New research from Northwestern University shows that individuals who are asleep and in the midst of a lucid dream — aware of the fact that they are currently dreaming — can perceive questions from an experimenter and provide answers using electrophysiological signals.
Dreams take us to a different reality, a hallucinatory world that feels as real as any waking experience.
These often-bizarre episodes are emblematic of human sleep but have yet to be adequately explained.
Retrospective dream reports are subject to distortion and forgetting, presenting a fundamental challenge for neuroscientific studies of dreaming.
Dr. Ken Paller from the Department of Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Northwestern University and colleagues decided to attempt communication with people during lucid dreams.
“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,” they said.
“We realized finding a means to communicate could open the door in future investigations to learn more about dreams, memory, and how memory storage depends on sleep.”
The study involved 36 individuals; some had minimal prior experience with lucid dreaming, others were frequent lucid dreamers, and one was a patient with narcolepsy who had frequent lucid dreams.
In total, the researchers attempted two-way communication during rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep in 57 sessions.
Overall, they found that it was possible for people while dreaming to follow instructions, do simple math, answer yes-or-no questions, or tell the difference between different sensory stimuli.
The volunteers could respond using eye movements or by contracting facial muscles. The scientists refer to it as ‘interactive dreaming.’
“We found that individuals in REM sleep can interact with an experimenter and engage in real-time communication,” Dr. Paller said.
“We also showed that dreamers are capable of comprehending questions, engaging in working-memory operations, and producing answers.”
“Future studies of dreaming could use these same methods to assess cognitive abilities during dreams versus wake,” said first author Karen Konkoly, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Northwestern University.
A paper on the findings was published online this month in the journal Current Biology.
Karen R. Konkoly et al. Real-time dialogue between experimenters and dreamers during REM sleep. Current Biology, published online February 18, 2021; doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.01.026