A groundbreaking discovery may see sleeping people controlling their dreams, using electrical currents applied to the brain, according to a study published online in Nature Neuroscience.
The result is called "lucid dreaming," meaning that the sleeper understands that he or she is dreaming and can control the plot.
Using electrical current on the brain allows the sleeper to induce brain waves of a specific frequency, which provokes the “lucid dreaming” – an intermediate stage between two forms of consciousness, as many psychologists put it.
“Lucid dreams” are between rapid eye movement (REM) dreams (representing the immediate present and have no access to the past or future) and being awake. This special state is considered unique to humans.
Special laboratory tests involving 27 volunteers (15 women and 12 men aged 18 to 26) have been used for the study, led by psychologist Ursula Voss of Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany.
The volunteers spent up to four days in a sleep lab, and the gadget TACS (Transcranial Alternating Current Stimulation) which triggered the electrical current comprised two small boxes with electrodes that are placed next to the skull.
In particular, the device uses the frontal and temporal regions, located on the forward top and side of the brain respectively, AFP reported.
The volunteers’ REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep represented a lucid dream, which they reported when they awoke. They felt as if their dream self was a third party whom they were merely observing.
"I am driving in my car, for a long time," one of the volunteers said, as quoted by AFP.
"Then I arrive at this place where I haven't been before. And there are a lot of people there. I think maybe I know some of them but they are all in a bad mood, so I go to a separate room, all by myself," he added.
Their dreams were accompanied by electrical activity called gamma waves, which are also connected with lucid dreaming.
Those brain waves are usually associated with executive functions like higher-order thinking, as well as awareness of one's mental state, but they don’t occur in the REM stage of sleep.
Despite the discovery, Voss doesn’t think that the lucid-dreaming devices can be exploited commercially, as the machines we currently have “do not work well,” she told Reuters. Plus, such an activity should always be monitored by medics.
However, the technology could help people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition which involves nightmares replaying the initial terrifying experience.
"By learning how to control the dream and distance oneself from the dream," Voss said, such patients could reduce the emotional impact and begin to recover.