If you frequently wake up drenched in sweat after dreaming about being chased by zombies or appearing naked onstage, there may be a way out. A new study suggests that mild current applied to the scalp while sleeping can help people become aware of, and even control, their dreams—a phenomenon called lucid dreaming. Researchers recruited 27 men and women to spend several nights in a German sleep lab. After the volunteers had plunged into REM sleep, a state in which people are unable to move and the most vividly recalled dreams occur, researchers applied electrical current to their skulls near the forehead and temples. This boosted neural activity in the frontotemporal cortex, a brain region associated with conscious self-awareness, which normally gets tamped down during REM. Researchers then woke the participants and asked them to detail any dreams they could remember. People who received electrical current with an oscillation frequency of 40 Hz were lucid in more than 70% of their reported dreams, the team reports online today in Nature Neuroscience. One participant reported dreaming of lemon cake, then of a famous German actor. As she began to talk to the star, she realized, “Oops! You are dreaming.” None of the participants reported being lucid during dreams they had while receiving very low, or “sham,” stimulation, in which current-conducting pads were attached to the skull but no current was applied. The researchers suggest that the technique could potentially be used to help people who suffer from chronic nightmares.
*Correction, 14 May, 1:35 p.m.: This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that participants received electrical current with an oscillation frequency of 40 Hz. An earlier version incorrectly implied that current is measured in hertz, when it is actually measured in amperes.