Illustration by Shaye Anderson

I Tried Controlling My Dreams With My iPhone

Lucid dreaming is possible, they said. Just try this app, they said.

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Apr 20 2016, 1:30pm

Illustration by Shaye Anderson

I stood there, staring at my outstretched hands on Sunset Boulevard. I was checking to make sure they weren't glowing.

If they were, anything was possible. I could become a giant. I could throw the winning pass in the Super Bowl. I could fly with angel wings while wailing on a flaming guitar, which is actually a dream I once had.

But, no. Sadly, my hands looked normal and I was awake. Ever since I started using apps like Dream:On, DreamZ, and Lucid Dreamer, which are designed to induce lucid dreams, in which people are aware that they are dreaming, I had been doing "reality checks" every so often to make sure I wasn't asleep. The idea is to make a habit of doing so during your waking life so that it would be automatic while dreaming.

The goal is to create little cues that tell the brain, "Hey, I'm dreaming!" and then pretty much anything goes. While the apps might be different, they all perform the same basic function: give a signal, whether auditory or visual, that seem out of sync with the dream world.

"These concepts work," Deirdre Barrett, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, told Motherboard. But she had caveats: Sometimes the apps wake people up. They don't always go off at the right time. And they can't induce lucid dreams in people who don't have a natural affinity for it.

Maybe I was one of those people who couldn't do it?

I don't remember having many lucid dreams in the past. I did once suffer an episode of sleep paralysis, a terrifying waking nightmare during which I couldn't move or speak as I saw a witch slowly extend a claw toward my head. It was similar to a lucid dream, but Barrett assured me pursuing one wouldn't necessarily bring the other.

So I decided to take the plunge into the world of lucid dreaming. I downloaded four apps on my iPhone and tested them out for two weeks straight.

During the very first night, I was jolted awake in the dark by the sound of the Dream:ON app, leaving me with a sense of bleary-eyed failure. Maybe I was one of those people who couldn't do it?

*

Plenty of people seem to think they can lucid dream. There is a large community of active and aspiring lucid dreamers online, looking for an escape from the mundane, insight into their lives and, yes, sex.

Lucid dream researcher Beverly D'Urso, hooked up to electrodes and vaginal probes at the Stanford Sleep Lab, recorded what she claimed was the first recorded female orgasm in a dream in 1983. More than two decades later, speaking at a conference at UC Berkeley, D'Urso described a wide range of sexual encounters: "In dreams, I have been the woman, the man, half woman/half man, divided by upper and lower body, left and right sides, and with both a penis and a vagina … In one lucid dream, I had sex with the earth, as I flew at its edge, one leg dragging into the dirt. I can barely think of some sexual situation that I have not experienced."

On Reddit's /r/LucidDreaming thread, getting some dream action is a common goal. Understandable, of course, especially for lonely men looking for something beyond internet porn. But the appeal of lucid dreaming goes beyond no-holds-barred sex.

A selection of screenshots. Image: Dream:On

True believers also swear it can help solve a host of emotional and psychological problems. Lucid dreaming evangelist and author Robert Waggoner claims on his website that the practice can quell anxiety, increase creativity, reduce nightmares for people with PTSD, and "lead to a powerful sense of joy, wholeness and freedom from waking limitations."

There are also those who claim you can practice skills in a dream. In a 2010 study, Daniel Erlacher, a professor at University of Bern's Institute for Sport Science, had three groups flip coins into a cup two meters away. The people who had practiced the motion in their lucid dreams were better at it than those who hadn't practiced at all. (The group who practiced while awake did the best.)

It's easy to see how all of this would appeal to Malcolm Gladwell acolytes eager to embrace the so-called 10,000 Hour Rule. They would get an extra 2,482 hours a year (based on 6.8 hours of sleep per night) to do things like perfect their golf swing or learn a new language.

And then there is the prospect of flying around like a superhero or becoming a giant or anything else you can imagine. Sounds pretty ideal. But is lucid dreaming really that powerful?

It's hard to tell. The problem is that studies rely on people to self-report their dreams, which can be difficult to remember. Erlacher's study with the coins involved only 20 volunteers. Other studies have also used small sample sizes. That lucid dreaming is often lumped together with New Age phenomena like out-of-body experiences and mutual dreaming certainly doesn't help its credibility either.

"There have been enough of those eye studies that nobody believes that lucid dreaming doesn't exist"

There has also been a stigma around lucid dream research, according to Patrick Bourke, senior lecturer at the UK's Lincoln School of Psychology.

"By and large, experimental psychologists have been trying to stay away from dreams to dissociate themselves from Freud and all that rubbish," Bourke told Motherboard. "Lucid dreaming has reemerged largely due to interest from the general public."

Frederik van Eeden and Marquis d'Hervey de Saint Denys, pioneers of lucid dreaming. Image: Negatif/Wikimedia Commons

Even if not every study holds water, however, the existence of lucid dreaming is impossible to deny, Barrett said. The proof comes in the form of early studies in which participants agreed to perform a predetermined pattern of eye movements in their dreams that could be detected from the outside world, she said.

"There have been enough of those eye studies that nobody believes that lucid dreaming doesn't exist," Barrett said.

The challenge now is figuring out how to induce lucid states. Technology could be the answer. Luckily, at least 64 percent of Americans, according to the Pew Research Center for Internet, Science and Tech, own powerful computers called smartphones that can be tucked next to them as they drift off to sleep.

