Scientists have made an exciting step towards better understanding the enigmatic world of dreaming by establishing two-way communication, or “interactive dreaming,” with people having lucid dreams, a rare phenomenon in which the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming. In a recent study, published in the journal Current Biology, researchers were able to communicate with lucid dreamers in real-time, getting them to follow basic instructions, answer yes-or-no questions, and even solve math equations.
The research, which involved 36 participants, gathers results from four independently conducted studies in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the U.S. The participants varied in their capacity to lucid dream, with some being well-versed in it, and others needing to be trained to lucid dream by the researchers. One participant had narcolepsy, a condition characterized by excessive day-time sleepiness, and frequent lucid dreams.
Several methods were used to communicate with the dreamers, including flashing lights, spoken words, beeping tones, and tactile stimuli. The participants were then able to respond through eye movements and facial muscle contractions. Across a total of 57 sessions, 26% of individuals successfully indicated that they were lucid dreaming, and 47% gave at least one correct response to the researcher’s questions. Incorrect responses were produced on 3.2% of the sessions, and no response was most common, found in 60% of the sessions.
The study echoes a 1981 experiment conducted by pioneering dream researcher Stephen LaBerge, in which 5 subjects successfully signaled that they were lucid dreaming while they were asleep. However, this is the first time scientists have established real-time communication to this extent with dreamers. Dreams, which evanesce shortly upon waking, are notoriously difficult to recall, making the ability to communicate in real-time with dreamers a major advancement in dream research.
“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,” reads the study. “Demonstrating the viability of this ‘interactive dreaming’—when experimenter and dreamer communicate with each other in real time—would be a large step forward to promote future progress in dream research.”
The study’s findings pave the way for deeper understanding of how our brains work when we dream, and suggest novel means of harnessing the power of dreams to enhance our waking lives.
In an interview with The Scientist, the study’s co-author Kristoffer Appel suggests that this research could lead to uses for psychotherapy, perhaps a “form of nightmare therapy” that coaches patients through nightmares, as well as “problem solving or for creative purposes.”
According to author David Jay Brown, who’s published 16 books on dreaming and the evolution of consciousness, the implications of interactive dreaming are “staggering, simply mind-blowing,” ranging from therapeutic to the more fantastical, even paranormal possibilities.
“Yes, therapists could communicate with their clients while they’re in the lucid dream state, to possibly help them work through emotional traumas, encourage psychological insight, or to remind them to set intentions,” says Brown. But he also envisions the possibility of connecting lucid dreamers in a shared dream space.
“The possibilities for studying psychic phenomena in this way also seem intriguing, and it’s mind-altering just thinking about multiple brains working together to build socially-interactive dream worlds, and how our collective mind could become more conscious in this way,” says Brown.
Fellow dream expert Jennifer Dumpert, founder of the Oneironauticum, an international organization that explores dreams as a means of experimenting with mind, says that interactive dreaming could be used to help process trauma.
“Imagine that you suffer from terrible nightmares from whatever trauma you have,” says Dumpert. “Somebody can go in and teach you how to deal with those, in a safe space that won’t physically harm you.”
Dumpert also stresses the significance of working with dreams in real-time, rather than having to rely on one’s memory of the dream, and compares it to sitting with a trained guide during a psychedelic experience.
“I’m super trained at remembering my dreams,” says Dumpert. “I still only kind of get a fraction of them, and I get a lot more than what most people get. So imagine if you could have that kind of interaction with your therapist, the same way that we trip with sitting guides.”
Both Brown and Dumpert, who also write and give talks on psychedelic consciousness, agree that dreaming itself can be psychedelic in nature, and that the two experiences share commonalities.
“Both states can help us to access material in the unconscious, and are powerful tools for exploring hidden dimensions of the mind,” says Brown, adding that both dreams and psychedelic usage can lead to reports of “spiritual awakening,” “mystical experiences,” and “boundless unity.”
“It’s a lot like a DMT experience,” says Dumpert referring specifically to a dream space she calls “liminal dreaming,” which occurs as you are drifting off to sleep or waking up. “It’s a swirling, kaleidoscopic world of your own memories, dreams, associations, images. There tends to not as much be a subject and object.”
Psychedelics may be used to bolster one’s capacity for lucid dreaming, and prepare the individuals for either experience, suggest Brown and Dumpert.
“Although there haven’t been any scientific studies into this yet, many people have noticed that simply having a psychedelic experience makes it more likely that one will have a lucid dream in the days following the journey,” says Brown. One may also encounter the same entities in a lucid dream that define so many high-dose DMT experiences, he says.
“Alex Grey called psychedelics practice for the bardo. And I think the same can be true of dreaming, and lucid dreaming,” says Dumpert. “If you’ve had a lucid dream nightmare – I have – it’s scary. That’s an experience you have both in dream space, and in psychedelic space. In a way, I think that psychedelics prepare you for that kind of dream work, and the dream work prepares you for that kind of experience with psychedelics.”
Both psychedelic and dream research deal with extraordinary states of mind that differ wildly from our sober, waking life perceptions. According to Dumpert, the resurgence of psychedelic research may have generated more interest around studying dreams.
“I think the fact that the two are happening simultaneously is no mistake. I think people are starting to be a little more interested and open to thinking about these amazing phenomena of mind,” says Dumpert.