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“Sometimes, I’ll jump out of the window and fly around a city, surf on a whale, or eat a biscuit, and it’ll be the best chocolate biscuit I’ve ever had,” says Dan Wright, a 42-year-old graphic artist from Bristol. Wright is describing the events that have occurred within his lucid dreams – a phenomenon where the dreamer becomes aware they are dreaming, and can exert some control over what happens.
“As I got older, and became a dad, I realised I wouldn’t get to do some of the stuff I always wanted to do – like snowboarding, or going on a six-week holiday,” Wright says of his decision to learn how to control his dreams. “Now, I can do those things in my sleep.“
To cope with the boredom of lockdown, Wright has been experimenting with his dreams more frequently, enrolling in an online lucid dreaming course last year. And he certainly isn’t the only person seeking out this kind of escapism: ‘lucid dreaming’ saw a significant spike in online searches over the first lockdown, coinciding with the epidemic of weird dreams triggered by Covid-19.
Around 55 per cent of people have experienced one or more lucid dreams in their lifetime. But regular lucid dreams are rarer: about 23 per cent of people have them once a month or more. As most seasoned lucid dreamers will confirm, controlling our dreams is no easy feat: it requires time, practice and dedication. For decades, though, tech companies have sought to offer a quick fix, with devices that produce visual or tactile stimulation when sleepers enter the REM (rapid eye movement) phase of sleep.
The red flashing lights of the Remee machine, for instance, might be incorporated into the dream as the flashing lights of a dreamt fire truck and act as a reminder to the sleeper that they are dreaming. Other, less common devices ‘zap’ the brain with mild electrical currents to stimulate certain parts of the brain related to critical thinking, in an attempt to “wake” the sleeper up and make them realise they are dreaming. But some sleep experts warn that these devices don’t live up to their promises, and that people risk doing damage to their physical and mental health by experimenting with them.
The emergence of these devices dates back to the 1990s, when scientists observed that shining lights on a participants face during the REM period correlated with more lucid dreams. This led to the development of the first commercialised device to induce lucid dreams, the Nova Dreamer.
While the Nova Dreamer is no longer on the market, there has since been a flurry of devices which deploy similar technology promising to induce lucid dreams. Remee – a mask which supplies customisable light patterns fitted within a sleep mask to alert the brain – was launched in 2012 after raising $572,891 (£426,480) in a Kickstarter campaign. It is one of the devices that has attracted the most attention, and over lockdown, the product saw a significant spike in online searches.
But for most, Remee has not lived up to its promise of allowing users to “dream better”. The device has attracted swathes of negative reviews describing the product as “fundamentally useless”, “super uncomfortable”, with countless complaints that the device causes awakenings, and some complaining about sleep paralysis.
TikTok star Nate Turner, whose channel is devoted to teaching his 852,000 followers the art of lucid dreaming, uploaded a sponsored review of Remee to YouTube in early 2020. “Overall, this product is incredible when it comes to lucid dreaming,” he says in the video. However, speaking nine months later, he admits to having since changed his opinion on the product, saying it is unlikely to work on inexperienced lucid dreamers. “There are a lot of people just wanting to make money off a popular topic,” he says.
Wright is also sceptical of devices like Remee after trying a similar device called the REM Dreamer Pro when he was first attempting to lucid dream. He claims that it failed to produce any results other than disrupting his sleep for a month. “Especially because my brain is really stubborn, I realised I needed to put the work [to lucid dream] in,” says Wright. “There really are no shortcuts, or magic answers.”
Daniel Love, a leading lucid dreaming expert and oneirologist, claims to have tried virtually every device on the market. He says that the technology behind them hasn’t changed since they first emerged in the ‘90s. “The science behind them is very, very primitive,” he says.
Love is concerned that devices like Remee prey on people’s ignorance when it comes to the topic. “These devices go for a lot of money, but the technology is equivalent to something you might buy in a pound shop”.
“It’s a bit like strapping an alarm clock to your forehead – the idea is that it will interrupt your sleep,” Love continues. “Sleep is absolutely vital to one’s general health, but the producers of these devices rarely respect or acknowledge this.”
