The concept of lucid dreaming—knowing you're dreaming while it's happening, and in some cases, being able to control it—has always struck me as the ultimate stretch goal, like learning to write Chinese or having one last growth spurt. These things aren't ever going to happen, and neither is a scenario in which I would be able to control how I behave in my dreams.
See, I’m one of those people who remembers dreams about as often as my dog brushes his teeth. So it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll ever get to the point where I can will myself to move faster than the zombies that, from time to time, show up in my sleep.
Yet there may be hope.
The newest invention is called the Aurora, and unlike much of what's come on the market in the past few years, it’s not a mask. Instead, it's a headband, one equipped with sensors that track your brain’s EEG signals—the voltage fluctuations within its neurons. Through the sensors, which also measure eye movements, the Aurora claims to detect various stages of a person's sleep cycle. When the user falls into REM sleep, the headband goes into action, either flashing multicolored LED lights or playing audio cues of the wearer's choosing on a smart phone app linked to the device through Bluetooth.
If this sounds familiar, it's because over the past few years, a handful of startups have created souped-up versions of the old sleep mask designed to cue sleeping people when they’re dreaming, which, say the experts, is the critical step in being able to affect what they’re dreaming.
A year or so ago, a mask called the Remee—which set an array of red LED lights over a user's eyes—was a hot item. The person wearing the mask can select the display pattern of the lights and how long he or she expects to sleep, information the device uses to predict when the wearer is in REM sleep. When a person arrives at that stage in the cycle, the device's lights start flashing—the idea being with practice, the lights, an external element to the dream, could become a factor in how the dream unfolds.
One of the criticisms of the Remee is that it involves too much guesswork. Its red light display isn’t based on any actual evidence of what is going on in a person’s brain. And secondly, if the sleeper isn’t in REM, there’s a good chance the lights will startle him or her awake before entering a dreamscape.
The Aurora attempts to solve both of these issues. Since the Aurora is placed over the head, it's able to read both brain waves and eye movement—making it more effective, creators say, than an eyemask. Either of this device's cues—the flashing colored lights or the sound clips—should also be enough to alert a person that they’re dreaming without waking them up.
There isn't a lot of information about how the Aurora has tested, so far, but the device certainly has its fans. Nearly 1,500 people backed a Kickstarter campaign for the headband earlier this year, helping its creators raise just more than $239,000—two and a half times the initial goal.
The headband won't be available to those supporters until June. And for the rest of us, the expected cost of the Aurora is $175—about twice as much as some of its predecessors, like the Remee.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that someone wearing an Aurora headband will be able to rule their own Dreamland. Lucid dreaming, from what I'm told, takes a lot of practice.
That said, the possibilities of what we could do with the device are intriguing. The firm behind the headband, a company called iWinks, says it will make its API available to outside developers to see what other things they can get it to do. One notion that’s been floated: social lucid dreaming, which would involve two or more people wearing the device and syncing the signals so they enter into their dreams at the same time.
Here’s a little tutorial on lucid dreaming:
Field of dreams
Here is some other recent research related to sleep and dreams:
Forget me not: Neuroscientists in France say they think they know why some people remember many of their dreams and others hardly ever do. They’ve found that the former tend to wake up at night twice as often as people who don’t remember their dreams and that those people are more reactive to sounds both when they’re asleep and when they’re awake. They also determined that the part of the brain that acts like an information processing hub is more active in people who recall their dreams, which could make them more responsive to external stimuli. The researchers think that having a brain that is more reactive to sounds causes more wakeful periods at night; it is during these times that the brain memorizes dreams.
Nightmares don’t have to be scary: According to a recent study at the University of Montreal, nightmares are not all about fear. In fact, the researchers found that while fear was the most frequently reported emotion in nightmares and bad dreams, other primary emotions, such as anger, sadness and frustration, are part of almost half of upsetting dreams. The researchers also found that most nightmares, defined as disturbing dreams that wake you up, were more likely to contain scenes of physical aggression while bad dreams, which upset but don’t wake the dreamer, often involved interpersonal conflicts.
Trouble ahead?: Kids who have a lot of nightmares might be more at risk of developing mental health problems later in their lives. At least that’s what a team of British researchers concluded. They said their study suggested that children who had frequent nightmares before age 12 were three and a half times more likely to have psychotic experiences early in their teen years. But they did note that the research didn't prove that kids who have a lot of nightmares are destined to have emotional problems as teenagers.