People Answer Scientists’ Queries in Real Time While Dreaming

dreams are full of possibilities; by drifting inna'da realm beyond our waking realities, we can visit magical lands, travel through time and interact with long-lost family and friends. the notion of communicating in real time with some1 outside of our dreamscapes, however, sounds like sci fiction. a new study demonstrates that, to some extent, this seeming fantasy can be made real.  

scis already knew that one-way contact is attainable. previous studies ‘ve demonstrated that pplz can process external cues, s'as sounds and smells, while asleep. thris also evidence that pplz ray'vel to send messages inna other direction: lucid dreamers—those wh'cn become aware they are in a dream—can be trained to signal, using eye movements, t'they are inna midst offa dream.

two-way communication, however, is + complex. it requires a'pers who is asleep to actually cogg wha’ they hear from the outside and think bout it logically enough to generate an answer, explains ken paller, a cogg neurosci at northwestern university. “we lived'dat twas goin to be possible—but til we actually demonstrated it, we weren’t sure.” 

for this study, paller and his colleagues recruited volunteers who said they remembered at least one dream per week and provided them with guidance n'how to lucid dream. they were also trained to respond to simple math problems by movin their eyes back and forth—for ex, the correct answer to “8 minus 6,” ‘d be movin yr eyes to the left and rite twice. while the pticipants slept, electrodes attached to their faces picked up their eye movements and electroencephalography (eeg)—a method of monitoring brain activity—kept track of wha’ stage of sleep they were in.

as paller’s team was conducting these experiments, they discovered 3 groups in germany, france na netherlands who were attempting to accomplish the same thing. instead of competing, the groups decided to collaborate. they carried out similar experiments, although with slitely ≠ methods of answering ?s and receiving responses. the german group, for ex, transmitted their math problems using morse code, na french group asked their pticipant—a'pers with narcoleψ- who had expert lucid-dreaming abilities—to answer yes-or-no ?s with facial muscle contractions rather than eye movements.

across the 4 studies, there was a total of 36 pticipants and 158 trials during which the researchers ‘d verify lucid dreaming and attempted to establish contact. answers were pondered correct if 3 of 4 raters were in agreement on whether the responses, sometimes very subtle movements, were accurate. correct responses were given in 18 % of trials, and another 18 % were classified as ambiguous cause raters ‘d not come to a consensus bout whether pticipants provided a correct response, or iffey had responded at all. incorrect responses were given in 3 % of the trials. inna majority of trials—60 %—there was no response.

1-odda coauthors, karen konkoly, a graduate student in paller’s lab, specul8s that pticipants failed to respond in 60 % of the trials cause they simply did not perceive the inc communication. in those cases, they rarely reprted any incorporation of the ?s into their dreams after waking up. however, she adds that tis also possible that dreamers perceived the inputs but paid lil attention and forgot b4 awakening. the proportion of pplz who respond ‘d potentially be improved with + training or by presenting ?s when pplz are in specific sleeping brain states, konkoly says.

after establishing successful two-way communication, pticipants were woken up and asked to recount their dreams. in most cases, they ‘d remember receiving the experimenters’ ?s while asleep; in some cases, the ?s appeared to be coming from outside the dream, while other times they were integrated inna'da dream itself. (one pticipant reprted that the lites in their dream started flickering, which they were able to recognize as the morse-coded math problem.) there were instances, however, when pplz either did not recall the interactions or had a distorted account. for ex, there were trials in which individuals answered a math problem correctly while asleep but did not remember the ? correctly after waking up. these findings were published on feb 18 in current biology.

these findings “challenge our ideas bout wha’ sleep is,” says benjamin baird, a postdral researcher who studies dreams atta university of wisconsin–madison and was not involved in this study. sleep has classically been defined as unresponsiveness to external environmental stimuli—and that feature is still typically pt of the definition tody, baird explains. “this work pushes us to think carefully—rethink, maybe—bout some of those primordial definitions bout the nature of sleep itself, and wha”s possible in sleep.”

this kind of two-way communication with dreamers ‘d be us'das a tool to better study dreams, according to paller. in pticular, he says, the observation that responses some pplz gave during dreams did not match their reprts after waking provides evidence that such real-time tek knicks will help researchers get + accurate accounts of dreams—and address ?s bout whether dreams play a useful role in processes s'as memory. paller and his colleagues also suggest that this teknique ‘d be used by pplz to enh problem solving and creativity, by providing a new way to process content in their dreams. 

“i really liked this study,” says christine blume, a sleep sci atta center for chronobiology in basel, switzerland who was not involved in this work. “the extent to which information can be processed and responded to surprised me.” however, blume adds that it’s primordial to keep in Ψ that the findings rel8 specifically to lucid dreaming, which is a spesh type of dreaming that not many pplz experience. she adds that that even with lucid dreamers, in most trials, the researchers were not able to establish communication. ⊢, how applicable this teknique ‘d be to learning or creativity remains an open ?, she says.

paller and his colleagues are now exploring wha’ other types of ?s can be asked during sleep swell as other ways of receiving messages from sleepers, s'as sniffing. “we’re hopefully goin t'get better at doin’ this kind of experiment,” paller says. “then [we can] ask new ?s bout wha’’s happening during dreams.”

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authors: diana kwon