...if you can learn to control your dreams? (with Karen Konkoly)

Ever Wonder? / April 27, 2022
Karen Konkoly in lab
Image attribution
Courtesy of Karen Konkoly

Think about the last time you had a dream… Was the dream fun? Scary? Maybe you barely remember anything at all. Or maybe the dream was so vivid that you knew you were dreaming even while the dream was happening, a phenomenon known as ‘lucid dreaming.’ Some people are so good at it that they can even control their dreams. 

Ever wonder if you can learn to control your dreams? 

Karen Konkoly is a graduate student researcher in psychology at Northwestern University. She works in a sleep lab where she studies how to induce lucid dreaming and how to communicate with lucid dreamers while they were still sleeping

Have a question you've been wondering about? Send an email or voice recording to the podcast team to tell us what you'd like to hear in future episodes. 

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Perry Roth-Johnson (00:06):

Hello! This is Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center. I'm Perry Roth-Johnson. Think about the last time you had a dream... Was the dream fun? Scary? Maybe you barely remember anything at all. Or maybe the dream was so vivid that you knew you were dreaming even while the dream was happening, a phenomenon known as 'lucid dreaming.' Some people are so good at it that they can even control their dreams. Ever wonder if you can learn to control your dreams? Karen Konkoly is a graduate student researcher in psychology at Northwestern University. She works in a sleep lab where she studies how to induce lucid dreaming and how to communicate with lucid dreamers while they were still sleeping! She's got some pretty wild stories to share—so buckle up!

Perry Roth-Johnson (00:56):

Karen Konkoly, you are a graduate student researcher in psychology at Northwestern University—Karen, welcome to the show!

Karen Konkoly (01:02):

Thanks for having me.

Perry Roth-Johnson (01:03):

Yeah. And Jenny Aguirre, producer and co-host of the show is also here with us. Hi Jenny!

Jennifer Aguirre (01:07):

Hey Perry. And hi Karen. Thanks for joining us.

Perry Roth-Johnson (01:09):

So Karen, I know you study dreams, specifically lucid dreaming, but I have to admit, I can't remember the last time I had a lucid dream. What is lucid dreaming exactly?

Karen Konkoly (01:20):

So, the most basic definition of lucid dreaming is just that you're aware that you're dreaming while you're still asleep. So, normally you have a dream and you wake up and after you wake up, you realize that you were dreaming and you think of it, you know, as a memory that you had. But when you're in a lucid dream, it's like right now, oh my gosh, I'm dreaming right now. Like the world around me is, is a dream. And then you can sometimes control it and, and go and do whatever you want in the dream.

Perry Roth-Johnson (01:48):

Okay. Now this is like one more naive question. How is lucid dreaming similar or different from hypnosis?

Karen Konkoly (01:55):

Typically when people are being hypnotized, they're still awake, they're just really relaxed. And so when you're being hypnotized, it like the normal guard that you have in kind of, you know, normally you don't do exactly what people tell you to do or something like that.

Perry Roth-Johnson (02:11):


Karen Konkoly (02:11):

And so when you're being hypnotized, you're kind of in a suggestible state, your guard is down and you know, maybe information that you hear can impact you more deeply. And so lucid dreaming is bit different than that because when you're lucid dreaming, you're actually totally asleep. So scientists have a way of telling when you're awake and when you're asleep and you, you meet all the criteria for being asleep and dreaming when you're in a lucid dream.

Jennifer Aguirre (02:37):

When does lucid dreaming occur?

Karen Konkoly (02:39):

There's different stages of sleep and lucid dreaming is most likely to occur during rapid eye movement sleep or REM sleep. And that's the stage that's most associated with vivid dreaming. And it occurs more often in the later part of the night and in the morning,

Jennifer Aguirre (02:54):

You know what I wonder, Karen, I wonder if there's some people that lucid dream and they just don't know it.

Karen Konkoly (02:59):

Yeah, cause you definitely do forget a lot of your dreams. And so one big way that people recommend, uh, to get started on lucid dreaming. If you, if you wanna get started is to just write down your dreams every morning. And part of it is so that you can get more familiar with what your dreams are like, and that'll help you realize what's dream like about them and help you become lucid. But the other part is that people could just forget their dreams. So maybe they are having lucid dreams and they just forget.

Perry Roth-Johnson (03:24):

Are there things we can personally gain if we lucid dream?

Karen Konkoly (03:27):

My favorite reason for lucid dreaming is because if you wanna learn about yourself while you're awake, then you know, you can, you can talk to a friend. You can think about yourself, what, you know, you want, what you're afraid of, how you could become a better person or something, but it's all very, you know, it's all kind of in your head. And so when you're in a lucid dream, you're having a direct experience of yourself and it feels like the world, like everything around you is all part of your own mind. So you could asked like, this is my favorite thing to do is ask the dream existential questions. Like, you know, show me my highest self, you know, show me my subconscious, show me, you know, something I could heal in myself and people have these really amazing like experiences in their dreams that they can take with them afterwards and be like, wow, like I, you know, I have a, a memory of what that actually looks like. So, I think it's a really like rich place for personal growth, but you can also like a big reason why people like to lucid dream is just to have fun. You can do whatever you want without necessarily consequences. So you can fly and you can, you can eat whatever you want. I have a friend that lucid dreams she's amazing lucid dreamer, just because she had a really, she was doing keto diet and she just ate junk food in her dreams all night. And so she could maintain her diet. so...

Jennifer Aguirre (04:49):

You know what? That's really funny, cause I've actually dropped that I've eaten a lot and I'll wake up full.

Karen Konkoly (04:55):

Wow. That's awesome.

