the science of dreams

These Lucid-Dreaming Companies Want to Help You Control Your Dreams

Photo: Steve Coleman/Getty Images

Dreams are strange, misunderstood things. This week, Science of Us will be exploring the latest research that helps explain what they are, what they might mean, and how they affect our waking lives.

“You’re literally selling people their dreams,” said Daniel Schoonover. He sounded glum.

Five years ago, Schoonover co-founded iWinks, a start-up that hopes to change the way people dream. Two years later, he dropped out of a cognitive-science Ph.D. program and raised a quarter of a million dollars on Kickstarter. This fall, the company is shipping the first batch of its Aurora Dreamband — an EEG-equipped, smartphone-sync-able headband that you wear while you sleep. The device, which costs $300, claims to make it easier for people to take control of their dreams.

Schoonover, though, has reason to sound glum: In the past few years, the market for lucid-dream hacks has heated up, and the Aurora Dreamband currently has competition all over the world. In Novosibirsk, on the steppes of western Siberia, a Ukrainian-run start-up purports to use low-powered electrical current to unlock higher levels of consciousness during sleep. A Dutch company is now accepting preorders for a very similar device. An LED-equipped sleep mask for lucid dreaming, developed by a Brooklyn-based company, pulled in $600,000 on Kickstarter in 2012. Meanwhile, in Utah, two brothers are selling a cocktail of over-the-counter psychoactives that they claim will help “increase human consciousness through the medium of dreams.”

For most people, lucid dreams — in which the dreamer becomes aware that she’s dreaming — are rare, and they tend to be fleeting. These new tools aim to change that, enabled by self-tracking enthusiasm, cheaper components, and breakthroughs in lucid-dream research. Their claims probably won’t all hold up. But the potential is real — and part of a larger shift in the way we may come to think about reality, both while awake and while asleep.

* * *

What’s going on inside your head during a lucid dream? Basically, it seems to be a hybrid between wakefulness and sleep. “Lucidity must depend on achieving a state that is intermediate between normal sleep, where memory for dreams is practically nil, and being awake,” explained Allan Hobson, a professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School who studies consciousness and the dreaming brain. During a normal, non-lucid, REM-state dream, most of your memory-formation and conscious-reflection faculties are dormant. In a lucid dream, on the other hand, “you raise the activation of your frontal lobes,” which control those abilities, “almost to the point of waking,” said Hobson.

Let’s get this out of the way: Some people chase lucidity because they want to have fantasy dream sex. Many others want to fly. But seasoned practitioners talk about more ethereal experiences, too — lucid dreamers have claimed to explore phantasmagoric landscapes, reconstruct traumatic experiences, even conjure up the dead. “Dreaming is a kind of meditation, you could say. It’s a kind of self-observation,” said Glenn Mullin, a self-described Tibetologist and meditation expert who teaches lucid dreaming around the world.

Lucid dreaming has been tangled up with meditative practices for a long time. More than a thousand years ago, tantric experts in South Asia started codifying esoteric techniques of dream control. Over the centuries, those techniques, known as dream yoga, have been passed down among a handful of Tibetan Buddhist and Bön practitioners. Students of dream yoga meditate on the illusory nature of waking reality and visualize certain potent images in the moments before sleep. In their dreams, they aim to experiment with the experience of reality, conjure up Buddhas, and travel to sacred lands.

“One can project oneself on the rays of the sun or moon to a celestial realm,” the 14th-century Tibetan teacher Tsongkhapa wrote in The Three Inspirations, a guide to dream yoga and other esoteric practices.When a dangerous situation arises, Tsongkhapa suggests, “recognize the dream as a dream and ask yourself, ‘How can dream water or dream fire possibly harm me?’ Make yourself jump or fall into the water or fire in the dream.”

Lucid dreaming began to make its way into Western science in the 1970s, when Keith Hearne, a psychology Ph.D. student at the University of Liverpool, and Alan Worsley, an experienced lucid dreamer, began measuring Worsley’s brain waves and eye movements in a sleep lab.

