The Dream World

EP60: Lucid Dream Research Lab Feat. Karen Konkoly

February 17, 2024 Amina Feat. Karen Konkoly Season 2 Episode 26
The Dream World
EP60: Lucid Dream Research Lab Feat. Karen Konkoly
The Dream World
Become a supporter of the show!
Starting at $3/month
Support
Show Notes Transcript

Karen Konkoly is a 6th-year graduate student in a cognitive neuroscience lab working on studies about lucid dreaming, dream engineering, and memory. Karen has made groundbreaking discoveries within the lab, including being able to communicate with lucid dreamers while they are asleep inside the dream! Lucid dreamers have been able to send signals to researchers to confirm they are currently inside the dream, and they report receiving the signals in real-time, from the researchers that are incorporated into the dream in interesting ways.

Mentioned in the Episode
Karen's research publications 
A Field Guide to Lucid Dreaming: Mastering the Art of Oneironautics

Support the show

Follow The Dream World Podcast
Visit Our Website
Instagram @TheDreamWorldPodcast
Tik Tok @aminasdreamworld
Spotify
Facebook
Lucid Dreaming Online Course


Sleep is thought of as this black box where you don't know what's happening until someone wakes up. If you could actually dialog with someone in real time while they're dreaming, it would be a really valuable research tool to study sleep. Karen Conklin is getting her Ph.D. in lucid dream research. These experiments are some of my favorite because they have figured out how to communicate in real time with someone who's asleep and inside a dream.

00;00;25;16 - 00;00;46;28

The lucid Dreamers can perceive questions from an experimenter and provide answers using electrophysiological signals. I'm so excited to dive deeper into Karen's research and figure out how she got involved in this type of thing. So welcome to the Dream World podcast. We'll get into your, like, important academic achievements. But I also want to know like what personally got you interested in lucid dreaming?

00;00;47;00 - 00;01;08;15

Ever since I was little, I was always really interested in like reality and the dimensions and what are the other dimensions. And I would like look up on the computer like, Oh, if you can keep your body in your bed and fall asleep, then you can like get up out of bed and walk around your house. And so I was trying that when I was like nine, but I could never fall asleep because I was doing it the other day.

00;01;08;16 - 00;01;26;25
Unknown
Then I was in high school. I was really interested in my dreams and lucid dreaming. I had read about it and I hadn't had any lucid dreams yet, but I was really fascinated by the whole thing. And then one time I was in Barnes Noble and I picked up the book A Field Guide to Lucid Dreaming. And I read that right as I was starting college and I was like, Oh my God, this is so cool.

00;01;26;25 - 00;01;51;04
Unknown
And I started having lucid dreams and doing all the things that they suggested in that book. And like maybe many people, I was like, Oh, I really want this to be my job. And then actually, like, right as I was doing that, I read a paper and one of my classes, it was a freshman seminar on storytelling, and the paper was about how in a lucid dream, like your conscious mind is like reading the story and your subconscious mind is like writing it or something.

00;01;51;04 - 00;02;05;26
Unknown
And that was what the paper was about. But my take away was like somebody wrote a paper about this for their job, like I could do that. And so then I tried to do that. Yeah, that's awesome. So how did you turn it into a job? Like, how do you take things so mystical and, like, research it scientifically?

00;02;06;03 - 00;02;23;27
Unknown
My mom helped a lot because she is great at Googling. I started doing like, you know, if there was opportunity to, like, choose your own topic for a project at school, I would do it. And then my mom found one of Stephen Liberation retreats in Hawaii, and so I was in this program at my undergrad where I needed to do like a capstone project on something, and it could be pretty freeform.

00;02;23;27 - 00;02;55;07
Unknown
So I was like, I'm gonna do it on the side dreaming, obviously. And so I got that program to actually pay for me to go to Stephen Burgess retreat in Hawaii as research. And I was like, Awesome. And then there I met like so many people with all these different kind of mindsets and opinions, which actually kind of led me back to Hawaii now as I'm finishing my Ph.D. But at that retreat, I was also a little bit of my take away was like Stephen had a really hard time doing lucid dreaming research in terms of it was such a groundbreaking thing and it was like not accepted by the community yet.

00;02;55;07 - 00;03;21;01
Unknown
And he kind of like faced struggles because of that. And so after that I started, I tried to get experience in sleep research labs. So after I went to that retreat, I spent the whole summer in a sleep research internship and people were a little bit disparaging of dream research. People were telling me that it's a little bit fringe, and so I did like some side projects on it, but I kind of my take away from that summer was like, I don't know if I can really, you know, be a dream researcher.

