As you sleep, your brain cycles through four stages of sleep.

  • Stages 1 to 3 are what’s considered non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, also known as quiet sleep.
  • Stage 4 is rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, also known as active sleep or paradoxical sleep.

Each stage has a unique function and role in maintaining your brain’s overall cognitive performance. Some stages are also associated with physical repairs that keep you healthy and get you ready for the next day. The entire sleep cycle repeats itself several times (4 or 5 times in total) a night with every successive REM stage increasing in duration and depth of sleep. Most dreaming occurs during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which we cycle through periodically during the night. Sleep studies show our brain waves are almost as active during REM cycles as they are when we’re awake. Experts believe the brainstem generates REM sleep and the forebrain generates dreams.

Latest research suggests that some people who are in REM sleep and having lucid dreams—aware they are dreaming—can understand externally presented questions or simple math problems and respond accurately using eye movements or facial muscle contractions. Researchers in separate labs in the United States, France, Germany, and the Netherlands recruited a total of 36 participants who were trained to signal that they were having a lucid dream through a pattern of eye movements. The participants included people who had previously experienced lucid dreaming and those who had not. Standard physiological measures confirmed that participants were asleep. In response to yes/no questions and simple math problems communicated via voice, coded flashing lights, or tactile signals, six of the participants responded correctly using prearranged eye or facial movements.

This new type of communication is now referred to as ‘interactive dreaming.’ This new way of communication opens up many possibilities when it comes to researching dreams in the future. There are plans to study people’s cognitive skills while they are dreaming versus when they are awake. It also opens up a new way to verify the precision of dream reports from test subjects. Interactive dreaming might also prove useful outside the world of scientific research. It might offer a new method to cope with nightmares or improve techniques that aim to solve mental problems during sleep.

According to the investigators, it may be possible to develop methods for communicating with people while they are dreaming that is useful for training and therapeutic purposes as well as for research on dreaming itself.

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