Doing the Impossible with Lucid Dreaming

Have you ever had a dream where you are aware that you’re in a dream and suddenly can control your actions and surroundings? If you have not, keep dreaming. But if you have, you have experienced the phenomenon referred to as lucid dreaming, made popular by the sci-fi thriller “Inception” where Leonardo DiCaprio enters people’s dream to interact with the dreamers. 

Last month, scientists from the USA, Germany, France, and the Netherlands published a paper and a YouTube video, explaining how they were able to interact in real-time with lucid dreamers while they’re lucid dreaming. What sounds impossible is now a reality. 

During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the international team hooked a total of 36 participants up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure brain waves, an electrooculogram (EOG) to record eye movements, and an electromyography (EMG) to measure electrical activity in the muscles. Each team used different procedures, summarized in the table below. 

Team Participants Lucid Dreaming
TasksOutput Signals
USAPeople who remembered
≥1 dream/week
Targeted lucidity reactivationSpoken math questionsEye movement
GermanyExperienced lucid dreamersWake-back-to-bed methodMath questions indicated
by tone and lights
Eye movement
FranceAn experienced lucid
dreamer with narcolepsy
Spontaneous lucid dreamingSpoken yes/no questions; discrimination of tactile,
speech and light stimuli
Facial muscle contraction
The NetherlandsPeople who remembered
≥3 dreams/week with ≥1 lucid dreams
Targeted lucidity reactivationSpoken math questionsEye movement
Summary of different procedures across 4 independent labs.

The results showed that the teams achieved only 18.4% of clear and correct communication with the dreamers, 3.2% incorrect responses, 17.7% ambiguous responses, and up to 60.8% with no response at all. Even though it is difficult to achieve the desired responses, the results show that it is possible to engage advanced cognitive abilities while dreaming. One possible application is tailoring the dream to an individual’s specific need such as overnight therapy to lessen the effect of trauma, promoting creativity for artists and writers, gaining new knowledge, and of course, entertainment. 

The Lucid Artist | Psychology Today
“Conscious in the Unconscious” mixed media collage, Clare R. Johnson

The co-author of the paper and cognitive neuroscientist Ken Paller stresses that changing people’s thoughts during dreams is not yet possible. But for now, I’m excited about the possibility. Maybe one day, we can all be just like Leonardo DiCaprio. 

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