How electric currents can help sleepers control their dreams

 A young boy asleep in his father's lap

New technique could be used to help people with PTSD who have recurring nightmares, say scientists

LAST UPDATED AT 12:03 ON Mon 12 May 2014

SCIENTISTS in Germany have developed a way for people to control their own dreams: electric currents pumped directly into the brain.

Researchers at the JW Goethe University in Frankfurt have been zapping volunteers with electric currents as they sleep to increase gamma brainwave activity.

The results found that this increased "lucid dreaming", in which the person becomes aware that they are asleep and can gain some element of control over their dream. "For example, the dreamer could make a threatening character disappear or decide to fly to an exotic location," explains New Scientist, comparing the findings to the Leonardo DiCaprio film Inception.

The Frankfurt team studied 27 sleeping volunteers, subjecting them to electrical stimulation at different frequencies ranging between two and 100 hertz for two minutes, or a treatment that had no effect on the brain. The participants were then woken up and asked to rate their dream consciousness.

Lucid dreaming increased when volunteers received stimulation at a frequency of 40 hertz, which caused an increase in gamma brainwave activity. Much higher and lower frequencies of stimulation, outside of the gamma range, had no effect on lucid dreaming.

The research, published in Nature, suggests the gamma wave moves back and forth between the primary consciousness, which relates to simple emotions and sensory perceptions, and the secondary consciousness, which involves being aware that we are aware.

The findings are the first to show that inducing brain waves of a specific frequency produces lucid dreaming, reports Reuters.

The team, led by Dr Ursula Voss, hopes that the technique might help people with post-traumatic stress disorder who suffer with recurring nightmares. "Perhaps by triggering lucid dreaming, people with PTSD can take control of their dreams and make them less frightening. That's what we are looking at now," said Voss. · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.