Was it all a dream?

A scientific breakthrough allows researchers to communicate with lucid dreamers.

22 April 2021

Calm peaceful mixed race young lady wearing sleeping mask, enjoying night dream, napping in comfortable bed at home. Top above view serene biracial millennial woman relaxing on pillow under blanket.

By Mariusz Bogacki, Researcher and Science Communicator, Edinburgh

From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, through Freud’s psycho-analysis, to sci-fi blockbusters such as Inception – dreams have fascinated and inspired people for a long time. Yet, the meaning and purpose of this phenomenon remains mysterious, as scientific research is limited to brain wave scans supported by people’s patchy reconstructions of dreams. However, a recent milestone in dream studies promises a new way of analysing the illusive dream-states of the human mind by establishing direct communication with the dreamers.

Sweet dreams are made of this

Dreams are generally defined as a series of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations occurring involuntarily in the mind during certain stages of sleep. There are five common types of dreams: normal, day, lucid, false awakening, and nightmares. Each type differs in intensity, content, and people’s ability to remember it. Scientists are most interested in lucid dreaming as it is the most vivid and realistic. Moreover, some people are capable of training themselves in it. Lucid dreaming occurs when a person is aware, and even in control, of their dream while they are asleep. The phenomenon happens in a Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep. It is the deepest stage of human sleep during which people dream the most and when the dreams are the most realistic. During REM sleep, a person’s eyes and eyelids flutter and breathing becomes irregular as the brain paralyzes the muscles in order to prevent the body from acting out dreams. It is this physical reaction that offers a potential for basic communication.

Interactive dreaming

Dream studies have been impeded by the reliance on brain scans and people’s interpretation of dreams. Recently, however, four independent experiments conducted by researchers in Germany, France, the Netherlands and the USA found a way of ‘communicating’ with people experiencing lucid dreaming. Each experiment involved people experienced in lucid dreaming and who had been trained by scientists to answer simple pre-arranged questions by eye movement or mouth twitches (e.g. left signals ‘yes’, right signals ‘no’). During their REM sleep, which was determined by analysing people’s brain waves, participants were able to answer the questions using their eyes and facial twitches. Some dreamers even remembered the questions as they reported a narrator-style voices coming from beyond their dreams. It is hoped that this method of interactive dreaming will usher a new sub-field of dream studies focused of investigating further the function and importance of dreaming.

Dream a little dream of me…

Today’s science knows surprisingly little about the purpose of dreaming. Theories vary from claiming that dreams are a form of memory consolidation, while others suppose that dreaming is a way of simulating future possibilities. Learning more about dreams will help unravel one of the most perplexing and misunderstood mysteries of the human mind. Interactive dreaming can be also used as a therapy for people suffering from nightmares and anxiety. Scientists are even considering the possibility of dream manipulation in order to test whether a person could consciously learn while asleep. Let’s just say that future research may offer possibilities we haven’t even dreamt of!