Love also highlights to the physical dangers these devices pose: “They amount to wearing a lithium battery close to one’s eyes, while unconscious, in a warm and moist environment… it’s a risk I’d not recommend taking. I imagine it’s only a matter of time until this combustible mixture of greed, exaggeration, and naivety result in some unpleasant outcomes.”
More than just misleading buyers, Love fears that bad experiences with devices like Remee could deter people from lucid dreaming altogether. This would deny them the host of rarely spoken about benefits that lucid dreaming may offer, which include everything from treating addiction, PTSD, and nightmare disorders and boosting memory.
Both Love and Turner argue that teaching yourself to lucid dream is a vital – and rewarding – part of the process. “It’s better to do it the traditional way in which you’re training your brain, and really building a skill, in the same way it’s better to lift weights naturally than to take a bunch of steroids,” says Turner.
But judging by the huge interest Remee and similar products have generated, it’s clear that the demand for a quick fix isn’t going anywhere soon. Some would-be lucid dreamers have even resorted to supplements which claim to increase dream lucidity, however these are not backed by scientific evidence and come with the risk of side effects.
Adam Haar Horowitz, a researcher at MIT, targets a different phase of sleep entirely. He says that devices on the market which focus exclusively on the REM stage – a more difficult state of sleep to detect – overlook the potential for lucidity and its benefits to “occur across different stages of sleep”.
Horowitz is the creator of sleep-tracking research device ‘Dormio’ which can alter dreams by tracking hypnagogia (the transitional state between wakefulness and sleep usually occurring in the first five minutes of sleep). “With Dormio, I wanted to include this overlooked state.” He says that inducing this semi-lucid dream state, or ‘hypnogiac microdreams’, could help with memory strengthening and creative inspiration.
Love is adamant, though that the hypnagogia is an entirely different state. “Unlike lucidity, hypnagogic hallucinations are a passive, and not the critical-thinking interactive VR of lucid dreaming,” he says. Horowitz disagrees, saying that there is the potential to be critical and reflective, comparing hypnogiac microdreams to “watching a movie you are making for yourself”.
Love argues that the hypnagogia does not occur in REM and is not dreaming in the medical sense. “This is a little like saying that the brief scent of cooking is the equivalent to cooking and eating a three-course meal”, says Love, “related, yes, the same thing, not at all.”
Achilleas Pavlou, a PhD student at the University of Essex specialising in lucid dream induction methods agrees, saying: “There’s very few indications that lucid dreaming can occur outside of REM,” and that hypnagogia consciousness doesn’t match “the full HD of REM dreams”.
Other devices attempt to combine the physical and tactile stimulation with brain scanning, for a more accurate targeting of REM sleep. The ZMax headband combines Remee-style stimulation with an EEG reading of brain waves, and according to an unpublished study by Pavlou, it is the most reliable device available, with a 55 per cent success rate in inducing lucid dreams.
“There’s nothing like it on the market,” says Pavlou. While Remee is just an LED with a timer and does not have any sensing, ZMax is based on capturing brain activity to target REM sleep. However, ZMax’s target market is research, and its success rate decreases when used by individual consumers. When used in a non-research environment, “previous studies have shown a success rate of 15 to 20 per cent,” says Pavlou.
Love has a more favourable view of ZMax than other products on the market. “Devices like ZMax are not making unrealistic claims or offering false promises, they simply deliver the tools to explore the science of sleep and dreams,” he says. Pavlou agrees with Love that any business that promises dream lucidity is not one to be trusted.
But it might not be that long before a reliable commercial device becomes available. Developments in sleep science have moved rapidly over the past decade, thanks to advances in machine learning, brain computer interfaces and wearable technology which can collect data on study participants while they are sleeping. “I think around five years, maximum 10 years, we’ll have a device with almost 100 per cent success rate for inducing lucid dreams,” Pavlou says.
Until then, experts will continue to warn consumers against products which promise consumers access to the coveted sleep state. “Sleep, dreams, and consciousness are still profound mysteries of existence, and humanity are far from mastering them,” concludes Love. “Those who claim otherwise are attempting to turn the public’s scientific naivety into a quick profit.”
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