*

Stephen LaBerge has probably done more than anyone on Earth to promote lucid dreaming. In the 1980s, he conducted a number of influential studies on the topic and eventually founded the Lucidity Institute in 1987.

The organization was the first to release a commercially available (if expensive) piece of technology meant to aid lucid dreaming. Called the NovaDreamer, it used simple LEDs to send a signal to the sleeping user. Imagine sitting on top of the Eiffel Tower and then seeing three red lights blinking in front of your face. That would tell you that you were dreaming, the thinking went, allowing you to float off to London or whatever else you wanted.

While the NovaDreamer mask was discontinued in 2004, other brands took its place. Adam Siton used the technology as inspiration for DreamZ, which he released in 2012. It was the first lucid dreaming app at the time, Siton told Motherboard from his home city of Tel Aviv. Before he released the app, he said he hadn't experienced many lucid dreams.

"Every time I would have one, I woke up and thought, 'Oh my god, this is amazing,'" he recalled. "But I didn't have anything to help me actively lucid dream more."

That changed when Siton, who now works for the productivity app Any.do, saw lucid dreaming masks for sale. He thought the same principle could be achieved with audio cues. Instead of seeing a light, a user might hear strange music or a cow mooing. Siton said that verbal messages are the most effective, especially ones that prompt users to perform a reality check.

One of the cues in DreamZ asks, "Are you dreaming? Look in the mirror. Is that really you?"

Ideally, you would then stare into a mirror, notice the distorted image and then realize the truth. There are other messages as well. Prompts to read a book out loud, hover above the ground, and solve simple math problems are supposed to trigger the realization that you're fast asleep.

Thanks to the iPhone's sensors, which can detect movement in your bed, DreamZ claims it can tell when you're in REM sleep. That is primarily when dreams occur. Another app, Dream:ON, has the same capability, although it's important to note that sleep-tracking devices and apps have been criticized for being inaccurate by researchers in the past.

Developed by University of Hertfordshire professor Richard Wiseman, Dream:ON has a slicker interface than DreamZ and the ability to graph your night's sleep, much like Sleep Cycle or apps from FitBit and Jawbone. It even includes a few detailed themes for your dreams, such as "deadly dungeon," "wild west" and "a trip to Tokyo." Think of them as holodeck programs, but for your sleeping brain.

Sadly, the "space shuttle" soundscape didn't transport me to a rocket blasting off toward the cosmos. It didn't even wake me up.

*

I had the opposite problem with other apps. Lucid Dreamer pairs an audio signal with a simple timer. It also lets you record your own message. Apparently, hearing someone call your name is the worst way to enter a lucid dream, according to Barrett, because you instinctively perk up—hence why hearing, "Hey Keith, dream cool stuff!" failed to cause the intended response.

Those aren't the only lucid dreaming apps out there. Awoken for Android reminds users throughout the day to perform a reality check like reading text or looking at a clock, each paired with a "totem sound" that also goes off at night. The brain, theoretically, associates the sound with the action even when asleep, prompting an automatic reality check. For Android, there is also Lucid Dreaming and 10 Steps to Lucid Dreams, which pretty much explains itself.

Most lucid dreaming apps include some kind of space for jotting down or reciting your dreams when you wake up. Ideally, forcing yourself to remember dreams on a regular basis helps you recall the ones that happen to be lucid.

Notes taken at 5 AM after Dream:ON woke me up early one morning: "Carefully examining moon rocks. Includes amethyst. One in the shape of a face. Am wearing synthetic pants."

Taking the lucid dreaming app one step further is the Aurora from iWinks. Due for release later this year, it pairs your iPhone with an electroencephalography (EEG) headband that records brain activity as you sleep. The goal is to find the ideal time during REM to trigger a light or sound.

In the future, lucid dreaming technology could go beyond visual and auditory cues. Several researchers are working on ways to skip the senses and directly stimulate the brain. A 2014 study by psychologist Ursula Voss of J.W. Goethe-University in Frankfurt, Germany, successfully induced lucid dreams in 27 test subjects with electrodes attached to their scalps.

Apparently, this is something that is easier to do in a lab than at home. Motherboard's Kaleigh Rogers tested a device called foc.us last year with little success. Bourke said that while it "seems possible" to induce lucid dreaming with electrodes, he would like to see it replicated in more experiments, simply because it "seems so unlikely" that an untargeted current could have such dramatic results.

Also, as Barrett noted, if you sense "an electrical tingling on your scalp, you're going to wake up." Perhaps more practical, she said, would be pairing more accurate sleep-tracking technology, maybe with the help of iPhone-connected electromyography (EMG) sensors to measure eye movement, to deliver cues at the perfect point of REM sleep.

Nothing like that exists right now. Using just an iPhone, I was beginning to doubt I was able to lucid dream. After a week of lackluster results, I wondered if it was even worth the effort. Some people, it turns out, just don't have it in them.

"Technology can help give people who have never had a lucid dream one," Barrett said. "And it can give people who do have lucid dreams more of them. But people's base level of lucid dreaming and dream recall vary."

Feeling a little reassured by that fact, on night 12 I set my DreamZ app again and put my head down on my pillow. In my dream, I remember hearing a voice.

"Are you dreaming?" it asked. "Look at your hands. How come they look different?"

I looked down at my hands. They were shimmering, metallic, ghostlike. I became excited. Finally, I could fly through the cosmos in a fantasy world of my own devising!

Then I woke up. My lucid dream had lasted just a few seconds. I closed the app, shut my eyes, and fell back asleep.