EVANSTON, Ill. — Where does the mind go when people dream? Some view dreams as a trip to an alternate reality or a jumble of memories the brain conjures up. While it might seem impossible to really know what’s happening when someone is fast asleep, a new study finds people can actually communicate while in a dream state.
Researchers from Northwestern University say dreamers can have real-time dialogue with other people while in REM sleep. Their study finds lucid dreaming takes place during the rapid eye movement phase of sleep. This is a dream where the person knows they’re in a dream and can even control what happens in them.
During their experiments, researchers prepped their volunteers in how to communicate while dreaming. Some of the group practiced with sensory stimuli, learning to recognize lights or beeps while in REM sleep. Once entering a lucid dream, study authors instructed the group on how to let the scientists know, usually through a series of eye movements or by moving their face.
“We found that individuals in REM sleep can interact with an experimenter and engage in real-time communication,” says senior author Ken Paller, professor of psychology and director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Program, in a university release.
“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.”
Delving into the mystery of dreams
Although everyone dreams, researchers say science doesn’t really have an answer for why this happens. When it comes to interpreting their meaning, researchers usually have to rely on what the dreamer can remember. This however is typically littered with forgotten details. Paller and his team set out to discover what’s going on in dreams by talking to people as they’re having them.
“Our experimental goal is akin to finding a way to talk with an astronaut who is on another world, but in this case, the world is entirely fabricated on the basis of memories stored in the brain,” the study authors write.
By bridging the gap between the waking and dream worlds, researchers say their experiment could lead to new studies on memory and how memory storage depends on sleep. In addition to the Northwestern experiment, researchers in three other locations also conducted separate sleep scans and communication tests.
Each of these groups — from Sorbonne University in France, Osnabrück University in Germany, and Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands — used a different technique to communicate with dreamers.
“We put the results together because we felt that the combination of results from four different labs using different approaches most convincingly attests to the reality of this phenomenon of two-way communication,” explains Karen Konkoly, a Ph.D. student in psychology in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “In this way, we see that different means can be used to communicate.”
What can people tell us in their dreams?
Study authors say it doesn’t take an expert dreamer to communicate while they’re asleep. One of their most successful participants suffers from narcolepsy and frequently has lucid dreams. Others however had little experience with lucid dreaming before the experiment.
Researchers discovered it was possible for the dreamers to follow instructions, answer yes-or-no questions, and even do simple math problems while asleep. The teams chose questions which have definite answers so there would be no mistake in telling whether the dreamer was reacting to the question or their dream. Participants could respond by contracting a facial muscle or moving their eyes. The team calls these successful reactions “interactive dreaming.”
Konkoly believes future studies can use these techniques to examine the brain’s cognitive abilities during dreams versus being wake. They may also help people who suffer from chronic nightmares cope with their fears.
The study appears in the journal Current Biology.