00;03;21;01 - 00;03;37;15
Unknown
And I got the same advice. I went to a sleep conference and people were like, Oh, you can study dreams when you have tenure or you know, when you're late in your career and it's stable. But I kind of felt like, well, I either want to study dreams right now or like, I'll just be a yoga teacher. Like, I don't care, like, I just want to study dreams.

00;03;37;16 - 00;03;59;13
Unknown
Eventually at that conference, actually, I met my current advisor and he, like, actually was studying sounds during sleep. And I also met people at the DREAM Conference who helped give me guidance. And that kind of all spiraled together into a magical PHC about lucid dreaming. Yeah, that's incredible. Honestly, I look up to you so much because I think studying dreams is so cool.

00;03;59;14 - 00;04;28;02
Unknown
That's literally like my dream job. No pun. So. So generally, like what happens when we're lucid dreaming? Like what's going on in the brain in terms of when we're asleep? Yes. Well, that is still an active area of research. So historically, there was a bit of a debate. Is lucid dreaming happening during a hybrid state of consciousness where you're not fully asleep or is it happening during your most vivid dreams?

00;04;28;03 - 00;04;53;20
Unknown
And I think that there was a recently a paper published in support of the idea that lucid dreams happen when you're definitively asleep, you're in REM sleep, and actually your dreams are like the most activated and most dreamlike. So there's kind of like your brain when you're awake and your brain when you're dreaming and then lucid dreaming. Maybe that represents like the far continuum of your brain producing dreams, being really active, and then it just causes you to be lucid.

00;04;53;22 - 00;05;12;00
Unknown
But we also have some lucid dreams in the lab that happen as people are waking up or when they are clearly in a hybrid state where it seems like they're partially awake and partially asleep and the experience that they report is lucid dreaming. So I am personally of the opinion that a bunch of different things in your brain could underlie lucid dreaming.

00;05;12;03 - 00;05;33;12
Unknown
Is it believed that like we only lucid dream in REM? Or can it be other phases of sleep too? Because I feel like I also have lucid dreams. Not in REM every time. Really? How does it feel different? It's not so much the feeling, but it's like if I'm using like like tracking my sleep and I had just woken up from a dream and it feels like I was just in the dream, but I wasn't necessarily just in REM free time.

00;05;33;19 - 00;05;53;26
Unknown
Just I don't know. Yeah. So I think that that is also an interesting active area of research. I think that people definitely have their most lucid dreams in REM sleep in the lab, but there are a few cases where people have like signaled from stage two or maybe like, you know, that's light sleeper, like light sleep with a little bit of arousal or something like that.

00;05;53;26 - 00;06;16;22
Unknown
Some people report that they're conscious and deep sleep and there's no content. So I think that lucidity probably is possible, but it is more difficult to study. One reason that we thought it might be more difficult to study is because it's so often studied with eye movements. And if you want a dreamer to complete an eye movement, then maybe you can't complete an eye movement in light sleep because your eyes aren't moving in light sleep.

00;06;16;22 - 00;06;38;03
Unknown
So maybe you that's kind of like circular. So we're using sniffing, we're trying to see if people can sniff in other stages of sleep and stuff like that. That's so cool. Okay. So what I love about your experience is that literally you're communicating with people across this border of consciousness while they're asleep through things like you mentioned, they can send certain signals and they can receive certain signals.

00;06;38;11 - 00;07;03;05
Unknown
Your two way communication experience like, can you tell me a little bit about like how it works so people can kind of get a background if they're not familiar with it already? Sure. So in that study we wanted to see if you could have a conversation with somebody in real time while they're dreaming in an elusive dream. And so we've known since the eighties that Dreamers can complete signals from within their dreams, such as looking left, right, left, right, or twitching their forearms.

00;07;03;05 - 00;07;30;00
Unknown
And those signals can be measured objectively in real time to confirm that the dreamers communicating from their dream. And so we also know that it's possible to have incorporation into a dream, you know, if your alarm clock goes off and instead of waking up, it gets incorporated into your dream. And so it was my adviser's idea. He was like, sleep is thought of as this black box where you don't know what's happening until someone wakes up.

