Study team member Christopher Mazurek wears the electronic headgear used to monitor dreamer’s activities. Image credit: Christopher Mazurek

Scientists Hack into Sleepers’ Dreams and Chat a Bit

Breakthrough points to greater understanding of consciousness

Robert Roy Britt
Feb 18 · 2 min read

Scientists have figured out how to hack into people’s sleep and communicate with them while they dream. The finding is a breakthrough in dream research and suggests study techniques that could be used to better grasp human consciousness.

The discovery was made during lucid dreaming, when people are aware that they are dreaming and, in some cases, are able to manipulate their dreams.

During the most common dream phase of sleep, called REM (rapid eye movement) and while dreaming vividly, some participants were able to follow instructions, answer yes-no questions and even do some simple math. They responded to external questions and stimuli through eye movements or by contracting facial muscles — done of their own volition, the scientists note.

“We found that individuals in REM sleep can interact with an experimenter and engage in real-time communication,” said senior author Ken Paller, director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Northwestern University. “We also showed that dreamers are capable of comprehending questions, engaging in working-memory operations, and producing answers. Most people might predict that this would not be possible — that people would either wake up when asked a question or fail to answer, and certainly not comprehend a question without misconstruing it.”

The results were not perfect. Among the three dozen participants across four separate labs, six people answered 29 questions correctly. Some of them later recalled the questions as being part of their dream.

The findings are detailed in the journal Current Biology.

The dream dialoguing, which the scientists termed “interactive dreaming,” could lead to ways of communicating across the sleep-wake barrier to learn more about dreams and, more broadly, the related consolidation and solidification of memories.

“We’ve long known that cognition and consciousness are not shut off during sleep, but our results now broaden the opportunities for empirically peering inside the sleeping mind,” the scientists write. “Experiments from many corners of cognitive neuroscience can be modified and applied to interactive dreaming, perhaps opening up new ways to address fundamental questions about consciousness.”

The obvious question to ask a dreamer next time: What the heck is your dream about?

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A detailed explanation of the research is published by Science Magazine. Also, a NOVA video documents the two-way dream chat:

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Robert Roy Britt

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Explainer of things, independent health and science journalist, author, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience and Space dot com.

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Explainer of things, independent health and science journalist, author, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience and Space dot com.

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