It’s the same sort of mundane stress dream you’ve been having half your life: You’re back in school and staring down at an exam you forgot to study for, panicked thoughts racing as you contemplate bolting from the lecture hall.
Wouldn’t it be nice if your conscious mind could snap into awareness, stop the formulaic scene your unconscious brain is playing out, and use the anything-goes imaginary universe to do something fun, like flying? Well, you can – using a practice known as lucid dreaming. The hitch is that unless you’re one of the lucky few who can do it naturally, developing this mental ability takes time and practice.
But now, a new study by experts from the Lucidity Institute and the University of Wisconsin-Madison has found that a drug used to treat the memory decline of Alzheimer’s disease significantly boosts the onset of dream awareness in people actively trying to learn lucid dreaming techniques.
“This protocol is one of the most effective methods for inducing lucid dreams known to-date, and holds promise for making lucid dreaming available to a wider population,” wrote lead author and psychiatrist Benjamin Baird, and his colleagues, in the journal PLOS One.
In past research, Baird’s team discovered that lucid dreams tend to occur during periods of increased physical activation during REM sleep, leading them to theorize that boosting REM nervous system activity could help people switch normal dreaming into lucid dreaming. And since REM sleep appears to be affected by the signaling of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, they sought to test whether drugs that ramp up acetylcholine signaling – by inhibiting the enzyme that breaks the molecule down – might do the trick.
In the current investigation, the researchers enrolled a diverse group of 121 adults, aged 19 to 75, and put them through an eight-day workshop on Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (MILD): a well-known lucid dreaming technique that involves identifying (while awake) a distinctive feature or element that is common in one’s normal dreams, then using visualization exercises to associate seeing this “dreamsign” with a conscious realization that one is asleep.
Subjects were then sent home with unmarked packets containing one low (4 mg) and one high (8 mg) dose capsule of the cholinergic drug galantamine, and one placebo capsule. For three consecutive nights, they were instructed to sleep for about 4.5 hours, then wake up (because sleep interruption also helps lucid dreaming) and take one of the pills before going back to sleep with the intent of lucid dreaming.
After taking the high dose of galantamine, 42 percent of participants experienced a lucid dream, including several people who had never had a single lucid dream before. Twenty-seven percent of participants achieved lucidity after taking the low dose, and 14 percent did so on their placebo night. Moreover, dreamers reported that their lucid dreams on galantamine were more vivid, complex, enjoyable, and easier to remember than those they had without the medication.
“Together our results show that galantamine substantially and significantly increases the frequency of lucid dreaming,” the authors concluded. “The double blind and placebo-controlled design of this study provides strong evidence that cholinergic enhancement with galantamine causally increases the frequency of lucid dreams in a dose-related manner.”
Baird, whose group is now working on comparing brainwave patterns between lucid and non-lucid dreamers with the hopes of finding the brain areas responsible for the awareness of consciousness, can also personally attest to the strengths of the galantamine-MILD technique after experimenting with it himself.
“It’s like going into the holodeck in Star Trek where you can have any imaginable experience you choose,” he told New Scientist.
[H/T: New Scientist]