Ever since the 18th century, when Luigi Galvani discovered that sparks cause severed frog legs to jump, humans have been experimenting with electrophysiology. Buzzing and zapping with low level currents yielded a significant scientific bounty, from cardiac defibrillators and pace makers to treating issues relating to circulation and pain management. Earlier this year, electrical stimulation was shown to accelerate wound healing. And scientists have been using shocks to induce vivid dream states, which begs the question: Could electricity be the stuff Inception is made of?
The brain has always been an appealing target for electrophysiologists: Right before the new milenium, neuroscientist Michael A. Persinger and psychologist Stanley Koren developed the God Helmet, a magnetic device that sat on people's heads and stimulated brain lobes in a way that, the scientists said, triggered out-of-body or spiritual experiences.
Trippy stuff, and, as is the case with many experimental brain technologies, it generated a bit of controversy along with its magnetic fields. Of course, it also inspired other scientists to experiment, and in 2014, a team of psychologists led by Ursula Voss, a sleep scientist at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, proposed that gamma wave stimulation — sending low-level electrical impulses that match the brain’s natural oscillations — leads to conscious awareness in dreams.
And, well, it worked: “We showed that the current actually reaches the brain,” she says, “and we have reason to believe that the stimulation enhances the natural fronto-temporal 40 Hz activity of the brain.”
What that means is Voss and her colleagues stimulated the scalps of 27 sleeping volunteers — none of whom reported lucid dreaming in the past — using a wide range of frequencies. Over a period of four nights, the scientists applied either a low current zap or a fake stimulation to the volunteers as they entered REM sleep. At bands of 40 Hz, and with a slightly less potent effect at 25 Hz, the volunteers reported slightly higher than average dissociation (a sense of the third-person perspective), control and awareness that they were dreaming.
Now, just because the volunteers were more aware of their dreams doesn’t necessarily mean that they experienced lucid dreaming. “I would not say that they are equivalent,” Voss says. “Rather, they are similar.”
The trickiness lies in the definition of lucid. “There are so many attempts out there to define lucid and most of them are not scientifically sound,” says Voss.
For this reason, she and her team have developed a lucidity in dreams scale, called LuCiD. And this is what they found: lucid dreaming is characterized by heightened insight, control and dissociation. “Whether or not we were able to capture the phenomenological experience of being in a lucid dream is another question,” says Voss. “A good one.”
Voss continues to use low current electrical stimulation, but in a psychiatric hospital for patients with depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia.
“We have been most successful with OCD patients but haven't published results, as of yet — we are too busy with treatments.” Scalp stimulation still occurs at 40 Hz, though not while the patients are asleep. “Lucid dreaming research is off mainstream,” says Voss, noting that her original study took three years to complete. “It’s difficult to get funding and it is time intensive.”
Beyond the lab, a few consciousness enthusiasts have attempted to jolt noggins into altered dreaming states. Ryan Hurd, who provides resources on how to lucid dream for his DreamStudies.org website, referenced the foc.us, a new device that claims to improve both cognitive abilities and the chances of lucid dreaming. (On its website, foc.us leans heavily on Voss’ study to support its lucid dreaming claims.) This is only the first or second attempt at mass-marketing a brain stimulator, Hurd says, and the technology has not yet been tested in large numbers of people or over long periods of time.
Machines that directly apply transcranial currents are not toys, as neuroscientists warned in a September 2013 editorial in the journal Nature. But despite the caution, Hurd believes foc.us and other such brain stimulators could gain traction among dreamers. “People who want to lucid dream will do about anything, though, so it probably will fly,” he says.
But Hurd, as a consumer, says he would not be inclined to use this technology and expect results, as all the evidence to support beneficial brain stimulation has been done in the controlled research confines. Voss was more blunt in her recommendation. “I know that there are devices out there that you can purchase,” she says. “Would I recommend it? No. Electrical stimulation should always be administered under supervision of a physician.”
In other words: get your buzz elsewhere.