Lucid dreaming is when a person is conscious that they are asleep. It’s a form of metacognition, of being aware of awareness. Some people could even control the dream when they’re in this state. So a team of researchers set out to discover the limits of awareness during lucid dreaming. In other words, they asked questions to lucid dreamers while they were sleeping — and the dreamers responded.
Can People Communicate in Dreams?
In separate experiments, scientists from France, the Netherlands, Germany, and the U.S. asked questions and sleepers would respond with subtle movements of their eyes and faces. “Since the ’80s, we’ve known that lucid dreamers can communicate out of dreams by using these signals,” says Karen Konkoly, a Ph.D. student at Northwestern University and an author on the study in Current Biology.  “But we were wondering, can we also communicate in dreams? Can we ask people questions that they could actually hear in their dreams that we could kind of have a more meaningful conversation?”
The results came from four labs and 36 participants, a mix of experienced lucid dreamers, and some who have never had a lucid experience but remember at least one dream a week. They were trained to make lucid dreaming more likely to happen, and how to interpret cues like sounds, lights, or finger taps, which the researchers used to try to communicate with them while they were asleep.
The researchers also taught them how to communicate responses through their facial movements. In REM sleep, when people dream most vividly, the body doesn’t move aside from the eyes and twitching. Special sensors looked out for these responses when the participants fell asleep and entered the state of REM.
Researchers would pose questions, like simple math equations. In one case, a 19-year-old American participant was asked what is 8 minus 6. Then he was able to move his eyes left to right twice to indicate “2”. They asked him the question again and he repeated the motion, proving that the communication was deliberate.
Car Radios and Narrator Voices
There were 158 questions asked during all of these trials and 18% of them resulted in the participants giving the right answers. For another 18% of the questions, it was unclear if they were responding or not. They gave the wrong answers 3% of the time. Moreover, for 61% of the questions, the participants didn’t give any response. “It is proof of concept,” says cognitive neuroscientist Benjamin Baird of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who was not involved with the study. “And the fact that different labs used all these different ways to prove it is possible to have this kind of two-way communication … makes it stronger.” 
What was even more interesting was how the participants heard the question as they were dreaming. The researchers explain, “Sometimes stimuli were perceived as coming from outside the dream, but other times, the stimuli emanated from elements of the dream, contextualized in a way that made sense in relation to ongoing dream content.” For instance, one person said the researcher’s math questions came from a car radio. Another was at a party when the researcher asked if he spoke Spanish, like a narrator speaking over a film.
Using Dreams to Heal Trauma and Inspire Creativity
Now, the researchers hope their findings could help people suffering from lucid nightmares. “Almost everything that’s known about dreams has relied on retrospective reports given when the person is awake and these can be distorted,” says Konkoly. Therefore, this technique may help influence the dreams of people suffering from trauma, depression, and anxiety.
It may also help create a new way to develop creative ideas or learn new skills. “People often use lucid dreaming or dreaming for a kind of artistic, creative inspiration,” Konkoly says. “But in that dream state, your resources thus far are only the ones that you have in the dream.” But if awake people can communicate with those asleep, they can “combine those logical advantages of wake with the creative advantages of dreams and maybe have some more applications.” 
Robert Stickgold, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, called the study groundbreaking. “The retrospective nature of dream reports represents a challenge to the study of dreams. Two-way, real-time communication between researchers and lucid dreamers immersed in REM sleep offers a new and exciting window into the study of dreams and dreaming,” Stickgold said. But how these findings will extend to further understandings and real-life applications remains to be seen. 
- “Real-time dialogue between experimenters and dreamers during REM sleep.” Current Biology. Karen R. Konkoly. February 18, 2021
- “Scientists entered people’s dreams and got them ‘talking’.” Science. Sofia Moutinho. February 18, 2021
- “Scientists Talked To People In Their Dreams. They Answered.” NPR. James Doubek. February 27, 2021
- “Lucid dreamers can hear and answer questions while still asleep, scientists find.” Live Science. Patrick Pester. February 18, 2021