*scroll down for profiles of students

What lucid dreamers tell us about the sleeping mind

Science News, August 2023

Dreams are one of the most universal yet elusive human experiences. This article includes some of our research on this topic, and includes Chris Mazurek’s initial lucid dreaming experiences in our lab.

A passageway is opening into the world of dreams

Boston Globe, July 20, 2021

Scientists have made progress in communicating with dreamers while they are asleep. In a recent study, researchers were able to establish two-way communication with individuals experiencing lucid dreams. By using prearranged eye movements and signals, dreamers were able to answer questions and perform tasks while asleep. This breakthrough opens up possibilities for understanding the content and functions of dreams, as well as potentially influencing dreams to impact waking life. However, further research is needed to refine the methods and explore the full potential of dream communication.

Understanding the Basis of Superior Memory

Discover Magazine, May 13, 2022

Individuals with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM) possess an exceptional ability to remember specific events from their personal past. Researchers have been trying to understand the origins of HSAM and have proposed various hypotheses. One hypothesis suggests that HSAM is linked to a strong ability to retrieve information stored in the brain. Another hypothesis proposes that altered connectivity between the hippocampus (involved in learning and memory) and networks responsible for saliency detection enables HSAM individuals to remember almost everything, regardless of its importance. Researchers are conducting further studies using neural imaging and behavioral measures to confirm these hypotheses. Additionally, investigations into the role of sleep and memory consolidation may provide insights for developing treatments for memory disorders. The study of HSAM offers potential advancements in our understanding of memory mechanisms and disorders.

Technique Takes Sleepers from Zzz to Aha!

Scientific American, January 1, 2020

A study has shown that reactivating remembered problems during sleep can enhance problem-solving. Researchers used a technique called targeted memory reactivation (TMR), where a sound associated with a memory is played during sleep to reactivate it. Participants who listened to sound cues related to unsolved puzzles while sleeping solved 32 percent of those puzzles the next day, compared to 21 percent for puzzles without sound cues. This research suggests that sleep can be utilized to work on complex tasks and improve problem-solving abilities.

Yes, We Can Communicate With People While They’re Dreaming

Mind Magazine, Feb 20, 2021

A research group conducted experiments on individuals in REM sleep and found that they could engage in real-time communication and comprehend questions. The study involved participants aiming to have lucid dreams, where they are aware they are dreaming. Researchers from multiple universities achieved successful communication with dreamers through eye movements or facial expressions. While the response rate was relatively low, the findings challenge traditional definitions of sleep and may have implications for treating sleep disorders and understanding the nature of dreams. Future research aims to explore describing the content of dreams.

Communicating with a dreaming person is possible

NOVA, Feb 19, 2021

A recent study conducted by research teams at Northwestern University and other institutions suggests that two-way communication with individuals experiencing lucid dreams is possible. Lucid dreaming is when a person is aware they are in a dream while still asleep. Participants in the study were able to communicate with researchers by moving their eyes in response to questions posed to them while they were in the rapid-eye movement (REM) stage of sleep. The findings shed light on the potential for complex communication with sleeping individuals and could have applications in health, well-being, and dream research. Additionally, the study has led to the development of a smartphone app called “Lucid,” aimed at inducing lucid dreaming in users. The research opens up exciting possibilities for future exploration and understanding of the dreaming world. 

Night School

aeon, October 2, 2015

The concept of sleep-learning, also known as hypnopaedia, is making a comeback with a more solid scientific basis. Recent studies suggest that it might be possible to learn new information and skills during sleep, leveraging the brain’s processing capabilities during the restorative stages of deep sleep. Researchers have successfully demonstrated conditioning and memory consolidation during sleep, offering the potential for accelerated learning and therapeutic applications. However, there are concerns about potential drawbacks, such as disrupting essential restorative functions and encroaching on the sacredness of sleep. The balance between the benefits and risks of sleep-learning remains a topic of debate.

How sound and smell cues can enhance learning while you sleep

aeon, January 23, 2018

Recent studies have shown that it is possible to alter memory during sleep using cues such as smells or sounds. This targeted memory reactivation (TMR) has been found to improve memory recall. Researchers are still exploring the boundaries and potential applications of TMR, including foreign language learning and memory enhancement in aging populations.

Lucid dreamers may be able to talk to the outside world

The Economist, Feb 20th 2021

Researchers led by Ken Paller from Northwestern University have proposed a potential solution to studying dreams by focusing on lucid dreams, where individuals are aware they are dreaming. Lucid dreams are associated with REM sleep, during which brain activity resembles wakefulness. The researchers believe it may be possible to communicate with lucid dreamers and receive responses from them, thereby providing a means to study dreams more directly and accurately. This approach could overcome the limitations of relying solely on post-awakening recollections.

