The Science Behind Dreaming: New Research Unlocks Doors

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As sleep research continues to evolve, so does one of its most captivating topics: dreams. This bedtime phenomenon occurs during the REM – or rapid eye movement – sleep cycle.

Humans can experience different types of dreams, from lucid and recurring dreams, to daydreams, prophetic, and healing dreams. They can range from mundane extensions of real-life to fantastical storylines and locales. Even the dreaded nightmare is technically a vivid dream, though these are differentiated due to their disturbing premises that may wake the sleeper.

Suffice to say, every person on Earth has dreams, whether they remember it happening or not. Some dream more regularly than others. Despite their universality, there is still much to learn about dreams. With the help of new research, though, scientists are proving that communication during dreams is possible.

Communicating with Dreamers

In a new study, independent research groups from the United States, France, Germany, and the Netherlands were able to achieve two-way communication in real-time with participants who were lucid dreaming. The U.S. team, led by Northwestern University doctoral student Karen Konkoly, used basic math problems in order to communicate with the sleeping participants.

The group at Northwestern began by wiring participants with electrodes that are able to sense any brain activity through different parts of the head including the eyes. During REM sleep, which is when dreaming happens, the eyes are rapidly moving beneath the closed eyelids, but Konkoly says repeatedly moving your eyes from side to side is distinctly different than regular REM eye movement. Therefore, once the participants achieved lucid dreaming, they were instructed to move their eyes from left to right several times to signal their awareness.

From there, the participants were given a series of math problems and answered using the side-to-side eye movement method.

In one example, the American researchers provided a spoken math problem, 8 minus 6, to a 19-year old male participant. He responded within three seconds with two left-to-right eye movements to signal that his answer was ‘2’. This exercise was then repeated with the same result.

The research groups in France, Germany, and the Netherlands also attained similar findings, though instead of math, they used different methods of establishing communication.

Illustration of a Dream Experiment During the REM Sleep

What About Dream Reporting?

Upon completion of the study, participants were asked to describe their dreams. They reported that the communication from the researchers was relayed in different ways. While some responded that the questions seemed as though they came from outside or above the dream, others describe the signals as coming from components within the dream, like playing on a radio.

Although most participants acknowledged they received the researchers’ questions, they had difficulty correctly identifying the series of communication events after certain dreams. For example, some participants reported a different math problem than the one they were presented with while dreaming.

These results reveal the difficulty in relying on the accuracy of the sleeper’s report of their dreams. The scientists say it’s possible that the time it takes to transition from dreaming to a state of wakefulness could contribute to these inaccuracies.

Illustration of an Experiment During the REM Sleep with Dream Scenarios

Why Are Lucid Dreams Important for Research?

According to Certified Sleep Science Coach, McKenzie Hyde, lucid dreamers are aware that they are in a dream, which allows them full control over it. The reason this type of dreaming is important for research is that it allows the sleeper to have the authority and ability to communicate. “Lucid dreaming provides the sleeper with a rare ability to recall dreams and even communicate and learn during sleep; they are blessed with a greater quality of introspection resulting in increased metacognitive abilities.”

That communication can provide experts unique insight into human cognitive capabilities.

woman is having a dream about hiking and exploring

Can You Learn How to Lucid Dream?

Although lucid dreaming is rare, Hyde says everyone can be taught how to do it. For those who wish to try this process on their own at home, there are several steps you can take.

Use a Mantra

According to Hyde, one way to induce lucid dreaming on your own is to repeat the mantra “I will remain conscious” over and over before you go to bed. She adds that with practice this should become ingrained into your subconscious.

Practice Recalling Dreams

Each morning when you wake up, try to recall your dream as accurately as possible. Over time, this skill should improve.

Take Reality Checks

Sleep and Health Expert Marvin Klemp also suggests taking several opportunities during the day to observe your surroundings. This could include looking at your hands or watching a clock. According to Klemp, the more you do this while awake, you’ll become more observant during dreams.

Learn More: How To Have a Lucid Dream

What Are the Benefits of Lucid Dreaming?

The awareness that comes with this style of dreaming means the person is in control of their dream world and what they can do. Klemp says lucid dreams present an opportunity for self-improvement. Practicing a new sport, learning a new language, or even kicking a bad habit like smoking could be possible through lucid dreaming.

While there are no direct health benefits to lucid dreaming, Klemp adds that it could prove to be a breakthrough for helping those with mental health issues.

Are There Negative Side Effects to Lucid Dreams?

Due to the level of consciousness involved, Hyde says lucid dreams can negatively impact sleep. “This diminishes the quality of sleep as a consciously working brain during REM phase will have fewer opportunities to reboot and rest which leads to low levels of energy, fatigue, difficulties in concentrating the next morning.” She adds that lucid dreaming may prevent stress from being released and cause psychological issues like anxiety and depression to flare up.

Conclusion

The breakthrough findings of this international study reveal the significant impact that lucid dreams can have on research involving the mind and sleep. By providing a way for the sleeper to communicate in real-time with others who are awake, these dreams not only offer more in-depth knowledge of the mind’s intricacies, but they could be a means of treating mental health issues and improving skillsets.

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Content Writer | + posts

Jill Zwarensteyn is a content writer for Sleep Advisor and is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.

Based in Los Angeles, she is an experienced writer and journalist who enjoys spending her free time at the beach, hiking, reading, or exploring new places around town.

She’s also an avid traveler who has a personal goal of being able to successfully sleep on an airplane someday.

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