Researchers Induce Lucid Dreaming with Electrical Brain Stimulation

Researchers Induce Lucid Dreaming with Electrical Brain Stimulation
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A team of German researchers has successfully induced lucid dreaming via electrical brain stimulation for the first time. Their method, detailed in today's publication of Nature Neuroscience, could be used to further study the nature of consciousness during sleep or even to reduce the severity of nightmares.

In a typical dream, the sleeper is unaware that they are dreaming, but in a lucid dream, the sleeper realizes they're dreaming, thus allowing them to consciously awaken or even take control of the dream's plot and contents. Ever wanted to fly? In a lucid dream, you can.

Previous research has demonstrated that lucid dreams are accompanied by brain wave activity in the gamma band, at a frequency of around 40 Hz. With this in mind, the researchers asked a simple question:

"Does lucid dreaming trigger gamma-band activity or does gamma-band activity trigger lucid dreaming?"

To answer that query, the researchers brought 27 healthy subjects (15 female, 12 male) who had never lucid dreamed into the sleep laboratory of the Department of Clinical Neurophysiology at the University Medical Center Göttingen in Germany. Over the next four nights, subjects were allowed to sleep until after 3 a.m. Starting at that time, when brain scanners confirmed that they were in REM sleep -- the stage of sleep when dreaming occurs -- researchers applied electrical current to subjects' brains via the scalp at frequencies of either 2, 6, 12, 25, 40, 70 or 100 Hz or "sham" (no current applied at all) for 30 seconds. Subjects were subsequently awakened after a few minutes and extensively questioned about their dreams.

The researchers found that applying electrical current in the gamma band at 40 Hz induced lucid dreaming in 77% of subjects. At 25 Hz, 58% of subjects experienced lucid dreams. No other frequencies yielded significant levels of lucid dreaming.

As you can imagine, some of the participants' descriptions of their dreams were odd, to say the least, especially considering that none of them had ever lucid dreamed before:

I was dreaming about lemon cake. It looked translucent, but then again, it didn’t. It was a bit like in an animated movie, like the Simpsons. And then I started falling and the scenery changed and I was talking to Matthias Schweighöfer (a German actor) and 2 foreign exchange students. And I was wondering about the actor and they told me “yes, you met him before,” so then I realized “oops, you are dreaming.” I mean, while I was dreaming! So strange!

Apart from prompting hilarious dream recollections, the authors note that inducing lucid dreams can be of particular use to sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder. Those afflicted with PTSD often experience terrible and frequent nightmares. If an automated system of brain stimulation can be devised to trigger lucid dreaming during REM sleep, patients could actively control their nightmares to make them less stressful.

Source: Ursula Voss, Romain Holzmann, Allan Hobson, Walter Paulus, Judith Koppehele-Gossel, Ansgar Klimke, & Michael A Nitsche. "Induction of self awareness in dreams through frontal low current stimulation of gamma activity." Nature Neuroscience. published online 11 May 2014; doi:10.1038/nn.3719

(Top Image: Shutterstock)

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