00;07;30;01 - 00;07;53;06
Unknown
If you could actually dialog with someone in real time while they're dreaming, it would be a really valuable research tool to study sleep. And so basically what we did is we brought people into the lab, we helped them have lucid dreams, and then once somebody was lucid, we started asking them math problems. And so we just asked them really quietly, easy math problems like eight minus six.

00;07;53;06 - 00;08;14;24
Unknown
And then people responded with one left right eye movement for each number in the response. So they responded correctly to like, you know, the answer that would be two. So they'd look left right twice. And then we actually found several examples that two way communication was possible during sleep. Because another thing that was a bit surprising is that like Dreaming Corp isn't always literal.

00;08;14;28 - 00;08;36;02
Unknown
So like some of the older studies on Dreaming Corporation might say, okay, well that person used to present a math problem. Maybe they'll have a dream about being in math class, but like, well, they actually be able to hear just what you said. And so that was kind of like a novel advance that like, Yes, oftentimes people can literally just hear what you said and it's not too distorted in the dream.

00;08;36;05 - 00;08;54;20
Unknown
And so our team did that. And then we collaborated with three other teams around the world who used kind of variations on the method. Some teams respond by doing facial twitching. Some people asked yes or no questions instead of math problems or they also asked a tactile like tap somebody on the hand how often they got tapped on the hands.

00;08;54;22 - 00;09;13;19
Unknown
And one team even taught their dreamers Morse code and then they flashlights in Morse code in a math problem. And the dreamers decoded the math problem and answered with their eyes. So people didn't answer all the time, but we demonstrated that it was possible. Yeah, I love that. So incredible and mind blowing. And in what ways did the questions like show up in the people's dreams?

00;09;13;19 - 00;09;36;14
Unknown
I know you said it wasn't always literal, but are there any, like, funny ways that would come up? Yeah, well, it's interesting because our best examples are when, you know, they heard what was said, literally like so one participant was in this other scene and then they just heard a voice as though they said it was as though it was God or as though it was a narrator of a movie, just like talking to them from this other realm.

00;09;36;16 - 00;09;54;26
Unknown
One person heard it come from the radio in their car. One of my favorite examples is from the the German team that was presenting Morse code and Lights. And so their dreamer was in the hospital. And in the hospital in their dream, they saw a light flickering in Morse code. And so they're like, Oh, that's the math problem.

00;09;54;26 - 00;10;10;10
Unknown
I need to decode it. But then it stopped flickering. So then he went around the dream to look for something else that could flicker so that he could get the Morse code back. And so he found a fishbowl. And the fishbowl, he was looking at it and the fishbowl was flickering. But then he dropped the fishbowl and it broke.

00;10;10;12 - 00;10;31;17
Unknown
So then he went outside and looked at the clouds and the clouds were passing in front of the sun in Morse code. And to me that example is like so miraculous and amazing because it just shows like a what the Dreamer was doing, like enabled his ability to like, connect with another world. Also, to me, it has like farther reaching implications.

00;10;31;17 - 00;10;58;12
Unknown
Like that was a real signal that was getting transmitted to him, and yet it appeared in like an idiosyncratic and like interesting way. And I just think, you know, what does that mean for spirituality and stuff like that? And no, I mean, that's huge. That's literally communicating through different dimensions, really. And so is it hard to find participants that are like lucid dreamers to the point that they can consistently get lucid in the lab and, you know, to carry out these tasks and be able to, you know, remember them from within the dream?

00;10;58;15 - 00;11;24;12
Unknown
Yes. In the first study, we recruited people. Some of them were lucid dreamers, but some weren't. And we have a method that can help People have lucid dreams. In the first study, it it helped them have lucid dreams. 50% of the time we associated a cue with a lucid state of mind and play it again during sleep. However, if somebody is having their first lucid dream, they're probably not going to be able to answer math problems because it actually requires like so much kind of skill to do that.

00;11;24;12 - 00;11;48;08
Unknown
Like you have to be able to like, have a stable enough lucid dream that you can hear it without waking up. And then also performing signals is a little bit destabilizing because I feel like if you want to stabilize, you lose a dream. You spin around or you do something that like synchronizes you from your asleep body. And so if you are trying to signal, those are always things that are synchronized with your sleeping body, like looking left and right.

00;11;48;10 - 00;12;03;02
Unknown
So I feel like not only is it kind of hard to find lucid dreamers, but it's also takes a certain amount of skill to like actually practice the things in your lucid dreams that we need in the lab. Yeah, it makes sense. I mean, I've been lucid dreaming for a long time, so I feel like I'm able to do this.

