People can answer questions about their dreams without waking up

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Talking to people while they are asleep can influence their dreams – and in some cases, the dreamer can respond without waking up.

Ken Paller at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and his colleagues found that people could answer questions and even solve maths problems while lucid dreaming – a state that typically occurs during rapid eye-movement (REM) sleep when the dreamer is aware of being in a dream, and is sometimes able to control it.

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“We asked questions where we knew the answer because what we wanted to do is determine whether we were having good communication. We had to know if they were answering correctly,” says Paller.

The team asked dreamers yes-no questions relating to their backgrounds and experiences, along with simple maths problems involving addition and subtraction. The dreamers weren’t aware of what questions they would be asked before they went to sleep.

The dreamers, who had a range of experience with lucid dreaming, answered the questions correctly 29 times, incorrectly five times, and ambiguously 28 times by twitching their face muscles or moving their eyes. They didn’t respond on 96 occasions.

After waking, some dreamers reported that they had heard the questions as if from outside the dream, while others perceived the questions as being part of the dream. One participant who was dreaming about being in a car heard maths problems coming from the radio.

“One thing that this method puts forward is that while the dream is happening, we can affect the content of the dream,” says Mark Blagrove at Swansea University, UK. “The next question is, what happens if the sentences are highly personally relevant and emotional?”

In the future, Paller hopes that such dream conversations could help improve sleep in people with conditions like depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder.

“If you’re facing something that makes you anxious, you might want to try it out in a lucid dream and therefore overcome the anxiety that you’re feeling,” he says.

Journal reference: Current Biology, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.01.026

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