Scientists Want You to Lucid Dream
Experts think lucid dreaming could be therapeutic. How to achieve the dream state is complicated.
By Sally McGrane / Medium Science
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.
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.
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