Electrical brain stimulation may induce dream control

Behind the Headlines

Monday May 12 2014

Nightmares are not just a problem for children

Could the dream control from the film Inception become a reality?

“Scientists induce lucid dreams by adding current to sleeping people's brains,” reports the Mail Online.

This headline comes from a study of 27 people indicating that for some, electrical stimulation of the brain at a specific wavelength (25 Hz to 40 Hz) may increase the lucidity of their dreams and their self-awareness during them.

Dream lucidity is when a person has awareness that they are dreaming and this often results in them being able to "control" their dreams.

While this is intriguing research the study was small, so its conclusions are tentative, meaning they could be disproved later. This research will need to be tested using many more people to improve confidence in the findings. 

One of the implications of the findings mentioned in the media was the possibility that people with post-traumatic stress disorder may benefit from such brain stimulation. The theory was that having greater self-awareness during a dream may help people consciously alter the course of their dream experience as it happened. It is important to point out that this was a theory and was not tested in this study.

There may be potential benefits of being able to induce lucid dreams or increase self-awareness, but currently, they are speculative and unproven.

 

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from German Universities and Departments of Psychiatry and was funded by the German Science Foundation.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Nature Neuroscience.

The media generally reported the story accurately and indicated a possible implication of the research. It is suggested that being able to create more lucid and controllable dreams might help those with post-traumatic stress disorder change what they remember or experience in their dreams. This theory was mainly speculative and not tested in this study.

Unsurprisingly, most newspapers include a reference to the science fiction thriller Inception. It is currently unclear whether the device in question could help you change the mind of a billionaire by planting ideas in their head (we are guessing not).

 

What kind of research was this?

This was a human study using electrical stimulation to study different levels of consciousness and involved analysing brain activity and dreams.

The study authors say that electrical stimulation in specific areas of the brain (specifically fronto-temporal gamma electroencephalographic (EEG) activity) has been linked to conscious awareness in dreams, but a causal relationship has not yet been established.

The authors describe two forms of consciousness: being awake (primary consciousness) and sleeping (secondary consciousness).

A state of sleep in which primary and secondary states of consciousness coexist is called lucid dreaming, a phenomenon that some think is unique to humans.

In lucid dreams the sleeper becomes aware of the fact that they are dreaming while the dream continues. Sometimes the dreamer gains control over the ongoing dream plot and, for example, is able to put a dream aggressor to flight; such as the classic childhood trope of the monster under the bed.

Scientifically, lucid dreams are an opportunity to watch the brain change conscious states, from primary to secondary consciousness and to arrive at testable predictions about the determinants of these states.

 

What did the research involve?

The research used 27 healthy adult volunteers aged from 18 to 26. Each spent up to four nights in a sleep laboratory in Germany.

Participants went to sleep and two to three minutes into a phase of sleep known as rapid eye movement (REM).

It is thought that the REM phase of sleep is when most people experience dreams. During this phase they had electrical currents of different frequencies applied to the front part of their skulls for 30 seconds to stimulate the brain.

To test it wasn’t a placebo effect, some participants were told they were to receive the electrical stimulation, but unknown to them, received no actual electrical stimulation (a sham stimulation).

Shortly after stimulation or sham (5-10 seconds post stimulation) the volunteers were woken and asked to provide a full dream report (description of their dream) and to complete a 28-item scale on sleep consciousness.

None of the volunteers had prior experience of lucid dreaming before the laboratory testing, and as they were not used to recalling their dreams, reports were described as quite short and often bizarre.

The main analysis compared the dream descriptions and sleep consciousness scales across the different stimulation frequencies.

 

What were the basic results?

The study found that certain frequency electrical stimulation during REM sleep influenced ongoing brain activity and boosted self-reflective awareness during dreams. However, other stimulation frequencies were not effective.

Lucid dreams did not happen for everyone but where they did occur, they were most prominent during stimulation with 25 Hz (58%) and 40 Hz (77%).

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The authors interpreted their results to mean that “higher order consciousness is indeed related to synchronous oscillations around 25 and 40 Hz frequency”.

 

Conclusion

The study suggests that for some people, electrical stimulation of the brain at a specific wavelength (25 Hz to 40 Hz) may increase the lucidity of the dreams they experience and their self-awareness during them.

The study was small (just 27 people) and therefore its conclusions are tentative, meaning they could be disproved later. This research will need to be tested using many more people to improve confidence in the findings. 

One of the implications of the findings mentioned in the media was the possibility that people with post-traumatic stress disorder may benefit somehow. The theory was that having greater self-awareness during a dream may help people experiencing traumatic dreams to consciously alter the course of their dream experience. It is important to point out that this was a theory and was not directly tested in this study.

In summary, the study was too small to be able to give any solid indication of whether brain stimulation can improve self-awareness or lucidity during dreams. Also, while there may be potential benefits to being able to induce lucid dreams or self-awareness, such claims remain unproven at this stage.

Akin to the concept of lucid dreams is mindfulness. This is the idea that paying more attention to the present moment – to your own thoughts and feelings, and to the world around you – can improve your mental wellbeing.

Read more about mindfulness.

Analysis by
Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on Twitter. Join the Healthy Evidence forum.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

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