It appears that applying an electrical current to your brain not only boosts your cognitive powers, but it can also help you obtain the mystical ability of lucid dreaming, where you can control the plot and outcome of your dreams. These findings come from a new study that found that lucid dreaming could be induced in a full 70% of participants, with a simple (external) electrical current passed across the frontal lobe. This has obvious applications for body hackers — but perhaps more importantly it may have a medical use, too, in helping people who suffer from chronic nightmares.
A lucid dream, if you haven’t heard of the phrase before, is a dream where you know that you’re dreaming. So the theory goes, if you’re aware that you’re dreaming, you can then exert some kind of control over your brain’s imagination, resulting in some very fun, wild, and vivid dreams. Some people report being naturally lucid dreamers, while body hackers try to artificially induce a lucid dream state with various different techniques (mostly involving meditation or setting an alarm for a few hours after you fall asleep). Scientifically, some studies have shown that during lucid dreaming there’s increased activity in your brain’s frontal and parietal (top/side) lobes — regions of the brain that are involved with higher-level conscious thought. Skeptics think that lucid dreaming is more like small snippets of wakefulness interspersed with normal REM dreaming, rather than a bona fide dream state.
In this study, the researchers — mostly from a bunch of universities in Germany — asked 27 men and women to spend a few nights sleeping in a special sleep lab in Germany. After the participants entered REM sleep, where most dreaming occurs, an electric current was passed across their skull, stimulating the front and temporal lobes. The researchers found that when the electrical current was a very specific frequency — between 25 and 40Hz — a full 70% of participants experienced lucid dreams. When no current was present, or the wrong frequency, not a single participant had a lucid dream. [doi:10.1038/nn.3719 - "Induction of self awareness in dreams through frontal low current stimulation of gamma activity"]
This research strongly indicates that a) higher-order consciousness is intrinsically linked to these frequencies between 25 and 40Hz, and b) lucid dreaming is triggered and controlled by the regions of your brain that govern consciousness and self-awareness. That particular block of 25-40Hz is usually considered a “typical” gamma wave, reinforcing the theory that gamma waves — the synchronous firing of neurons at that frequency of around 40Hz — is what gives humans their higher-level functions.
The study didn’t tackle the topic of whether you are technically asleep or not during (induced) lucid dreams (but to be honest, it doesn’t really matter at this point — if it gives you the ability to control your dreams, and it feels like you’re dreaming, then who cares?) It’s also important to note that this was a very short-term study — the long-term effects of regularly inducing a lucid sleep state are not yet known.
Medically, the only immediate application for the study is the treatment of chronic nightmares, where being able to steer your imagination away from hellish thoughts would be a rather fine thing. For body hackers, it should be fairly easy to set up some kind of EEG that detects when you enter REM sleep, and then to provide an electrical current at 40Hz. Cheap USB EEGs have been available for a couple of years now, and a standard tDCS headset could be modified to provide the necessary current/frequency. Obviously I can’t recommend that you try it at home. But I probably will.