N ear the corner of the small, dark room, there is a narrow folding bed. Every now and then, a speaker on a nearby table emits an eerie violin riff. A line of red lights near the ceiling flashes, then flashes again, bathing the room in a lurid glow. In the bed someone who is fitted with a series of scalp and face electrodes is sleeping.
This surreal tableau is part of scientists’ effort to breach the wall between the waking world and wherever it is we are when we’re dreaming. The researchers who control the speaker and flashing lights in the lab of Ken Paller, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., have been asking questions of people who are dreaming and hoping to get answers.
The dreamers have talked back in a handful of cases. Or rather, signaled back, swiveling their closed eyes back and forth or making little muscle twitches to answer arithmetic problems asked by an experimenter. A paper published this year by Paller’s team together with labs in France, Germany, and the Netherlands revealed that two-way communication with dreamers is possible. This suggests that someday, researchers may be able to ask people what they’re dreaming about while they’re still sleeping.
It’s not quite on the level of “Inception,” the 2010 movie in which Leonardo DiCaprio enters people’s dreams to steal their secrets, but it could be a way to learn more about the peculiar places we inhabit, built by our brains without our knowledge, when we lie down to sleep.