June 4, 2012
Two summers ago the concept of lucid dreaming took a spin in the swirl of pop culture when the movie Inception hit the big screen. Its core premise is that a master corporate spy, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, could not only hack into the dreams of other people to steal secrets, but also manipulate their subconscious thinking.
Unfortunately, what most people remember about the film is the scene featured in the ad campaign in which DiCaprio demonstrates the notion of shared dreaming to co-star Ellen Page by exploding, in beautifully choreographed slow-motion, the streetscape around them–suggesting, more than anything, that in his dream world, Leo’s character is a 12-year-old boy.
Despite the movie’s success–or, maybe more likely, because of it–lucid dreaming remains, for most people, the stuff of sci-fi. But a growing body of research shows that humans can take control of their own dreams and now there’s a mini-boom of devices designed to help them do it.
First, a little history. Buddhists have been engaging is something called “dream yoga” for at least 1,000 years and no one less than Aristotle weighed in on the ability of our conscious mind to realize when we’re dreaming. But once 13th-century Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas portrayed dreams as largely the work of Satan, scholars pretty much steered clear of the subject for the next 700 years. A Dutch psychiatrist, Frederik Willem van Eeden, invented the term “lucid dreaming” about 100 years ago, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that a Stanford scientist named Stephen LaBerge started doing serious research on the bridge between our conscious and dreaming states.
Sound and effects
Now, not surprisingly, mobile apps have entered the picture. A research project launched at the Edinburgh Science Festival in April by Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire in England, is built around an iPhone app called Dream:ON.
It gives you a choice of 20 “soundscapes”–one theme is “Peaceful Garden, another, “Space Shuttle,” another “A Trip to Tokyo.” Your sounds start playing early in the morning, during your last period of REM sleep, the state in which you’re most likely to dream. The app will assume you’re in REM if your smartphone doesn’t detect any movement in your bed. In theory, the sounds become part of your dream. And to increase the odds of lucidity happening, some soundscapes include a voiceover reminding you that you’re dreaming and that you can take control of what’s unfolding inside your brain.
Users who want to be part of Wiseman’s experiment are asked to record their dreams as soon as the app’s alarm wakes them. Already, the Dream: ON app has been downloaded more than 500,000 times and dreamers reportedly are filling out as many as 30,000 reports a night. So far, says Wiseman, the sounds are affecting the dreams of about 30 percent of the people using the app.
New York inventors Duncan Frazier and Steve McGuigan have taken a different approach. Instead of incorporating sound to help people shape their dreams, they use light. They’ve created a sleep mask they call the Remee, which comes with six red LED lights and runs on a three-volt battery.
The device waits until a person is four to five hours into their night’s sleep–a time when periods of REM sleep tend to last longer–then begins flashing the lights in a pattern that lasts 15 to 20 seconds. It’s a visual cue meant to remind the person that they’re dreaming, which is key to having them take control of what happens.
Clearly, there’s lots of interest in driving dreams. When Frazier and McGuigan posted their idea on Kickstarter, they hoped to raise $35,000. More than 6,500 people have pledged almost $600,000 to help them out.
While you were sleeping
Here are other recent developments in sleep and dream research:
- So much for the light at the end of the tunnel: At least that’s the conclusion of Michael Raduga, head of the Out-of-Body Experience Research Center in Los Angeles. Volunteers trained in lucid dreaming were able to recreate the classic near-death experience of leaving their bodies and flying through a tunnel to a light at the end of it. That, says Raduga, suggests that the experience may just be “the result of spontaneous and hyper-realistic lucid dreams, induced by narcosis or brain damage during dying,” and not evidence of life after death. The study has not yet been peer-reviewed.
- Your Etch-a-Sketch brain: A study at the University of Wisconsin boosts the belief that sleep is critical to the brain being ready to learn and process new information. Based on his research, psychologist Giulio Tononi theorizes that during sleep, the brain breaks connections and wipes itself clean of unnecessary impressions.
- Asleep at the wheel: French scientists say sleepy drivers are almost as dangerous as drunk ones.
- Sleep more, weigh less: People who sleep less than seven hours a night are more at risk of gaining weight due to genetic factors. That’s one of the conclusions of a study of more than 1,000 pairs of twins by the University of Washington Medicine Sleep Center.
- Or do we have a serious zombies problem?: Almost one out of every three people say they’ve gone sleepwalking at least once in their lives. And, according to a study published in Neurology, 3.6 percent of those surveyed remembered taking at least one nighttime stroll during the past year.
Audio bonus: Still not sure about the value of lucid dreaming? Listen to this Radiolab piece on a man who was able to confront a stranger who’d been haunting his dreams for 20 years.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.