Lucid dreams differ from the average dream in a magical way. People experiencing a lucid dream are actually aware that they are in the midst of a dream, and can take control of the plot to twist it however they would like the dream to go. Scientists in Germany have recently discovered that the mysterious activity associated with lucid dreams can actually be induced with electrical zaps.
Lucid dreams are not common, at least not compared to the standard rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep stage most humans enter in order to dream. The far more elusive lucid dreams are a special interest for scientists because they present a unique, albeit fleeting window into human consciousness by allowing observation of consciousness shifts in the brain. Basically, when an individual is experiencing a lucid dream, there are two overlapping states of consciousness at play. There is the ambiguous state that exists in normal dreaming, and there is wakefulness, when individuals are highly aware and in control of their consciousness.
Although most people experience a handful of dreams every night, they are hard to remember and almost impossible to control through conscious awareness. Neurologically speaking, a typical dream and a lucid dream are marked with very different brain activity. Normal dreaming produces specific brain wave patterns that make them unmistakable to sleep researchers. Different brain activity takes over when people are in the middle of a dream they can control. Specifically, scientists observe gamma waves, which are linked to consciousness rather than sleep and regular dreaming. The gamma waves are mostly found in the frontal cortex of the brain, which is where judgment activities such as decision-making take place.
Because so much can be learned about the human state of consciousness in the case of lucid dreams, the scientists at J.W. Goethe-University Frankfurt in Germany decided to stimulate electrical activity in the brain to see whether lucid dreams can be induced with electrical zaps. The study included 27 participants that had never experienced a lucid dream. Each subject was “zapped” with varying strengths of electrical currents for 30-second increments, approximately two minutes after reaching the normal dream stage of sleep.
The results showed that a current of 40 Hertz could effectively induce lucid dream experiences, even in subjects that had never had them before; a reported 77 percent of the time, study participants awoke describing that they “knew were in a dream while they were dreaming.” With some smaller and larger zaps, the effects were not as strong, if observed at all.
Although the implications of this sleep study are intriguing, the lead scientists involved in the study design do not see lucid-dreaming devices on the horizon for any type of commercial use. The equipment is not sophisticated, and delivering zaps of electricity to a person should not be done without the supervision of a physician.
Nonetheless, if these results are replicable in subsequent studies, inducing lucid dreams as part of therapy could help people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One of the crippling symptoms of the psychological damage associated with PTSD includes graphic nightmares in which they basically “relive” the traumatic experience, over and over. If a technique to induce lucid dreaming can be fine-tuned, it may be possible to alter dreams to bring about a different result, and perhaps a lesser emotional impact.
More generally, this newly-discovered technique that suggests lucid dreams can be induced with electrical zaps paves the way for many new questions on the exact nature of human consciousness. If sleep science can link gamma rays to consciousness, perhaps it is gamma rays that actually create consciousness.
By Erica Salcuni