Researchers say that two-way communication is possible with people who sleep and dream.
Especially with people who have clear dreams ̵
In separate experiments, researchers in the United States, France, Germany and the Netherlands asked people simple questions while they slept. Sleepers would respond by moving their eyes or pulling their faces in a certain way to indicate the answers.
“Since the ’80s, we have known that lucid dreamers can communicate out of dreams using these signals,” says Karen Konkoly, a Ph.D. student at Northwestern University who is the first author of the study that was 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 have a more meaningful conversation?”
They studied sleep with rapid eye movement, which is the stage in sleep where people dream most vividly. In REM sleep, “every muscle in your body is completely paralyzed, except that you can pull and you can move your eyes,” Konkoly tells Scott Simon on Weekend edition. “So if you get ready in a dream and want to communicate, when people dream, they just look left-right, left-right, very dramatic. And then we know they’re communicating.”
Lucid dreams are not common. So to study it, they recruited people who had experience with it, and also trained people to try to make dreams more likely.
Before falling asleep, participants were also trained in how to communicate their answers. Special sensors measured people’s eye movements or experts would assess 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 answer by moving his eyes to the left-right, left-right – twice – to signal “2. ” Researchers asked the question again, and he moved his eyes in the same way twice again.
Of the 158 trials among 36 participants, they were approximately 18% of the time able to give correct answers. In a further 18%, it was not clear whether the participants responded or not. They were wrong 3% of the time. Often 61% of the participants did not answer at all.
For the people who dreamed, they did not always interpret the questions they heard as a simple question from scientists. “Sometimes stimuli were perceived as coming from outside the dream, but other times stimuli came from the elements of the dream, contextualized in a way that made sense in relation to ongoing dream content,” the researchers write. In one case, a participant heard “the questions transferred over their dream as if it were God speaking to them,” says Konkoly.
The researchers write that their findings present “new possibilities for obtaining real-time information about dreams, and for changing the course of a dream” and “could usher in a new era of investigations of sleep and into the enigmatic cognitive dimensions of sleep.”
Konkoly says that there is the possibility of one day doing a kind of “dream therapy” to talk down people who are experiencing clear nightmares.
And if more reliable communication methods can be developed, it can help people with creative activities and ideas. “People often use clear dreams or dreams for a kind of artistic, creative inspiration,” she says. “But in that dream state, your resources so far are only those you have in the dream.”
So with the help of an awake person, Konkoly says that it may be possible to “combine the logical benefits of waking up with the creative benefits of dreaming and maybe have a few more applications.”
Samantha Balaban and Ed McNulty produced and edited the audio interview.