Scientists Talked To People In Their Dreams. They Answered

Feb 27, 2021
Originally published on February 27, 2021 12:05 pm

Researchers say two-way communication is possible with people who are asleep and dreaming.

Specifically, with people who are lucid dreaming — that is, dreaming while being aware you're dreaming.

In separate experiments, scientists in the U.S., France, Germany and the Netherlands asked people simple questions while they slept. Sleepers would respond by moving their eyes or twitching their faces in a certain way to indicate their answers.

"Since the '80s, we've known that lucid dreamers can communicate out of dreams by using these signals," says Karen Konkoly, a Ph.D. student at Northwestern University who is the first author on the study published this month in Current Biology.

"But we were wondering, can we also communicate in? Can we ask people questions that they could actually hear in their dreams that we could kind of have a more meaningful conversation?"

They were studying rapid-eye-movement sleep, which is the stage of sleep where people dream most vividly. In REM sleep, "every muscle in your body is completely paralyzed, except you can twitch and you can move your eyes," Konkoly tells Scott Simon on Weekend Edition. "So if you become lucid in a dream and you want to communicate, then when people are dreaming, they just look left-right, left-right, really dramatically. And then we know that they're communicating out."

Lucid dreaming is not common. So to study it, researchers recruited people who had experience with it and also trained people to try to make lucid dreaming more likely.

Before the participants went to sleep, they were also trained on how to communicate their answers. Special sensors measured people's eye movements or experts would judge their facial movements.

For example, a typical question would be to ask what is 8 minus 6. A 19-year-old American man was able to respond by moving his eyes left-right, left-right — two times — to signal "2." Researchers asked the question again, and he moved his eyes the same way two times again.

Out of the 158 trials among 36 participants, about 18% of the time, they were able to give correct answers. In another 18%, it wasn't clear whether participants were responding or not. They were wrong 3% of the time. Most often, 61%, participants didn't respond at all.

For the people dreaming, they didn't always interpret the questions they were hearing as a simple question from researchers. "Sometimes stimuli were perceived as coming from outside the dream, but other times, the stimuli emanated from elements of the dream, contextualized in a way that made sense in relation to ongoing dream content," the researchers write. One participant "heard the questions transposed over their dream as though it was God talking to them," Konkoly says.

The researchers write that their findings present "new opportunities for gaining real-time information about dreaming, and for modifying the course of a dream" and "could usher in a new era of investigations into sleep and into the enigmatic cognitive dimensions of sleep."

Konkoly says there's the possibility of one day doing a sort of "dream therapy" for talking down people experiencing lucid nightmares.

And if more reliable communication methods can be worked out, it could help people with creative activities and ideas. "People often use lucid dreaming or dreaming for a kind of artistic, creative inspiration," she says. "But in that dream state, your resources thus far are only the ones that you have in the dream."

So with the help of an awake person, Konkoly says it could be possible to "combine those logical advantages of wake with the creative advantages of dreams and maybe have some more applications."

Samantha Balaban and Ed McNulty produced and edited the audio interview.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Two-way communication is possible while dreaming. A new study indicates people are able to answer math questions, yes or no questions, like BJ Leiderman wrote our theme music, all while in a state of lucid dreaming. Karen Konkoly is a Ph.D. student at Northwestern University and one of the researchers working on the project. Thanks so much for being with us.

KAREN KONKOLY: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: This study, published in the journal Current Biology, dealt with people who were lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming is?

KONKOLY: It's when you're inside a dream and you realize that you're dreaming without immediately waking up. So sometimes you can go and control the dream as well.

SIMON: Well, tell us about the experiment. First, you had to train people how to lucid dream, I gather.

KONKOLY: Right. So even if you have an experienced lucid dreamer, they might only lucid dream once a month. We needed them to lucid dream in the next two hours. So before people go to sleep, for 20 minutes, we associate this lucid mindset, this critically aware, kind of mindful state while they're awake with a cue. And the cue that we used was just a beeping noise. It was just boop, boop, boop. And then we present the cue again once they start dreaming when they're asleep. And in an initial study, half of people had a lucid dream after we presented the cue during REM sleep.

SIMON: So you have discovered you're able to communicate with people while they're dreaming?

KONKOLY: Yeah. So since the '80s, we've known that lucid dreamers can communicate out of dreams by using these signals, these preserved capabilities that you have in REM even though most of your body is completely paralyzed.

SIMON: REM is rapid eye movement sleep.

KONKOLY: Yes, exactly. So in rapid eye movement sleep, unlike when you're sleeptalking, for instance, every muscle in your body is completely paralyzed, except you can twitch and you can move your eyes. So if you become lucid in a dream and you want to communicate, then when people are dreaming, they just look left, right, left, right really dramatically. And then we know that they're communicating out.

But we were wondering, can we also communicate in? Can we ask people questions that they could actually hear in their dreams so that we could kind of have a more meaningful conversation?

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. Questions like what?

KONKOLY: So there's four teams from four different countries, and three of them - independently, 'cause we didn't know about each other's experiments - all settled on math problems. But the French group also asked a bunch of other questions. They asked, like, do you speak Spanish, or do you like chocolate? And they did a few other different tasks as well - how many times did we tap you on the hand? - to just test out different ways of communicating.

SIMON: I'm going to guess the French team asked questions like, you know, do you know the meaning of life, or what is existentialism to you - some things like that, probably - right?

KONKOLY: (Laughter) They did have an amazing example where one of their participants heard the questions transposed over their dream as though it was God talking to them.

SIMON: A lot of people, as I don't have to tell you, report that they've been having very vivid dreams during this pandemic - I certainly have - and some real nightmares. Is there the key to something in your research?

KONKOLY: Yeah. So one issue is that, sometimes, if somebody's having a nightmare, they might become lucid. They might be, you know, running from a monster or something, know that they're dreaming and not be able to do anything. And so one, you know, probably far-future application could be if you had somebody in a lucid nightmare, could you have some, like, real-time dream therapy with them, you know? Could you have a therapist on the other side of that nightmare saying, like, no. Remember? You're dreaming. Like, you wanted to turn around and, like, you know, confront that monster and deal with the nightmare issue or something like that, so.

SIMON: Wow. Other applications that occur to you if you can crack this?

KONKOLY: Yeah. I think if we can get more reliable communication - 'cause right now, it's still kind of at the very beginning stages. Another one could be, like, people often use lucid dreaming or dreaming for a kind of artistic, creative inspiration. But in that dream state, your resources thus far are only the ones that you have in the dream. And so if you could have somebody on the other side of that saying, like, OK, now focus on this, or how does that relate to this, you could kind of combine those logical advantages of wake with the creative advantages of dreams and maybe have some more applications.

SIMON: Ms. Konkoly, we've just met, so forgive the intimate question. Do you dream?

KONKOLY: Yes, all the time. Love dreaming.

SIMON: You dream about dreams, given your line of work?

KONKOLY: (Laughter) Yeah. A lot of my dreams are about dreams, you know? I get very frustrated when I have a dream about lucid dreaming, but it's not lucid. Like, I'll dream about, you know, all these scientific concepts of lucid dreaming, and then I won't have any idea that I'm dreaming (laughter). Sometimes I do, though, and those are amazing.

SIMON: Karen Konkoly is first author of the paper "Real-Time Dialogue Between Experimenters And Dreamers During Rapid Eye Movement Sleep." Thank you so much, and pleasant dreams.

KONKOLY: Thank you.

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