Scientists Go Full-On Inception by Getting Dreaming People 'Talking'

The dreamers were able to answer scientists' questions or solve simple math problems.
Derya Ozdemir
Study footageK. Konkoly

The science of dreaming is complicated -- while we have come a long way from the times where they were treated as prophetic, the most honest answer would probably be that we are yet to know the ins and outs of dreaming fully. For example, should Leonardo DiCaprio entering people's dreams to steal secrets from their subconscious be considered sci-fi? Or could that be a reality?

Well, science doesn't know yet, but these researchers have taken a baby step closer to better understand that possibility. A new study published in the journal Current Biology has shown it’s possible to have complex two-way communication with people while they’re lucid dreaming.

In a series of experiments in which researchers described as "like trying to communicate with an astronaut on another world," dreamers were reportedly able to follow instructions, answer simple math problems through facial and eye movements, and answer yes-or-no questions while dreaming.

The study has groundbreaking implications since it "challenges the foundational definitions of sleep," according to cognitive neuroscientist Benjamin Baird of the University of Wisconsin, who was not part of the study. Sleep has been traditionally defined as a state where the brain is disconnected and unaware of the waking world, he explained to Science.

The thin line between the dreamworld and reality

Four independent teams in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States conducted the experiments to form two-way communication with 36 volunteers while they are dreaming. Some of these people were experienced lucid dreamers -- lucid dream is a type of dream where the dreamer becomes aware that they're dreaming -- while others had never experienced one but remembered at least one dream a week. They were monitored through sleep measurements like EEG, which is used to record brain activity.

The dreamers were taught signals they could use to answer such as smiling, frowning, or moving their eyes multiple times to indicate a number.

Across 57 sleep sessions and 158 attempts of communication, the volunteers were able to get across that they entered a lucid dream through eye movement 26 percent of the time. During those experiments, the scientists were able to get at least one correct response. Overall, the correct response rate was 18 percent while the most common response was no response at all with around 60 percent.

Afterward, the volunteers were woken up and asked to talk about their dreams. The answers were varied; some remembered the questions as part of their dream. One volunteer said that they heard the math problems were coming out of a car radio, while another said they were partying when the researcher's question of whether he spoke Spanish interrupted their dream like a narrator in a movie.

Karen Konkoly, lead author and a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, stated that the technique provides a better way to study dreams which could be used in the future to influence people's dreams for therapeutic purposes.

This could help people deal with trauma, anxiety, and depression; however, Ken Paller, co-author and cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern, says going full-on Inception on people's dreams to change their thoughts is still science fiction.  However, he also stated that the experiment is an important step towards communicating with dreamers.


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