People have always been fascinated with the mysterious worlds of our own dreams. In a mind-bending paper published last week in Current Biology, teams of scientists from four countries found that it’s possible to communicate with people who are actively dreaming. The volunteers, roughly two dozen spread across four labs, were able to listen to math problems and answer them using facial twitches and eye movements. One group of sleepers could even decipher Morse code, and reply to the outside world in real time.
“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 researchers said. The new study means that we now have a way to directly engage with people while they’re deep asleep, probe the contents of their dreams, and potentially alter them. Not all dream types straddle and bridge the inner mind and outside world. For it to work, you need to be able to lucid dream, where you are aware that you are in a dream.
Researchers tapped into the minds of lucid dreamers. While most of us are mere passengers in our dreams, guided around by our subconscious mind, lucid dreamers become aware during sleep that they’re dreaming. Once aware, they can consciously control the content of their dreams to their heart’s desire, untethered by the rules and physical laws of the real world.
This quirk allows lucid dreamers to use eye movements to communicate with the outside world. The team recruited 36 people with the ability to lucid dream, inviting them into four labs spread across the US, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. They trained the dreamers on Morse code while they were awake. As the participants entered REM sleep and achieved lucid dreaming, the team used a series of Morse code beeps to ask them yes-or-no questions, or simple math problems.
For example, “what’s three plus one,” can be translated into Morse code form. The dreamers, while certified asleep based on their brain waves, would then roll their eyes left to right four times, signaling the answer is “four. Other teams simply spoke to the dreaming person once they established that the dreamer was lucid from his eye movements. The French team, for example, asked if the participant liked chocolate.
“It’s amazing to sit in the lab and ask a bunch of questions, and then somebody might actually answer one,” said study author Karen Konkoly at Northwestern University. Altogether, out of 158 tries to establish communication with the dreamers, the scientists were able to get the correct answer 18 percent of the time. The dreamers answered wrongly just a bit over three percent of the trials.
Another mentioned that he perceived finger tapping while he was “fighting against goblins” in the dream, and being surprised that he could do math in battle. “We have a lot of different ideas and we’re excited to test them,” said Konkoly.