[Lucid Dream Simulator]Lucid dreaming a virtual reality

Tag: 2021-07-19 04:29

  Brain scans showing activity in the motor cortex during the movement of the hands while awake (left) and during a dreamed movement (right).

  Brain scans showing activity in the motor cortex during the movement of the hands while awake (left) and during a dreamed movement (right). Credit:Martin Dresler

  ”I think lucid dreaming is real,” says Dr Erin Wamsley, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Furman University.

  ”By lucid dreaming, I mean that while a person is having a dream they can know that it is a dream and that they are asleep,” says Wamsley, a respected neuroscientist with a Harvard post-doc.


  Lizzie Brochere as Tess in a scene from “Falling Water”, a new cable TV series that uses a fictional dream control technique as a plot device. Credit:Michael Parmalee

  The evidence that convinces Wamsley starts with an ingenious experiment conducted by Stephen LaBerge in the 1980s.

  LaBerge leveraged the fact that while we’re effectively paralysed in our dreams – stopping us enacting that flight fantasy off the third floor balcony – our eye movements are intact.

  Dr Erin Wamsley, assistant professor in the department of psychology at Furman University is researching lucid dreaming.

  Dr Erin Wamsley, assistant professor in the department of psychology at Furman University is researching lucid dreaming.Credit:Furman University

  But all this messing with dreams raises a serious question: if dreams serve a useful purpose could interfering be harmful?

  LaBerge had five experienced lucid dreamers make a pre-sleep pact to, as soon as their dream started, do a “left-right-left-right” eye movement then “dream clench” their fists.

  Electrical monitoring of the dreamers’ eyes and wrists showed emphatic signals of the agreed movements, all while brain waves proved they were in REM sleep.

  Yes, asleep.

  Dr Martin Dresler, Assistant Professor at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, is adding a further tranche of evidence with brain imaging.

  ”We put lucid dreamers in a brain scanner and ask them, as soon as they get lucid, to give us an eye signal then immediately clench their left hand ten times,” says Dresler.

  The dreamers then wake themselves up – yes many can actually do this – to confirm both the dream state and the movements they carried out.

  ”Those parts of the motor cortex responsible for left-hand clenching were active exactly in the ten seconds where the subject in his dreams was moving his left hand,” says Dresler.

  And if the science seems amazing, lucid dreaming itself sounds like the kind of trip – minus the drugs – Timothy Leary would have lent his imprimatur to.

  ”I felt what it was like to walk through walls and breathe underwater and barrel roll across moonlit clouds … I was flying around and having a lot of sex,” said Thomas Peisel, author of Oneironautics: A Field Guide to Lucid Dreaming, in a recent TED talk.

  ”I realised that I could change any of it,” said Peisel.

  Peisel speaks with a Keatsian fervour that invites scepticism but science is indeed suggesting we can take control of our dreams, and even turn them to our advantage.

  Evidence already shows that rehearsing a physical skill in your mind – think a gymnast visualising a tumbling routine – improves performance.

  A 2016 study suggests dreams could one day become an extension of that mental sports hall.

  Volunteers were instructed to enter a lucid dream and then practice tapping a Morse code-like sequence on a keyboard with their non-dominant hand.

  The lucid dreamers improved just as much as people who did awake mental practice or actual physical practice.

  The study is hard evidence for the kind of claims made in the 1990s by the psychologist Paul Tholey, who reported skiers using lucid dreaming to improve their slalom and mogul skills.

  And it may well be a growing trend in sport.

  ”A considerable percentage of professional athletes say they use lucid dreaming in their daily training schedules,” says Dresler.

  ”It is at least intuitively plausible that the better the simulation the better the training might be. In the immersive hyper-realistic world of dreaming, the simulation, and in particular the simulated feedback, is much more convincing than in awake mental practice,” he says.

  Lucid dreaming is also shaping as a tool for better mental health.

  It has been shown to be effective for nightmares, and could be a future treatment for PTSD, where recurrent nightmares are a key symptom.

  ”If you realise during the nightmare that it is all simulated it takes much of the sting and threat out of the nightmare,” says Dresler.

  This ability to sift reality from illusion also makes lucid dreaming a possible future treatment for delusional disorders.

  Dresler published a review last year that found a striking overlap between brain regions that are active in lucid dreaming and impaired in illnesses where there is a loss of insight into behaviour, such as schizophrenia.

  ”Normal dreaming might be a good model for psychosis in schizophrenia because they share hallucinations and impaired thought,” says Dresler.

  ”If you could teach lucid dreaming to patients with schizophrenia in the non-acute phase this might lead to greater insight during a psychotic phase,” he says.

  Lucid dreaming is also touted as a route to creative insight.

  ”There is a case study of a painter who, every time he wanted to come up with a new painting or motif, went into lucid dreaming and looked for an art gallery,” says Dresler.

  ”He’d go in and as soon as he found something he thought was cool he woke himself up and painted it.”

  But, while there are plenty of anecdotes, the evidence is mixed.

  One study reported nearly a third of respondents used lucid dreaming to problem-solve or get creative, but another found lucid dreamers were no better at letter puzzles or devising metaphors.