Hearne asked Worsley to make a distinctive zigzagging eye movement if he became lucid in a dream (the body is paralyzed during REM sleep, the stage of the sleep cycle when most dreaming occurs, but the eyeballs continue to move). Early one morning in 1975, Hearne was sitting in the lab, watching Worsley snooze, when his brain waves shifted. “There was REM. And then suddenly, zigzag zigzag zigzag — the movements came out!” By every normal measure, Worsley was fast asleep, but he was speaking to Hearne with his eyeballs. “It was like getting signaled from another planet — another universe, even,” Hearne says.

Hearne didn’t publish his work in a scientific journal, but a few years later a graduate student at Stanford, Stephen LaBerge, performed a similar study, with similar results. LaBerge left academia and started writing lucid-dream books, teaching courses, and peddling an early head-mounted dream gadget. His work forms the basis for many of today’s start-ups.

But the market received one of its biggest boosts a few years ago, when researchers hit on a potential way to induce lucidity in dreamers. During lucid dreams, brain activity produces an electrical signature in the 40-Hz range. A 2014 study by the German dream researcher Ursula Voss and colleagues (including Hobson) found that applying a 40-Hz current to a dreamer’s head could significantly raise the likelihood of the sleeper becoming lucid.

The commercial response was swift. Lucid Dreamer, the Dutch start-up, is raising money on Kickstarter for a device that claims to apply this golden frequency to your brain. The gadget consists of a small plastic box that sits on your forehead like a phylactery. Four wires snake from the box, each ending in a small electrode. You strap the thing to your head before bed, affixing the electrodes to your forehead and behind your ears. Luciding, Inc., the Novosibirsk-based company, claims to do the same thing with LucidCatcher, an electronics-loaded fabric sheath that you wrap around your head. Luciding’s COO, Maryna Vermishian, said that they shipped the first 40 headbands earlier this year.

For customers who aren’t keen on bedroom transcranial stimulation, the dream market offers other options. Tools like the Aurora Dreamband sense when you’re entering REM sleep, and then offer a cue (such as a flashing light or a chime) that, in theory, is strong enough to work its way into your dream, but gentle enough that it won’t wake you up. Remee, the LED-equipped sleep mask designed in Brooklyn, uses the cuing principle. The iWinks device is a little fancier: It tracks your brain activity, your eye movement, your heart rate, and your muscle tension, using “high fidelity full color spectrum eye LEDs” to trigger your dreaming mind at the right moment. (A few early consumer dream machines operated on this principle, but they tended to be clunky and, by more than one report, ineffective.)

And then there are the drugs. Not so long ago, a man named Connor Southworth was selling real estate in Utah and messing with chemistry on the side. He and his brother Alex, both longtime lucid dreamers, had become interested in research on lucid-dream induction — especially the work of an amateur pharmacologist in Ohio named Thomas Yuschak, who claimed that certain chemicals could induce lucid dreaming. The Southworth brothers don’t have any scientific training, but they started ordering compounds, mixing up supplements, and testing the cocktails on themselves and their friends. When they found a mixture they liked, they went online, found a supplement manufacturer in California, and started selling bottles of a Matrix-themed pill, Dream Leaf.

Connor wouldn’t give me exact figures for their sales. “Many thousands,” he said. Within three years after founding Dream Leaf, overwhelmed by the demand, they sold part of the company to investors who could help them handle marketing and sales.

So does any of this stuff work? There’s strong evidence that just thinking about lucid dreaming can help induce lucid dreaming, even without all the bells and whistles — so how much of this is just an expensive placebo effect?

At this point, it’s hard for consumers to tell, as none of these start-ups has done rigorous research to test the effectiveness of their products. Schoonover, who has spent much of the past decade working in brain labs, said that iWinks is planning to run a blind test on some of their beta users, and that it will be gathering large amounts of sleep data and user feedback. Southworth admitted that he had no laboratory evidence that the supplement works (and, as with other over-the-counter supplements, Dream Leaf is subject to virtually no regulatory oversight). Vermishian, the Luciding COO, said that they had run a controlled experiment to test the device and gotten great results — but when I pressed her for details, it quickly became clear that their sample size was just a few people.