Sleep: Caretaker of memories, repairer of prejudice

Los Angeles Times, MAY 28, 2015

A new study conducted by psychologists from Northwestern University reveals that sleep plays a crucial role not only in learning new information but also in unlearning implicit biases. The research found that participants who slept after being exposed to images aimed at countering implicit biases, and received subtle reminders of the learning during sleep, showed a significant reduction in biases that lasted longer compared to those who did not receive sleep cues. The study suggests that sleep could potentially be utilized to aid in changing deeply held social beliefs and behaviors

Scientists Just Got People To Solve Math Problems While Dreaming

Forbes, Feb 18, 2021

Researchers from four different countries have made a breakthrough in the study of dreams by establishing two-way communication with people who are asleep and dreaming. The study involved lucid dreamers who were able to consciously interact and answer questions while in a dream state. The researchers used various methods, including monitoring brain signals and rapid eye movements, to verify the participants’ lucidity. This advancement opens up possibilities for a better understanding of dreams and potentially using dreams to solve problems. The researchers are now working on expanding and refining the communication methods for more complex conversations during dreams.

Science: Researchers communicate with sleepers during dreams

Brussels Times, Feb 19, 2021

Researchers from universities in Europe and the US have achieved real-time communication with individuals experiencing lucid dreams. Unlike regular dreams, lucid dreams involve the dreamer being aware that they are dreaming. The researchers used methods such as spoken words, beeping sounds, flashing lights, and tactile stimuli to communicate with sleeping subjects during their lucid dreams. While successful two-way communication was achieved, not all subjects could recall the communication upon waking up, and some interpreted the stimuli as dream-related artifacts. This breakthrough opens up new possibilities for dream research.

Dreamers can do sums in their sleep, US scientists say

The London Times, March 2, 2021

Scientists at sleep laboratories in the United States and Europe have achieved a breakthrough in communicating with people who are dreaming. Through the use of questions and eye movements, slumbering patients were able to provide correct answers. The success of these studies challenges the notion that communicating with sleeping individuals is futile and provides a new avenue for understanding dreams.

Folks Can Have Real-Life Conversations While Dreaming, Study Finds

US News & World Report, Feb. 18, 2021

New research suggests that it is possible to communicate with people who are having lucid dreams. Four independent studies conducted in the United States, France, Germany, and the Netherlands used different methods to communicate with sleeping volunteers and received responses. Sleeping participants were able to answer questions and perform tasks, such as simple math problems, by using eye movements and muscle contractions. The findings provide evidence that two-way communication is feasible during lucid dreams and open new possibilities for studying and influencing dream experiences.

Sleep study raises hope for clinical treatment of racism, sexism and other biases

The Conversation, May 28, 2015

A recent study has found that biases, including gender and racial stereotypes, can be counteracted during sleep. Researchers used an implicit association test (IAT) to assess people’s biases and then manipulated those biases by reversing stereotypes. During participants’ nap in the lab, specific sounds were played to reactivate the memories of the intervention. The study suggests that consolidating memories during sleep can lead to a shift in implicit attitudes and potentially result in changes in explicit attitudes and behavior. However, more research is needed to understand the long-term effects and generalizability of these changes.

* Profiles of students and postdocs in the lab

Norah Wolk — Cognitive Neuroscience Society Newsletter (April 2023)

Norah Wolk, a high school student, successfully collaborated with scientists from Northwestern University on a research project involving mindfulness and memory activation during sleep. Through her collaboration with postdoctoral researcher Remington Mallett, Wolk was able to visit the lab, work with participants, and present her findings at the CNS 2023 conference. The study aimed to trigger higher-order cognition to induce lucid dreaming during sleep. Wolk’s experience surpassed her expectations, and she expressed gratitude for the supportive research community and the opportunity to connect with passionate scientists

Gabriela Torres Platas — Mind & Life Grantee (March 2023)

What can we learn from the images and symbols encountered in our dreams? What lessons can we take with us from sleep to our waking life? Such questions, and years of personal spiritual exploration, drew Varela grantee Gabriela Torres Platas to the practice of Tibetan Dream Yoga.

Kelsey Gradwohl — Scoring Points on the Field and in the Lab (Nov 2015)

Kelsey Gradwohl, a psychology major at Northwestern University, conducted research in the cognitive neuroscience lab during her junior year. Her work focused on memory retention techniques during sleep. She combined two techniques, called Targeted Memory Reactivation and spindle induction, and tested their effectiveness on participants. Gradwohl’s research has potential implications for improving memory, such as aiding individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. She emphasizes the importance of not sacrificing sleep for better learning outcomes. Gradwohl plans to write her senior thesis on this research and pursue medical school.

Karen Konkoly — NSF Scientist Selfie (March 2021)

Neuroscientist Karen Konkoly gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the science of achieving real-time dialogue with someone asleep and dreaming in this latest video from our Scientist Selfie series.

Geshe Thabkhe — Snow Lion (Dec 2023)

A Tibetan monastic scholar at the intersection of the ongoing dialogue between Buddhism and modern science.