00;12;03;02 - 00;12;21;28
Unknown
And it it's taken years of practice, you know? And even so, sometimes I can't really tell. Like if I'm doing something in my dream, I'm kind of unsure if it will, like, translate into my physical body or not, but it's like it can very confusing to know if what I'm doing is going to wake me up and if it's actually going to do what I need it to do to transmit the signal.

00;12;22;01 - 00;12;39;23
Unknown
Have you been sending signals in your list of dreams? Yeah. Kind of. So I do my own, like, self experimentation, just like with my friends and things. And we've had some, like, interesting results. And I just really mostly just document like my own experiences as and try to tasks from within the dream and just like, you know, practice my lucidity.

00;12;39;26 - 00;12;53;18
Unknown
Have any of them ever seen you have a lucid dream like being able to like, watch you from a lucid dream? You no, we haven't been able to do that because I don't have like around me, I don't have anybody really that's into it and does like research. Look to me like that. It'd be cool to participate. But yeah.

00;12;53;18 - 00;13;10;14
Unknown
No, I haven't been able to do that. But I practice kind of with like sounds and like you were saying, like listening to sounds, well, lucid dreaming and a lot of times I'll be able to hear it and become lucid. So I know that that can definitely work. I've heard YouTube tracks playing from In My Dream telling me like, you're dreaming.

00;13;10;14 - 00;13;32;18
Unknown
Oh, that's so cool. Yeah. So it's fun. I know that this stuff works, so I'm so happy that you actually like taking it further for sure. I also feel like in terms of recruitment, like it's really hard to find people like you who are both interested in lucid dreaming and good at it. And there's a lot of people that are interested in lucid dreaming but never actually succeeded and like having frequent lucid dreams.

00;13;32;18 - 00;13;52;09
Unknown
And then there's a lot of these natural, frequent, lucid dreamers that are kind of a mystery to me. Like if you look up the population statistics, like 20% of people have a lucid dream. Once a month or more. But when I tried to like, recruit people that just said they had frequent lucid dreams, it was really interesting to find that like natural, lucid dreamers.

00;13;52;12 - 00;14;09;00
Unknown
To me it seemed like some of them were having different experiences from people that had like read about lucid dreaming and were using it as like an experimental playground. Like some people just do only ever do the same thing, or they know they're lucid, but they never control anything, or they always just wake up or they always just change the nightmare slightly.

00;14;09;00 - 00;14;27;17
Unknown
And it's kind of like that person is lucid but might not be good at doing your experiment. Yeah, that's true. There's so many like little nuances with it and it can take some practice. I could see how it gets complicated. So what are you like working on now, or like you're thinking about studying next? How can you take what you're doing to the next level?

00;14;27;19 - 00;14;47;01
Unknown
So right now I'm finishing. My teaching involves a lot of things, but we just actually submitted Preprints for two papers that are coming out. So one of them is it's a study about how the visual system works in a lucid dream. And so we wanted to see like whether a fundamental feature of the waking visual system applies when you're in a dream.

00;14;47;01 - 00;15;05;24
Unknown
And so what it is is when you're awake and you close your eyes. I don't know if you know this, you get like really robust brain waves on the back of your head that you can see like every time. And they look really different and it's about like your visual system kind of not working. You know, it's turning off in a way in order to like increase your acuity of other senses.

00;15;05;24 - 00;15;26;10
Unknown
It's really about having your eyes be closed. And so we asked a bunch of lucid dreamers to close their eyes within their dreams and tell us if their vision was went away and then also study their brainwaves. And so we found that when people close their eyes and a lucid dream, the visuals went away about half the time and the other half of the time they stayed, or they could see through their eyelids or something like that.

00;15;26;10 - 00;15;42;13
Unknown
But they didn't get the brainwave that you get when you're awake. So we're still trying to figure out what to make of all that. Yeah, so that was one study. And then we also did another one where we made an Android app for people to use at home that uses our lucid dreaming induction method and a little bit more of a low tech way.

00;15;42;13 - 00;16;01;02
Unknown
It just plays sounds 6 hours after you fall asleep and it tries to monitor for movement. Turn off if you are waking up. And it did give people slightly more lucid dreams. That's another one. And then I'm writing my thesis that has to do more studies in it. So one of them is about problem solving and lucid dreams.