  Ponder all this research and the dreaming brain emerges as a kind of inner Mars, ripe for colonisation and greening, but unexplored because we’ve always thought it beyond the range of consciousness.

  Now philosophers are challenging that status quo.

  ”The standard view is that conscious controlled thought is just there in wakefulness but gone in dreams,” says Dr Jennifer Windt a lecturer in philosophy at Monash University and author of the 2015 book Dreaming.

  ”But the literature on mind-wandering, where you’re awake but thinking off-task without realising it, sounds a lot like the thought processes involved in dreaming,” she says.

  ”And then there is a spectrum of how much conscious thought and awareness is occurring in dreaming. Dreaming is not just automatic and unreflective.”

  And if consciousness really does exist on a continuum between wakefulness and sleep there is evidence that at least one key brain region might be responsible.

  The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which sits beneath the temple, is active when we consciously monitor our thoughts and feelings (e.g. when you tell yourself, “that ice cream looks good but will blow the diet so, ‘No way’”)

  It turns out the area is also active in lucid dreamers, a finding that prompted researchers in 2014 to see if electrical stimulation to the same area during REM sleep could induce lucid dreaming.

  The results, published in Nature Neuroscience, were generally positive, prompting a wave of experimentation by owners of home brain stimulators.

  But if you’re keen to dream, the standard measures to induce lucid dreaming are more low-tech; a common method is just to count your fingers regularly.

  The idea is that once finger-gazing becomes a daytime habit you’re more likely to do it in your dreams; notice your hand is missing a finger, covered in fur, or has become a hoof and the hope is you’ll wise up to the fact you’re dreaming.

  Another technique is to diarise your dreams as soon as you wake up; if cats in pink tutus at the baseball are a recurring theme you can make a mental note that next time it happens you’re – probably – dreaming.

  Apps such as Awoken and Dream On offer a range of features claimed to help, but it’s worth noting a recent meta-analysis found no reliable means of inducing lucid dreaming.

  Dresler is hoping to change that using virtual reality as a dream detection tool.

  ”In virtual reality when something unexpected or surreal happens we will train people to immediately ask themselves ‘Am I dreaming?’” says Dresler.

  ”The idea is that if this becomes a conditioned habit it can transfer into the dream,” he says.

  But all this messing with dreams raises a serious question: if dreams serve a useful purpose could interfering be harmful?

  ”We have good evidence that the content of dreams reflects the processing of memory in the sleeping brain,” says Wamsley.

  ”And we have evidence from a couple of studies that when people dream of a recent learning experience that is associated with improved memory,” she says.

  Wamsley presented one such study at the November conference of the Hogwartsian-sounding (but very scientific) International Association for the Study of Dreams.

  ”We had participants learn the layout of a virtual maze in a 3D computer game in order to navigate to the virtual exit, then randomly assigned them to sleep or remain awake before re-testing them,” says Wamsley.

  ”Participants who reported dreams that directly mentioned the maze task itself or any maze, improved much more than other participants.”

  But Wamsley stresses it is unknown if dreaming boosts memory or if motivated learners are just more likely to dream about mazes.

  There is also a pragmatic reason why lucid dreaming isn’t likely to harm anyone.

  ”The extent to which people can control their dreams is really limited. Even within a typical lucid dream, most of what is happening is being spontaneously generated,” says Wamsley.

  But some might draw the line when it’s someone else tinkering with their dreams.

  Dr Moran Cerf, Assistant Professor of Marketing at Northwestern University, is a neuroscientist whose preferred subject has a good deal of brain on display.

  Patients with intractable epilepsy sometimes have electrodes implanted directly into the brain surface to record where seizures start and to guide treatment.

  Some volunteer to let Dr Cerf record their brain activity while they view images as diverse as Martin Luther King, the Beatles, the Eiffel Tower, or their mother and father.

  Cerf uses computer algorithms that work backwards to decode the volunteers’ brain waves and show what images they have in mind, whether they’re awake, or asleep.

  And it’s night time when things get interesting, and a little spooky.

  Cerf uses a conditioning technique pioneered by Israeli colleagues to help people stop smoking.

  ”Take a person who is a smoker and wants to quit. When he goes to sleep we can spray the smell of nicotine into his nose which activates the brain network associated with smoking,” says Cerf. “Then we spray a rotten egg smell in his nose so his brain will pair the two and encode smoking as something that he doesn’t like.”

  ”The night’s experience actually changes your perception of smoking such that when you wake up you will want to smoke less.”

  Cerf explains one day we could use similar methods to select dreams from our own jukebox of memories.

  Say a cherished first date is linked to the smell of a rain-soaked woollen sweater; somehow bottle the aroma and inhale it while you’re asleep and you might revisit the date in your dreams.

  ”We have already been contacted by companies that want a device to put next to your bed that will guarantee a good dream, perhaps being in Prague with your ex-girlfriend,” says Cerf.

  If it all sounds sci-fi, it’ll be no surprise that Cerf was a consultant on the just released TV series Falling Water that uses a fictional dream control technique as a plot device.

  According to Cerf, however, the reality is much closer than we might think.

  ”People starting to control their dreams will be a thing in the near future,” he says.