An End To Nightmares

Could technology bring about an end to recurrent nightmares? Scientists think they may have found a way to redirect the sleeping brain away from those disturbing bad dreams that cause the frightened sleeper to awake with a start, with their heart hammering.

The development came during a study of people, estimated to be as many as four percent of all adults, who experience nightmares at the “clinically significant” level. Nightmare issues are deemed “clinically significant” when they occur more than once per week and cause other symptoms, like general anxiety and daytime fatigue.

The study divided 36 participants into two groups. One group received imagery rehearsal therapy (“IRT”), an existing form of treatment where they were instructed to recount their bad dreams, develop alternative, happier endings to the dreams, and then rehearse those happy endings during the hours when they were awake.

The other participants received IRT treatment, with a twist: as they envisioned more positive scenarios for their nightmares, a major piano chord was played every ten seconds, in an attempt to have the happier endings associated with the sound. The participants then went to bed wearing headbands that were capable of detecting when the sleeper had entered the rapid eye movement (“REM”) phase, when dreaming occurs, and playing the major chord associated with positive outcomes. The sound evidently helped to generate the positive outcomes, because while both groups saw a decrease in nightmares, the results were significantly better for the headband-wearing group, both immediately during the treatment and for months thereafter.

My dreams are mostly a confused rehash of things that happened during the day, as if my unconscious brain is trying to sort diverse experiences and inputs into a narrative–and since the experiences and sensations aren’t logically connected, the dream ends up making no sense. Fortunately, I don’t have recurrent nightmares, other than the “I’ve got an exam and I didn’t prepare” dream that I still get occasionally, decades after my schooling ended. I can imagine, however, that people who do experience nightmares at the clinically significant level will welcome a therapy that works. Wearing a headband and listening to piano chords would be a small price to pay to avoid waking up in terror. And the results also provide interesting insight into the power of music and its impact on the unconscious brain.