Vermishian spoke to me by Skype from a TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco, where she was hoping to raise half a million dollars in seed money. She explained that the company’s ultimate goal is to allow people to visit each other in dreams, something she terms a “group lucid dream,” though she didn’t offer any engineering details as to how these hangouts might happen. She allowed that “there’s no official evidence” that people can meet up in dreams, but “the community of lucid dreamers report a lot of such cases” already.

Scientists are skeptical about many of these products. When I asked Voss about Luciding’s attempt to adapt her research for the market, she wrote in an email: “I see a big potential for misapplication. After all, we are electrically stimulating the brain! This should be done with greatest caution and it should be supervised by an MD.” (Vermishian says that LucidCatcher is safe). One of Voss’s collaborators, Romain Holzmann, cautioned in an email that “the stimulator device was medical-grade” and that “all effects quoted in the publication are statistical averages over a large sample of subjects, meaning that some persons showed effects, some not.”

Hobson, the Harvard professor, was more blunt. “I think that people that are trying to huckster this technique are misguided, and I think they’re playing into a sort of ecstasy-seeking state that [is] not really easily achievable or particularly beneficial,” he said. “Buying a device is not going to help you, in my opinion, relative to just paying attention. Paying attention is the hardest thing for people to do. They want a quick fix. They want a solution, they want a drug, they want a device on lucid dreaming.”

Instead, Hobson recommends keeping a dream diary and following the simple self-observation techniques outlined in a 1921 book, Studies in Dreams. Keeping a dream journal can help you remember your dreams, and dream recall is closely associated with lucidity. Waking up in the middle of the night and then falling back to sleep makes you likelier to become lucid. And auto-suggestion — i.e., telling yourself before bed to be mindful when you’re dreaming — can be pretty effective for inducing lucid dreams, too.

Still, it’s easy to understand the appeal of gadgets. Sifting through the crowdfunding appeals and marketing videos, the whole genre of lucid-dreaming tools starts to feel like a dispatch from a sci-fi novel, capturing the simultaneous potential and dystopia of a world without limits.

“You could use your time in dreams to do anything! Climb Everest. Battle a dragon. Or explore distant planets,” says iWinks’s Kickstarter appeal. Lucid Dreamer, the Dutch transcranial-stimulation start-up, claims that its product allows users to “dive to the bottom of the ocean without even having to breathe” or “celebrate life with friends on a tropical island every night.”

This is techno-utopianism at its finest: Take a messy human experience, offer a gadget to tame it, and promise mind-blowing results. In a consumer culture that’s increasingly obsessed with tracking and optimizing the body (like Fitbit) and with technology-induced fantasies (like Oculus Rift), the pursuit of lucid dreams seems almost inevitable. “It’s like virtual reality in your head,” said Vermishian.

In fact, the connection to VR may be more than just a metaphor. Jayne Gackenbach, a dream researcher at MacEwan University in Canada, has spent more than a decade exploring the link between video gaming and dream lucidity. Her latest work, involving the Oculus Rift, comes to a similar conclusion as her work with conventional gamers: Spending a lot of time in virtual space seems to make gamers better at taking control of their dreams.

More than other people, Gackenbach said, gamers are “used to walking in and out of reality.” A VR headset seems to only intensify that effect. Gackenbach’s subjects “become much more likely to call [a dream] lucid once they’ve had this experience with the Rift,” she said.

“As [VR] becomes more and more pervasive, yeah, I think we’ll have more lucid dreaming,” Gackenbach added. Already, virtual-reality enthusiasts are talking about how it messes with their dreams. And already, digital experiences are starting to seem like lucid dreams — intense, immersive, and open to manipulation. With so many dream tools hitting the market just as VR and augmented reality are gaining popularity, it is possible that dreaming life will become more wakeful as waking life becomes more dreamlike.

Hack Your Dreams With These Crazy Lucid-Dreaming Inventions