Researchers discover how to induce lucid dreaming by stimulating the lower gamma band during REM sleep. Are actually effective commercial lucid dream-inducing devices far behind?
Lucid dreaming has long been a fascination of mankind: The ability to become lucid during a dream and gain control of the dream itself has been coveted, examined and practiced for centuries, resulting in many methods and exercises that can cultivate lucid dreams. The opportunity to consciously explore the dream-space can provide insights into the mysteries of the unconscious mind; lucid dreaming can also be used therapeutically to address traumatic memories or chronic nightmares.
This year, however, researchers made a massive step forward in understanding the physiology of lucid dreams: A team of scientists led by psychologist Ursula Voss of the Goethe University in Frankfort, Germany successfully induced lucid dreams in test subjects by stimulating specific brain regions with an electrical current. The study, published in Nature Neuroscience in May, provides some of the first data necessary to understand the biology of lucid dreaming. Voss’ past research focused on identifying levels of self-awareness within dreams through Electroencephalography (EEG) and experiential reports from participants.
Voss’ early studies found that participants’ reports of lucid dreams tended to occur during REM sleep. At the beginning of a sleep cycle, the brain slows from high frequency gamma and beta waves associated with waking, processing and alertness. The patterns of brain activity progress through slowing alpha waves to deep sleep’s delta and theta frequencies. Paradoxically, the sleep cycle apexes in REM, and the brainwaves speed up. Dreams normally occur during REM sleep, when many regions of the brain appear to be functioning as if it were awake. When subjects reported a lucid dream, there was distinct gamma activity, the highest frequency range of brainwave, in the frontotemporal region.
The frontotemporal region is associated with executive functioning, decision making, processing complex stimuli, and self-awareness. Voss and her team theorized that lucid dreams occur when the frontotemporal region of the brain is active at a gamma level during REM sleep. To test this theory, they used a non-invasive method called Transcranial Alternating Current Stimulation (tACS). tACS uses electrodes placed on the scalp to stimulate the surface of the brain. When they sent an electrical current in the Gamma frequency into the frontotemporal region of the scalp, the participants overwhelmingly reported a self-aware dream upon waking.
While tACS is not recommended for use outside of a medical setting, the ability of physicians to induce lucid dreams could provide new treatment models for sleep disorders, post-traumatic stress, and even anxiety and depression. Sleep, especially REM, is vital to the formation of memories, the consolidation of stimuli into larger concepts, and the regeneration of the brain. If Voss’ research provides a consistent method of psychic exploration, scientists and psychonauts will be able to further understand the mysteries, mechanisms and potential self-discoveries of dreams.
The use of direct electrical and magnetic stimulation in neuroscience research has provided other important insights into the psyche over the past decade. 2004 and 2007 studies by Swiss neuroscientist Olaf Blanke demonstrate that out of body experiences can be induced through stimulation of the tempro-parietal junction (TPJ). Other studies successfully facilitated spiritual experiences and sensory hallucinations through magnetic stimulation of the temporal lobe.
Since much of the brain’s activity relies on electricity and electromagnetism, researchers are always searching for more precise ways to manipulate the brain’s subtle field and record the results. There are some physical dangers and moral tensions associated with forcing the brain into potentially abnormal states. Abnormality, however, will always be an area of study because of its applications to clinical psychology. Studying the brain in phenomenal states also cultivates discussion on the definition and subjectivity of psychological normalcy and what actually constitutes a normal mind beyond the sociocultural context.