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Photo of a teenage boy sleeping.

A teenage boy sleeps in Missouri.

Photograph by Maggie Steber, National Geographic

Virginia Hughes

for National Geographic

PUBLISHED MAY 11, 2014

Researchers have figured out how to make people aware of themselves during a dream: by zapping their sleeping brains with a weak electric current.

The sensation of "Hey, this is a dream!" is known as lucid dreaming. Those who naturally become lucid while dreaming, probably a small segment of the population, also report adventures that are impossible in the real world, such as flying, that feel completely real. Some can even change a dream's narrative twists and turns to make it less scary—or even more exhilarating. (Related: "Why Do We Dream? To Ease Painful Memories, Study Hints.")

Lucid dreaming is exciting not only for dreamers but also for neuroscientists, who consider it a window into the study of consciousness. But until now, researchers have been hampered by how hard it is to provoke lucid dreaming in people who don't do it naturally. A new method published today in Nature Neuroscience might get around this difficulty, making it easier to stimulate lucid dreaming at will.

"We can really quite easily change conscious awareness in dreams," said lead investigator Ursula Voss, a clinical psychologist at Frankfurt University in Germany. She does this, she said, by delivering mild electrical stimulation to the sleeping person's brain. (Related: "Electric Jolt to Brain Boosts Math Skills.")

Zapping While Napping

In this study, Voss and her team recruited 27 healthy young adults who had never experienced lucid dreaming. Each participant slept overnight in the lab on several occasions. Two minutes after reaching the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep, which is when dreaming happens, the subjects received a weak electrical current (2 to 100 Hertz) to the frontal lobe for 30 seconds, or a sham current with no electricity.

The sweet spot was 40 Hertz. Zapping sleeping volunteers at this frequency, part of the so-called gamma wave band, led their brains to produce brain waves of the same frequency, the researchers found, which triggered lucidity 77 percent of the time, as determined by self-reports from the dreamers after they were awoken. (Related: "Dreams Make You Smarter, More Creative, Studies Suggest.")

Stimulations of 25 Hertz, at the low end of the gamma wave band, also sparked lucidity 58 percent of the time. In contrast, subjects who received sham or low-frequency stimulations never became lucid.

Voss had previously identified the 40-Hertz currents as the possible key to lucidity. In a 2009 study, she and her colleagues studied six individuals who were trained lucid dreamers, and found that during episodes of lucidity they produced brain waves in the brain's frontal area of around 30 to 40 Hertz—much higher than is found in typical REM sleep. But the scientists did not know if the gamma waves were a cause of the lucidity or a consequence of it. The new study suggests the former.

Gamma Wave of the Future?

"I'm really impressed, particularly since the effects are so specific for these frequencies," said Martin Dresler, a neuroscientist at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behavior in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, who was not involved in the new work.

Gamma frequencies are especially intriguing, he added, because other studies have linked them to consciousness during wakefulness.

The study might have clinical implications for treating conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and nightmares, said Tore Nielsen, a dream and nightmare researcher at the University of Montreal. Once a nightmare has begun, for instance, the dreamer could be zapped with gamma waves, become lucid, and potentially change the circumstances of the dream to make it less frightening. "That would be remarkable," Nielsen said. (Related: "Can Phobias Be Cured in Our Sleep?")

Nielsen also envisions a coming bonanza of brain-stimulation gizmos that allow people to become lucid-dreaming adventurers. "People are going to be scrambling to put together home lucid dreaming induction devices based on this 40-Hertz stimulation procedure," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if we see products fairly quickly."

Whether or not DIY lucidity becomes a reality, Voss said what's great about lucid dreams is that they help illuminate the human condition. "Being able to reflect upon yourself, to think about your past and plan your future—this is something that only we humans can do."

Follow Virginia Hughes on Twitter.

29 comments
Steven Spangler
Steven Spangler

Look, I'm fortunate if I stay lucid during the day...so don't go asking me to be lucid while I sleep.

Renaud Renault
Renaud Renault

Lucid dreams don't exist. They refer to a particular state of consciousness, not dreaming, which can happen briefly during sleep. People who say "I could control my dream" might be honest, but they need to realize that even when awoken, the brain tricks us into thinking that the choices we make are conscious when really they were made subconsciously 80 ms earlier in a deterministic way.

J. Griffin
J. Griffin

Lucid dreaming has allowed me to tell myself to wake up from many nightmares. I've experienced this since I was little. I thought I it was one of the things most humans experienced. They should do a study on lucid dreaming and genetics to see if there is connection. I think it is a bad idea to make people become lucid in their dreams.

sharon Roberts
sharon Roberts

Very interesting, have been lucid dreaming for quite sometime and would find this procedure interesting

pamela letstalkaboutcorsica
pamela letstalkaboutcorsica

not particularly attracted to meddling of any type of the sleeping/dreaming process, I think we should/could just let nature continue as she does, so naturally, without interferring systematically and going for gamma waves, etc - therapy through a less interferring means of transmission, and isn't it preferable to find the causes in the first state, instead of treating the outcome.

Sally Rivers
Sally Rivers

I can go to bed and decide what I want to dream about and control that dream. I can also continue that dream night after night so it feels like an alternate reality. I am shocked to find out that this is not something everyone can do!

W. Prill
W. Prill

I've been making myself "aware" in my dreams for the past two decades.  People have told me that this practice isn't healthy for the mind.

Mary Best
Mary Best

i'm able to lucid dream, but i don't know that taking a jolt is worth it.

my suggestion?

DO NOT!

craig hill
craig hill

Hey! Dr Frankenstein! Creating lucidity during dreams puts deep sleep to a halt, which is necessary for a HEALTHY MIND, you maniacs. 

james crawford
james crawford

Do you think it is possible to addmitt  gamma rays to entire populations while they are awake so that there dreams might manifest right before their very eyes? ive been places were consciousness seems stronger than others or were manifestation is much easier, like san fransisco compared to Omaha Nebraska  

Hal H.
Hal H.

I am an old guy now, but when I was younger, I was a lucid dreamer.  I did not understand it, but I knew that it was good.  I really liked flying to  places I did not know existed. It was like being Superman.  I would awake smarter.  I think I am gonna fire up my acupuncture stim and get started. 

Randy Rains
Randy Rains

"A teenage boy sleeps in Missouri." 


You don't say.

David Jones
David Jones

Interesting study, very poorly written article.

Simon Gibson
Simon Gibson

Are we slowly routing out the hiding place of our own gods?

fred purr
fred purr

Do a search on PsychicWorld JungleLand for something related.

anne boad
anne boad

The claim that "this is something only we humans can do" is always doubtful.

Mik Rose
Mik Rose

It's funny because it's not usual for people to be able to lucid dream. But I find it weirder when people say they don't dream at all.

Mik Rose
Mik Rose

I can do that too! Sometimes I get excited to go to bed because I get to keep my dream story going. It has though gotten to the point I can make my dreams so close to reality I forget if I'm actually dreaming or living.

Ray Rohrbach
Ray Rohrbach

@Sally Rivers that sounds incredible. Some of my lucid dreams are great and would love to re-visit the new worlds that I find more often....what's the trick Sally?

Devon Truscott
Devon Truscott

@craig hill  No it doesn't. I'm not sure where you got your information from. Lucid dreaming doesn't cause your brain to be any more active than it is during regular R.E.M. It just happens to be self aware. 

Jessica P.
Jessica P.

@anne boad  pretty freakin arrogant, huh?  I've never liked those types of statements either... anything that puts us above any other species, which we'll never fully understand w/ our limited functioning brains, is just annoying.

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