Can you do maths in your sleep?

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Health / Myths / Psychology

Imagine waking up in the morning, drunk with sleep, and remembering a wonderful dream. But what if you’d been aware you were dreaming and you could have interacted with your surroundings while you were asleep? Recently, and for the very first time, researchers revealed that this is in fact possible: they were able to communicate with people who were asleep and dreaming.

Share the love: this post was written by University of Melbourne Science Communication student Isolde Gottwald.

A woman is asleep and part of her face and brown hair is visible - her head is on a brown pillow and she os covered by a brown blanket. Part of a window covered by a brown blind is visible behind the pillow.
What goes on in your dreams? Image by Lux Graves on Unsplash.

The nature of dreams and sleep

What makes dream research so complex is the delay between someone dreaming, and reporting what they remember of the dream, which is often also distorted. You can probably relate to having a fragmentary picture of your dreams as soon as you wake up. While asleep, you’re generally unaware of your surrounding environment and unable to perceive or respond to anything going on around you. When you sleep deeply for example, you normally don’t notice when someone opens the door or quietly walks past. Some of you might have experienced what is called lucid dreaming: being aware of the fact you’re dreaming and being able to control your dream. What emerges as a promising strategy in dream research is the investigation of lucid dreamers. According to a new study, lucid dreamers (might) have the potential to perceive and respond to the world around them.

Every second person has dreamt, or will dream, lucidly at some point in their lives. Whereas only about 20% of us experience lucid-dreams regularly. We normally have many different dreams each night. The most vivid dreams occur during a specific recurring sleep phase, which is called the REM phase. REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement and deserves its name: while we sleep our bodies are paralysed, which means that we can’t move. Instead, only our breathing muscles and eyes move – rapidly. This is the sleep stage of sleep the researchers had a closer look at.

How to enter someone’s dreams

Four research groups from France, Germany, the Netherlands, and US independently investigated 36 people –  some of whom had experienced lucid dreaming – but all of whom remembered at least one of their dreams each week. Researchers first helped the participants to experience a lucid dream, and then trained them to recognise if they were dreaming lucidly. There are a  number of techniques to learn lucid dreaming, and most of them focus on developing the ability to regularly ask yourself if you’re currently dreaming. 

In this study, participants had to look quickly from left to right while asleep to indicate they were lucid dreaming. The researchers then gave the study participants instructions on how to respond to simple questions while asleep. Some of them were trained to answer in facial muscle expressions or eye movements that matched Morse code. They used simple yes or no questions, as well as easy maths problems.

Surprisingly, – and this can certainly be considered a breakthrough in dream research – 20% were able to give correct answers. They not only recognised the questions and processed the information, but also responded in the way they’d been taught. But the 20% only included people who experienced lucid dreams. 

If you’re wondering about the sort of maths problems some of the lucid dreamers were able to solve, here’s an example: eight minus six. A 19-year-old American participant gave the correct answer by moving his eyes twice from the left to the right. To be sure that this was not simply a coincidence, scientists asked the question a second time and the participant again responded correctly. These eye movements were clearly different from classic eye movements during REM sleep. What makes these findings so remarkable is that in each of the four labs involved in the study, the researchers had a real-time dialogue with the sleeping study participants.

Who is narrating your dreams?

When the participants were awake again, the experimenters asked them about their dreams. Someone remembered they had heard the questions coming from the radio playing in their dreams. Another reported that ‘In my dream, I was at a party and I heard you asking questions. I heard your voice as if you were a God. Your voice was coming from the outside, just like a narrator of a movie.’ Many reported that they perceived the questions as being somehow integrated into their dreams. 

These findings deliver groundbreaking insights into dream research and highlight its potential. Scientists believe that interactive dreaming could help people dealing with anxiety, trauma or depression. It could also inspire artists and writers and promote creativity. Because of its magic and fascinating aspects, dreaming has been studied for a really long time, dating back to Aristotle. This research brings us closer to a deeper understanding of dreams and new ways to investigate them.

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