experience it regularly. The success of Inception took this quest up a notch. However, many of the techniques proposed are unproven to say the least.
By publishing in Nature Neuroscience Dr Ursula Voss of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University has put her claims in a different class, credibility-wise.
“Lucid dreaming is a very good tool to observe what happens in the brain and what is causally necessary for secondary consciousness,” says Voss. She has found that the brainwaves produced by people who subsequently report experiencing lucid dreams fall somewhere between those of REM-sleep and wakefulness. The frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, responsible for most of what we think of as higher thinking, show lower frequency gamma waves, 25-40Hz, thought to be associated with conscious attention.
While this may be of interest to sleep researchers, Voss's work is reaching a wider audience since she and Professor J Allan Hobson of Harvard applied electrical stimulation to 27 participants hoping to replicate the same mixture of brainwaves. Voss and Hobson waited until their subjects were showing the signs of REM sleep to apply stimulation to the scalp at various frequencies double blinded from researchers and sleepers alike.
Despite the participants never having reported lucid dreaming before, when given pulses between 25 and 40Hz brain activity at the same frequency was observed. Higher and lower frequencies had no such effect. When woken 5-10 seconds later some of the subjects given the 25-40Hz reported having been aware that they were dreaming.
"The key finding is that you can, surprisingly, by scalp stimulation, influence the brain. And you can influence the brain in such a way that a sleeper, a dreamer, becomes aware that he is dreaming," says Hobson. He considers the work of most relevance to psychiatric research adding, "As a model for mental illness, understanding lucid dreaming is absolutely crucial. I would be cautious about interpreting the results as of direct relevance to the treatment of medical illnesses, but [it's] certainly a step in the direction of understanding how the brain manages to hallucinate and be deluded." The authors see potential for lucid dreaming to help people with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or otherwise prone to nightmares to get their fears under control.
While Hobson's thoughts may be on high minded uses, marketers will be rubbing their hands at the idea of sleeping caps that promise the capacity to dream our choice of dreams, creating temporary worlds each of us can rule.