00;16;01;02 - 00;16;19;25
Unknown
So this one is probably the most interesting. We gave people riddles and they were riddles that were not solved during the night. They worked on riddles until there were four that weren't solved. And so a riddle could be like, How do you plant four trees exactly, equidistant from each other? You can't plant them in a square because of the green theorem.

00;16;20;00 - 00;16;36;29
Unknown
You can't plant them in a line because then the one they're obviously not equidistant. And so we gave people riddles like that and each riddle had a sound and then we tried to have people have lucid dreams in the lab and we played the sounds in their lucid dreams to say, you know, work on this riddle, but not, you know, not this other riddle, right?

00;16;36;29 - 00;17;01;01
Unknown
Because people anecdotally report that lucid dreaming is helpful for problem solving and gives them all these interesting insights. But a kind of issue with that is that it's hard to prove that that's happening from just anecdotes because that person could be stewing on that problem, you know, during the day and before they go to sleep. And the lucid dream could be maybe like a combination of that, but like you need like a control condition.

00;17;01;02 - 00;17;18;08
Unknown
And so we tried to say, all right, we're going to tell you which problem to work on in your dreams and which one not to and what ended up happening is that people got less lucid dreams than we thought. But nevertheless, even in their non lucid dreams, people really dreamed about problems if we played the sound associated with them.

00;17;18;10 - 00;17;39;01
Unknown
And the other funny thing that happened was that in Lucid dreams for the people that did work on puzzles, the dreams did not really explicitly help them that much. In this, the dream characters said ridiculous things that were not the right answer at all. I think in the future I wouldn't have suggested, like we gave participants four ideas for how they could work on the puzzle in their dream.

00;17;39;01 - 00;17;55;14
Unknown
We said You could ask the dream itself for advice or, you know, to work with you on the puzzle. You could ask a dream character. Why is dream character seems like, you know, help for help working on the puzzle. You could try to like enter the puzzle scenario in the dream. So actually those were the main three suggestions.

00;17;55;14 - 00;18;12;29
Unknown
But I think that the dream character suggestion is the one that everybody did, and that was like, I think, a bad suggestion. Dream characters are not reliable performance. And then it was interesting to me how few people wanted to ask the dream a question, because to me that's always what I do in my lucid dreams. It's like I'm talking to my subconscious, I'm going to ask the question.

00;18;12;29 - 00;18;35;02
Unknown
And everybody was like, What are you talking about? And so it was interesting to me that that concept was foreign to so many of our lucid dreamers. So in REM sleep, our brain activity is very similar to when we are awake, right? Is that true? Can you elaborate on that? And why is that? Everybody says that obviously it's not that similar because you're hallucinating and you're paralyzed and you're asleep.

00;18;35;03 - 00;18;56;20
Unknown
The reason that everybody says that is because it's de synchronized. It's active, right? So like when you're awake, if you look at someone's brainwaves, they just look like jittering up and down a little bit. But when you are in slow wave sleep, you have giant waves like the ocean that you know your brain is all firing on. And then it pauses and then it's firing and then it pauses.

00;18;56;27 - 00;19;21;04
Unknown
And this like sequence of firing and pausing shuts down a lot of your brain activity so that there's not as much information being utilized. And so in REM sleep, you have it again, looks more like you're awake because there's more information that's being communicated between different areas of your brain. So in one hand, you know, it's kind of indicating like you're conscious, although you're having thought like dreams and stuff.

00;19;21;04 - 00;19;42;09
Unknown
And so it's but it kind of is indicating you have more contents of consciousness. But like, there's also a lot of differences. So like one difference is that the areas there's like a very thin layer part of your brain that like receives incoming sensory information. And that area is having the big ocean slow waves, like when you're deeply asleep.

00;19;42;09 - 00;20;13;28
Unknown
So the part of the area that's receiving new information seems to be maybe more asleep than the rest of your brain. And then your neurotransmitters are totally, totally different in REM sleep. And that's probably why you're having it. So like serotonin, the thing that you sometimes give people like try to increase if somebody has depression or something is actually at its very lowest in REM sleep and if you give somebody like an SSRI, it will like knock out a lot of their REM sleep or reduce it a lot because serotonin, like you can't have high serotonin and REM sleep.

00;20;13;28 - 00;20;31;13
Unknown
And so that's a lot lower and that maybe contributes. So sedating your acetylcholine is a lot higher. It's at its highest level ever. That has to do with like cognitive functioning, but only part of it. And so that is way higher in REM sleep. And that's also potentially what's causing lucid dreams are going to be near lucid dreams.