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In late January 2019, roughly half the world’s dream researchers — about 50 people — gathered on the sixth floor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) media lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was the first-ever “Dream Engineering” workshop hosted by the MIT Dream Lab, which was formed a year and a half ago.
One theme of the two-day workshop was lucid dreaming — a phenomena where people realize they’re having a dream while they’re dreaming. “It’s such an exhilarating feeling to lucid dream. It’s like a drug—it’s that powerful,” says Tore Nielsen, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal and director of the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory. “You can try flying, singing, having sex — it’s better than VR.”
Long dismissed as belonging firmly to the realm of the esoteric, lucid dreaming was scientifically shown to exist in the late 1970s. Back then, Stanford researcher Stephen LaBerge trained people to use eye movements during sleep to signal when they entered a lucid dream state. The ability to perform prearranged, volitional eye movements while in REM sleep soon became the gold standard for determining that someone is lucid dreaming.
While dreamers may enjoy the ability to control their dreams, neuroscientists are interested in lucid dreaming for its potential insights into how the brain works and as another avenue for therapy. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recently recommended lucid dreams as a therapy for nightmare disorders in adults. Other clinical applications for lucid dreaming are under investigation by sleep scientists for depression and to boost athletic prowess.
“It’s such an exhilarating feeling to lucid dream. It’s like a drug — it’s that powerful.”
“Lucidity as a whole has been struggling to gain acceptance,” says Benjamin Baird, a sleep researcher at the Center for Sleep and Consciousness in Madison, Wisconsin. “That is finally changing. People are seeing it as valuable.”
The problem is that it’s very difficult to study lucid dreams, in part because lucid dreamers are a rarity. It’s estimated that only 1 percent of the general population have lucid dreams several times a week. It’s even harder to find lucid dreamers who can achieve a lucid state on a specific night while hooked up to electrodes in a sleep lab. “It’s not unusual to have very small sample sizes,” Baird says. “A lot of studies suffer from the same problems.”
In one of his own recent experiments, Baird found that long-term meditators experience lucid dreams more frequently than people who do not meditate. (Unfortunately, an eight-week mindfulness course did not increase the frequency of lucid dreams among people in the study.)
MIT’s Dream Lab — which includes the tagline “our dream is a future where dreams are controllable” on its website — hopes to use technology to make dream research easier. In the lab, engineers are building a series of prototypes for low-cost home-use devices that would help people take charge of their dreams.
The technologies are in various phases of development and include a wearable called Essence that releases scent based on brain and heart activity to affect dream content, as well as a work-in-progress audio product called Nightorb that uses sound to “intercept thoughts” in early stage sleep. There’s also a prototype called Dormio, which uses a glove-like tracking system to monitor sleep stages and then cues a social robot when you’re drifting off. At that point, the robot makes a sound to wake the sleeper (but not to full wakefulness). MIT experimenters have used words like “fork” or “rabbit” to get sleepers into this transitional sleep stage and say the words have entered sleepers’ reported dream content.
“Sleep is being taken more seriously, and the most interesting part of sleep is dreaming,” says Adam Horowitz, a co-founder of the Dream Lab. “Dreams are pretty wild but largely ignored.”
Horowitz hopes the lab’s technologies will make it easier to generate dream research down the road. Currently, sleep studies require that people visit a sleep laboratory, and the time and technology can be expensive. Part of the goal of the MIT workshop was to show dream researchers what kinds of devices the Dream Lab is working on and give them prototypes to test. “We wanted to say, ‘Hey, everyone, we’re building this tech. We think it has real possibilities. Who wants to play with it?’” Horowitz says.
Despite the goals of institutions like the Dream Lab, a reliable tool to get people into a lucid dream is still out of reach. “Everyone is looking for a magic pill to induce lucid dreaming,” says Martin Dresler, an assistant professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands.
“If you can induce lucid dreams, it’s like discovering a gold mine.”
In 2014, it appeared that one group of dream researchers had broken the dream-awareness barrier. Ursula Voss, a German sleep researcher, and J. Allan Hobson, a psychiatry professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School, published a study in Nature Neuroscience reporting that they had successfully induced lucid dreams in sleepers 77 percent of the time by stimulating the front part of their skull with a very mild electric current. “We didn’t know if it would even reach the brain,” Voss says. “The scalp is very thick, and this is a very mild stimulation.”
The news made a splash and galvanized dream researchers. In Germany, Vitos Waldkrankenhaus Köppern, the psychiatric hospital where Voss works, launched clinical trials of treatments based on her research, which included using brain stimulation for people with conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
“When I first saw [the lucid dreaming stimulation study], my reaction was, ‘Wow, this is cool,’” Nielsen says. “Lucid dreaming is such a high-interest area for so many people. If you can induce lucid dreams — it’s like discovering a gold mine.”
Nielsen and his team at the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory in Montreal began to notice people on the internet selling at-home lucid dreaming devices that used the same low-level electrical stimulation that Voss and Hobson used in their study. “They were citing Voss’ paper as a proof of concept,” Nielsen says.
Nielsen and his team tried to replicate the study. What they found, as Nielsen presented in a talk at the recent MIT dream workshop, was deeply disappointing. Namely, there was no difference whatsoever in the number of lucid dreams reported by people in their electrical stimulation group and placebo groups. “To our chagrin, it didn’t replicate at all,” he says.
What went wrong with the original study? “A minor problem was that [Voss] used the wrong statistics,” says Michael Schredl, head of research at the sleep laboratory at the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany. “The major problem is more difficult to detect. The conclusion that she induced lucidity is not supported by the data.”
In the absence of a magic pill or potentially one of MIT’s prototypes, current lucid dreaming experiments rely on old-fashioned induction techniques to help subjects achieve a lucid state. These include having people ask themselves throughout the day if they are dreaming and waking people in the sleep lab earlier than they would on their own, before letting them fall asleep again.
Some higher-tech options include virtual reality games where people practice asking themselves if they’re dreaming. Galantamine, an over-the-counter medication used for Alzheimer’s symptoms, is also being used. The drug is thought to help modulate REM sleep and increase brain activation. Some researchers are using it in studies to analyze whether it can help people have and remember lucid dreams. “More work is needed to determine the mechanism of the effect,” Baird says. “I tried it myself. It was very effective.”
Other experts believe the best approach is to use a combination of interventions, and are convinced the skill is teachable. “Anyone can learn how to lucid dream,” says Karen Konkoly, a dream researcher at Northwestern University, during a TEDx Talk at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Konkoly recommends keeping a dream journal as a way to review and notice patterns when you’re awake. “Once you notice dream signs when you’re awake, you should do a reality test,” she says. One such test, she suggests, is reading words during a dream, because “the dreaming mind is so unstable, the words will never be able to stay the same.”
Ultimately, the question of whether lucid dreaming has therapeutic value cannot be fully answered until researchers identify a consistent method for getting people into the dream state. “The only thing we can conclude just now is that we really don’t know,” Baird says. “We need more research.”
Sally McGrane is a Berlin-based journalist, and writes about culture, business, politics, and science. The spy thriller“Moscow at Midnight” is her first novel.
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