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Yes, We Can Communicate With People When They Are Dreaming

At one time, the idea of communicating with people while they were dreaming would have been regarded by most scientists as hokey New Age stuff. But now a research group has done it.

A research group surprised the science world by reporting:

“We found that individuals in REM sleep can interact with an experimenter and engage in real-time communication,” said senior author Ken Paller of Northwestern University. “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.”

Cell Press, “Real-time dialogue with a dreaming person is possible” at ScienceDaily (February 18, 2021) The paper is open access.

There is no clear science explanation for why we dream. But one restriction on dreams is worth noting: All the material we have access to in dreams is stored in memory. Dreamers are not observing the outside world, our consciousness is creating a temporary world.

The researchers studied 36 people who aimed to have a lucid dream, in which a person is aware they’re dreaming. The paper is unusual in that it includes four independently conducted experiments using different approaches to achieve a similar goal. In addition to the group at Northwestern University in the U.S., one group conducted studies at Sorbonne University in France, one at Osnabruck University in Germany, and one at Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands.

Cell Press, “Real-time dialogue with a dreaming person is possible” at ScienceDaily (February 18, 2021) The paper is open access.

So, the 36 study participants were not in any deep sleep. They were in that state where you sort of realize that this stuff must be a dream. Most of us wake up soon after:

Lucid dreams are when you know that you’re dreaming while you’re asleep.

You’re aware that the events flashing through your brain aren’t really happening. But the dream feels vivid and real. You may even be able to control how the action unfolds, as if you’re directing a movie in your sleep.

Studies suggest that about half of people may have had at least one lucid dream. But they probably don’t happen often, usually only a handful of times in a year.

WebMD Medical Reference, “Lucid Dreams” at WebMD (June 27, 2020)

What people can do during lucid dreams was unexpected:

Overall, the researchers found that it was possible for people while dreaming to follow instructions, do simple math, answer yes-or-no questions, or tell the difference between different sensory stimuli. They could respond using eye movements or by contracting facial muscles. The researchers refer to it as “interactive dreaming.”

Cell Press, “Real-time dialogue with a dreaming person is possible” at ScienceDaily (February 18, 2021) The paper is open access.

The researchers hope that their find will help people who must cope with nightmares or other sleep disorders.

Rear view of a businesswoman against black wall with keyhole

The results were hit and miss:

Across 57 sleep sessions, participants were able to signal that they entered a lucid dream through eye movement 26% of the time. In these successful sessions, the scientists were able to get at least one correct response to a question via a dreamer’s eye movements or facial contortions nearly half the time. Overall, out of the 158 times they tried to communicate with a lucid dreamer during these sessions, they got a correct response rate of 18% (the most common response, around 60%, was no response).

Ed Cara, “Scientists Find a Way to Communicate With Dreaming People” at Gizmodo https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/researchers-exchange-messages-with-dreamers-68477

But it was remarkable that the researchers got any response at all.

One of the researchers’ purposes was to develop a method of finding out whether our recollections of dreams are confabulated later or are accurate memories:

In other lucid dreaming studies, sleepers have signaled lucidity with eye movements, allowing researchers to distinguish brain activity during these episodes. But to learn the content of these dreams, researchers still rely on sleepers’ recollection upon waking. “Of course, this relies on the memories of the participant, and this might be distorted,” says Kristoffer Appel, a sleep and dream researcher at Osnabrück University and the Institute of Sleep and Dream Technologies in Hamburg and a coauthor of the study. To overcome this problem, Appel and his colleagues sought to communicate in real-time with dreamers.

Asher Jones, “Researchers Exchange Messages with Dreamers” at The Scientist (February 18, 2021)

Science Magazine notes the groundbreaking nature of the find:

“This work challenges the foundational definitions of sleep,” says cognitive neuroscientist Benjamin Baird of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who studies sleep and dreams but was not part of the study. Traditionally, he says, sleep has been defined as a state in which the brain is disconnected and unaware of the outside world.

Sofia Moutinho, “Scientists entered people’s dreams and got them ‘talking’” at Science (February 18, 2021)

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor notes that dream consciousness is not an aberration in any event; it is a form of consciousness, like any other: “During sleep, we are aware of dreams, which often have very complex imagery and content. Dreams are often metaphorical and represent profound introspection and insights about experiences.”

We still don’t know why we dream but researchers are making it more fun. This group’s lead researcher Karen Konkoly’s next goal is to get participants in a study to describe what they are actually seeing in their dreams.

You may also enjoy: Your soul has no Off switch: A major modern misunderstanding of the human mind is to assume that it is like a machine with an “on” and an “off” switch. (Michael Egnor)

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Yes, We Can Communicate With People When They Are Dreaming