Author: Renee Cao
Editors: Ken Saito and Michael Zhu
Artist: Gianluca Zhang
Studies show that 55% of adults have had lucid dreams in their lifetimes and 23% of people lucid dream at least once a month. When lucid dreams occur, dreamers are aware they are dreaming, but remain in the dream state. More interestingly, lucid dreamers are commonly known to be able to control their environment, their actions, and the other people in their dreams. Though humans have lucid dreamed and have studied it since ancient times, its causes and purposes stay relatively unknown, as even ordinary dreams are still not fully understood. However, it is known that lucid dreaming is associated with REM (rapid eye movement) during sleep. A new study conducted this year by psychology and neuroscience professor of Northwestern University, Ken Paller, reveals that “individuals in REM sleep can interact with an experimenter and engage in real-time communication” and are “capable of comprehending questions, engaging in working-memory operations, and producing answers.”
Because recalling a dream is often tedious and associated with distorted or forgotten details, Paller and his colleagues wanted to attempt to communicate with people while they are actually dreaming. Doing so could possibly pave the way for scientists to learn more about dreams, their implications, memories, and how memory storage depends on dreams. In ordinary dreams, dreamers are unaware that they are dreaming and may accept them as reality, and thus, this experiment must be conducted while lucid dreaming. This study was conducted by four different teams from France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the US, which all introduced different methods of presenting questions and collecting data. There were 36 test subjects: some rarely lucidly dreamed and were trained to lucid dream, some frequently lucid dreamed, and one person had narcolepsy where they lucidly dreamed constantly. These lucid dreamers had to complete simple math problems, answer yes-or-no questions, and distinguish between visual, tactile (touch), and auditory perceptions. The study was done in both daytime and nighttime and none of the participants were given specific questions beforehand. Responses from the dreamers consisted of facial and/or eye movements, which produced physiological signals. All participants were able to maintain two-way communication with researchers.
In one experiment, a 19-year-old American who only experienced two lucid dreams before was presented with a math problem. When he was lucid dreaming, he dreamt of his favorite video game, then lost all control of his muscles and heard the sound of blood rushing to his ears. He confirmed that he was in a lucid dream by giving three left-right eye movements (LRLRLR). Then he heard a researcher say the subtraction problem “8-6.” In 3 seconds, he responded with the answer “2” by giving two left-right eye movements (LRLR). When the problem was repeated, he still maintained the same correct answer.
In another case, a 20-year-old French man with narcolepsy was tested. People with narcolepsy are especially useful for lucid dreaming research, as this man reported to have 4 lucid dreams daily and had incredible lucid dreaming abilities by being able to control dream scenarios easily. He was tested to respond to stimuli by electromyography (EMG) activity of facial muscles, which were the zygomatic (smiling) and corrugator (frowning) muscles. He thought these facial signals were easier and quicker to produce than the left-right eye movements, as they affected his lucid dreaming less. In his first sleeping session, he had to indicate he was lucid dreaming through an LRLR sequence, a corrugator contraction, and a zygomatic contraction. He used either the corrugator or zygomatic contractions to count the number of taps received on his hands, distinguish between low and high pitches, answer yes-or-no questions, and distinguish between visual light changes. In his second session months later, he had to listen to a female voice say 39 French words and perform certain actions. For instance, when he heard the word “up”, he had to perform two zygomatic contractions; when he heard the word “down”, he had to perform two corrugator contractions.
In Germany, participants learned to decode Morse-code messages for visual (flashing) and auditory (beeping) stimuli beforehand to learn how to solve math problems. For example, “an eye movement from the center of the visual field to the left and back to the center (“left”) corresponds to a Morse code dot, and the reverse eye movement from center to right and back to center (“right”) corresponds to a Morse code dash.” If someone wanted to produce the answer “9,” they would produce the eye-movement sequence of RRRRL, which would translate to 4 dashes and 1 dot.
Overall, these recent experiments have provided new insights into how lucid dreaming works, and hopefully, in the near future, we can better understand how dreams play a role in the way our bodies function.
Konkoly, Karen R., et al. “Real-Time Dialogue between Experimenters and Dreamers during
REM Sleep.” Current Biology, Feb. 2021. ScienceDirect, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2021.01.026.
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/02/210218114018.htm. Accessed 9 Apr.