In a pioneering study that sounds straight out of a science fiction novel, researchers from California startup REMspace have successfully demonstrated two-way control of a virtual object by individuals in the midst of a lucid dream. This groundbreaking experiment, which involved five participants, revealed that people can not only control virtual environments in their dreams but also respond to feedback within those dreams, marking a significant step towards the realization of productive or therapeutic activities during sleep.
The study has been accepted for publication in the International Journal of Dream Research.
Lucid dreaming, the phenomenon where dreamers become aware that they are dreaming and can sometimes control their dreams, has fascinated scientists and the public alike for decades. The term was first coined in 1913 by Dutch psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden, but it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that lucid dreaming was verified in laboratory conditions.
Since then, the interest in lucid dreaming has skyrocketed, with research expanding into how these dream states can affect waking life, from improving mental health to enhancing problem-solving skills. The team at REMspace was motivated by the potential to harness the untapped hours we spend asleep, envisioning a future where people can interact with computers or solve tasks in their dreams, much like scenes from the movie “Inception.”
The researchers have previously demonstrated that lucid dreamers can potentially transmit musical melodies from their dreams to reality in real time. In their new study, they focused on expanding the scope of communication between the dream state and the waking world by exploring the ability of lucid dreamers to engage in complex problem-solving tasks while dreaming.
“We all live in two realms, physical reality and dreams. I think it’s time to connect these two worlds together. Experiments like this demonstrate that it is possible. As the first step, we needed to see it by ourselves,” said Michael Raduga, the lead author of the study and CEO of REMspace.
The study involved five participants, all experienced in lucid dreaming techniques, including two of the study’s authors. These individuals were chosen for their ability to enter and control their dream states consciously. The experiment required participants to spend one to four nights in a sleep lab. Here, they were outfitted with electrodes that measured muscle activity (electromyography or EMG) and devices that could transmit light signals.
Initially, participants were trained while awake to control a virtual car (a Tesla Cybertruck) by tensing their muscles—a contraction of the biceps or forearm muscles would steer the car, while tensing the quadriceps would drive it forward. The car’s virtual environment included obstacles, which, when encountered, triggered light signals through diodes. These signals, tailored to each participant’s sensitivity, were designed to be perceivable even with closed eyes, instructing the dreamer to turn the car away from obstacles.
Once asleep, the real challenge began. The participants aimed to replicate this control within their lucid dreams. Upon successfully entering a lucid dream—verified by a series of pre-agreed eye movements to signal consciousness within the dream—they attempted to navigate the virtual car, responding to obstacles as they had trained. The dreamers’ muscle movements, picked up by the EMG sensors, were translated into movements of the virtual car on a screen, observed in real-time by the research team.
Over the course of the study, the participants induced 18 lucid dreams, with attempts to control the virtual car made in 12 of these instances. Despite some technical hiccups, the researchers recorded 12 successful moves and 28 appropriate turns in response to obstacles within the virtual environment.
Detailed accounts from the participants revealed varied experiences, with some managing straightforward navigation and others facing challenges such as malfunctioning equipment or difficulty in generating detectable muscle signals. Despite these hurdles, the study confirmed the feasibility of two-way interaction within lucid dreams, opening up new avenues for exploration in dream control and its applications.
“The most exciting part of the experiment is that almost all lucid dreamers could do this (if they could fall asleep with all the cords, etc.). All we need is to build more convenient tech, and everybody could use it for different goals,” Raduga told PsyPost.
However, the study was not without its limitations. Participants sometimes struggled to send strong enough EMG signals from within the dream state, likely due to the natural muscle paralysis that occurs during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the sleep stage most associated with vivid dreaming. Additionally, technical issues with sensor sensitivity and placement occasionally hindered the experiment’s success. Moreover, ensuring that feedback signals (like the light indicating an obstacle) were detectable without waking the participant proved challenging.
Looking to the future, the REMspace team envisions a broad spectrum of applications for their findings. Beyond the realm of entertainment, the ability to interact with technology during lucid dreams could have therapeutic benefits, such as treating phobias or enhancing learning. The study lays the groundwork for more ambitious endeavors.
“The primary goal was to build this technology, create a proof of concept, and test it,” Raduga explained. “What for? We have a huge list of how we could use it with further developments. Now we are ready for even more advanced leaps forward.”
“For example, now we can connect dreamers with real physical objects and tech. We can change settings of different gadgets from within a dream, which is very important if we talk about gadgets that help to get into lucid dreams. Now it looks possible to connect to the Internet from dreams as well. And each of these opportunities has many perspectives by its own.”
“Though many researchers were aware that two-way communication from dreams with computers was possible in theory, all other people had no idea that it could go so far,” Raduga added. “There was no technology to demonstrate this lucid dreaming application. So, one of the goals was to demonstrate this two-way communication in general.”
The study, “Two-way control of a virtual avatar from lucid dreams“, was authored by Michael Raduga, Andrey Shashkov, and Andrey Vanin.