Every human is deeply interested in their dreams. Whether they are abhorrent or enticing, embarrassing or terrifying, dreams have their own unique fascination. We fall asleep and suddenly images start playing in our brains, and we can’t help but wonder whether the dreams are sending us some kind of important message.
But there are two problems with dreams: we can’t remember most of them, and we can’t control what we are dreaming. When we have bad dreams we remain trapped in their frightening context until we wake up with a jolt, pulses pounding. And good dreams inevitably end far too soon.
But what if we could control our dreams? A recent study indicates that applying a low-frequency electrical current during sleep can generate “lucid dreams” — that typically all-too-rare state where the dreamer is aware she is dreaming and has control over the dream. Study participants who received currents in the correct frequency range reported being able to change the plot of their dreams to avoid, for example, ugly encounters with a group of angry people. The researchers hope to be able to use the process to treat mental illness or help people with post-traumatic stress disorder recover, by placing them in control of dream story lines that have happier endings than their actual experiences did.
It’s also easy to see how such a device could be used in other ways. People who are afraid of public speaking, for example, could experience dreams where they confidently give a presentation that is well-received. People who are struggling with the devastating loss of a loved one could consciously revisit that person as they sleep and realize that they are at peace. And, because crass commercialization is the order of the day, no doubt people would gladly purchase dream-current products that allow them to experience close encounters with Sports Illustrated swimsuit models, be the quarterback that wins the Super Bowl, or enter the world of Wuthering Heights.
There’s something intriguing about the concept of controlling your dreams, but also something dangerous. What if the human brain needs to have uncontrolled, often unpleasant dreams to work correctly? After all, our current brains and their dreaming qualities are the product of millions of years of evolution. And how many people might conclude that they prefer living in a rich, completely manipulable dream world to the harsh and uncontrollable world of actual reality, and spend their time dreaming their lives away?