Method to create lucid dreaming may help researchers learn more about the brain.
Researchers have figured out how to make people aware of themselves during a dream: by zapping their sleeping brains with a weak electric current.
The sensation of "Hey, this is a dream!" is known as lucid dreaming. Those who naturally become lucid while dreaming, probably a small segment of the population, also report adventures that are impossible in the real world, such as flying, that feel completely real. Some can even change a dream's narrative twists and turns to make it less scary—or even more exhilarating. (Related: "Why Do We Dream? To Ease Painful Memories, Study Hints.")
Lucid dreaming is exciting not only for dreamers but also for neuroscientists, who consider it a window into the study of consciousness. But until now, researchers have been hampered by how hard it is to provoke lucid dreaming in people who don't do it naturally. A new method published today in Nature Neuroscience might get around this difficulty, making it easier to stimulate lucid dreaming at will.
"We can really quite easily change conscious awareness in dreams," said lead investigator Ursula Voss, a clinical psychologist at Frankfurt University in Germany. She does this, she said, by delivering mild electrical stimulation to the sleeping person's brain. (Related: "Electric Jolt to Brain Boosts Math Skills.")
Zapping While Napping
In this study, Voss and her team recruited 27 healthy young adults who had never experienced lucid dreaming. Each participant slept overnight in the lab on several occasions. Two minutes after reaching the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep, which is when dreaming happens, the subjects received a weak electrical current (2 to 100 Hertz) to the frontal lobe for 30 seconds, or a sham current with no electricity.
The sweet spot was 40 Hertz. Zapping sleeping volunteers at this frequency, part of the so-called gamma wave band, led their brains to produce brain waves of the same frequency, the researchers found, which triggered lucidity 77 percent of the time, as determined by self-reports from the dreamers after they were awoken. (Related: "Dreams Make You Smarter, More Creative, Studies Suggest.")
Stimulations of 25 Hertz, at the low end of the gamma wave band, also sparked lucidity 58 percent of the time. In contrast, subjects who received sham or low-frequency stimulations never became lucid.
Written By: Virginia Hughes
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