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Inception is here: Researchers “talk” to lucid dreamers for the first time

New studies show that some people can hear and respond to questions while dreaming.

Credit: slayer87 / Adobe Stock

Key Takeaways
  • Four research teams in four countries independently communicated with sleeping volunteers.
  • A total of 36 participants correctly responded to questions 18.6% of the time.
  • Researchers believe this could open up new avenues for treating anxiety, depression, and trauma.

From Leonardo DiCaprio to Freddie Krueger, pop culture has long been fascinated with the idea of entering someone else’s dreams to influence their thoughts—or steal their souls. Of course, dreams have a much longer track record than blockbuster movies. We’ve long been enthralled with the possibilities of what occurs when we drift off into that “other” world.

But what if that world isn’t as “other” as we believed?

Unlike many studies, which are conducted by one team of researchers, four teams in four labs in four countries (France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States) recently attempted to communicate through dreams. The results were published in the journal, Current Biology.

In total, 36 volunteers—a number of lucid dreamers and some novices who claim to remember at least one dream per week—were asked a total of 158 questions. Methods of replying ranged from smiling and frowning to eye movements. The German team went so far as to request Morse code tapped out with eye patterns in a display of, as the team writes, “interactive dreaming.”

While lucid dreaming dates back to at least the writings of Aristotle, the term was coined in 1913 by Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden, who identified seven types of dreams. He believed lucid dreaming was “the most interesting and worthy of the most careful observation and study.” Lucid dreaming is described as the ability to take control of elements of the dream due to an awareness that you’re dreaming.

A link between lucid dreams and the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep was first made in 1975 by Keith Hearne. Roughly half of the population experiences at least one lucid dream in their lives, though some people regularly have them—some even train for them.

Philosophy professor Evan Thompson investigates the intersection between Buddhism and lucid dreaming in consciousness studies. In his book “Waking, Dreaming, Being,” he describes what occurs when you experience metacognition—in this case, an awareness that you’re awake while asleep—while dreaming.

“Use your imagination to manipulate the dream. Be playful. Change things and transform them… Explore the plasticity of the dream. In this way, the mind’s supple nature will manifest, and you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the dreamscape as a mental construct, a product of imagination.”

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Participants in this study certainly experienced their imagination stretching, with one volunteer “hearing” the math problem (what is eight minus six?) through a car radio while another dreamer was questioned by a movie narrator.

The results were not overwhelmingly positive mind you, yet still proved successful enough to warrant further research. One researcher called this “proof of concept” more than total confirmation. Over 60 percent of the questions went unanswered. Another 17.7 percent were unclear, while just over 3 percent answered wrong. Yet 18.6 percent of respondents were on the money, an impressive feat for the sleeping.

While the researchers aren’t stealing secrets from the subconscious, they hope this discovery could open up new avenues of therapeutics in the treatment of anxiety, depression, and trauma. The idea of accessing “dream content” that they can inform with new content could lead to non-invasive forms of treatment—or “Inception.”

As the team writes,

“The scientific investigation of dreaming, and of sleep more generally, could be beneficially explored using interactive dreaming. Specific cognitive and perceptual tasks could be assigned with instructions presented via softly spoken words, opening up a new frontier of research.”

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Of course, more research is needed, though volunteers will likely not be hard to find. Peeling back the layers of consciousness is both a philosophical pursuit and a nighttime hobby, one that continues to reveal possibilities as we evolve our understanding of the unconscious.

Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book isHero’s Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy.”


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