Jennifer Aguirre (04:56):

Like I, I won't wanna eat in the morning cause I like, yeah. So that's happened to me before and I, I completely forgot about that until right now that you mentioned that.

Karen Konkoly (05:05):

I, I I've tried it, but I had a dream. I was trying to eat ice cream and it tasted like nothing. I had dream. I was trying to buy ice cream and the store closed. My subconscious mind has a complex relationship with ice cream.

Jennifer Aguirre (05:21):

One thing that I like about lucid dreaming is that I feel that it makes whenever I'm having a nightmare, easier to not get too scared and get out of it.

Karen Konkoly (05:33):


Jennifer Aguirre (05:34):

Is that something like, does it make nightmares more tolerable?

Karen Konkoly (05:38):

Yeah, that's definitely a big use of lucid dreaming. That's promising is if you are having nightmares, you can try to change the dream or at least hopefully have, you know, be less scared because you're aware that it's a dream. Um, and particularly if somebody has repetitive nightmares, like the same nightmare over and over again, that can be a really great opportunity to lucid a dream because you can really recognize whatever that scenario is as a sign that you're dreaming and help you become lucid. And if you can like plot out a new response while you're awake and kind of think about like, what would you rather have done and then actually do it in a lucid dream then something people find that their nightmares don't come back after that if they have this like great moment of, of coming to peace with their nightmare.

Perry Roth-Johnson (06:24):

Okay. And why are people like you studying lucid dreaming?

Karen Konkoly (06:28):

Lucid dreaming is really interesting way to study dreams because if you wanna know what dreams are doing, if you wanna run a scientific study on them, then you wanna be able to manipulate your, your variable of interest. You wanna be able to control what's going on in the dream in order to see how that affects, you know, your life afterwards. And so with a typical dream, you can't control what's going on in the dream. And so we study lucid dreamers who can control it so we can see how that, you know, affects the subsequent, you know, what's going on after the dream. Um, Lucid dreaming is also interesting because the dreamers can respond to experimenters so they can make signals. You know, when you're asleep and dreaming, your whole body is paralyzed, but you can make specific signals in the dream like looking left, right left, right with your eyes or sniffing. And the signals can be measured in your sleeping body, which enables us to kind of look at what's going on during sleep in a new way.

Perry Roth-Johnson (07:27):

How do you induce lucid dreaming with people in your study?

Karen Konkoly (07:31):

Lucid dreaming is something that some people are naturally good at lucid dreaming, about 20% of people have a lucid dream once a month or more. But when you wanna do a study with someone that's lucid dreaming, you need them to lucid dream like today, right? Because they're in the sleep lab and it takes a long time to hook everybody up to the equipment. You can also train yourself to lucid dream. So that's something that I wanted to say, even if you're not in a study, if you think about lucid dreaming before you go to sleep, and especially like as you wake up in the night, you could start to train yourself to lucid dream and people can become, uh, better at that over time. And there's also a bunch of techniques on the internet that people use to become better at this. Um, so in our study we used a special new technique that involves playing sounds during sleep. So we know that, you know, we know that can get incorporated into dreams, but we also know that when you play a sound associated with a memory, it can trigger. It can reactivate that memory during sleep and make you better at remembering whatever memory was associated with the sound the next day. So we use this to basically remind people while they were asleep to become lucid. So what we did is for 20 minutes, as people are falling asleep, we present a sound that just sounds like a beeping sound. Beep beep beep. And we paired it with a lucid state of mind. So we gave them a prompt after the sound like, as you notice the cue, you become lucid, bring your attention to your thoughts, notice where your mind has wandered. And it goes on like that for a little while, and so...

Perry Roth-Johnson (09:07):

I love it. I'm getting sleepy already.

Karen Konkoly (09:09):

Yeah. So we try to make this strong association between this critically aware lucid mindset during wake and, um, a sound. And so then we present that sound again, when somebody falls asleep and enters REM sleep to remind them, uh, to become lucid in their dream. And it worked. So in a previous study, we did, we took people. They didn't even necessarily have any experience with lucid dreaming. And when we did this in a single morning nap, half of the people had a lucid dream and were able to signal after.

Perry Roth-Johnson (09:39):


Karen Konkoly (09:39):

Yeah. Half. So that's exciting.

Perry Roth-Johnson (09:40):

Wow. That is really impressive.

Karen Konkoly (09:42):

Yeah. Three out of five people that had never had lucid dream before had it with the, this technique. So...

Perry Roth-Johnson (09:47):

I guess I need to get on a flight to Chicago, so you can teach me how to do this.

Karen Konkoly (09:50):

Yeah. We are trying to app, appify it, it doesn't work quite as well. Uh, but it, if you have an Android app and a Fitbit, then you can download our app where we're trying to do the technique at home.

Jennifer Aguirre (10:02):

Let's dig into your, uh, research, your two-way communication research. So what is the goal of, of this study?

Karen Konkoly (10:10):

So the goal of the two-way communication study was basically that when people are sleeping, you know, if you wanna know what's going on in their mind, it can be really difficult to figure that out because you can't interact with somebody really, while they're sleeping, people can sleep, talk to some extent. Um, and you know, that's, that's one way you can kind of have a window into what's going on in their mind while they're asleep, but people typically don't sleep talk during their most vivid dreams. And so we wanted to know, could we find out more about what's going on in a dream at the time that the person's dreaming from the perspective of the person in the dream and in order to do that, we need to talk to people. So we know that we know that things that you know are presented during sleep can get incorporated into dreams. Like if you've ever had your alarm clock go off and instead of waking up, it gets incorporated into your dream. like for me, the Beatles came into my dream and started singing here comes the sun because that was my alarm clock . Um, so we know that that's a way that information can get into a dream. And then since the eighties we've known that lucid dreamers can perform specific signals that are ways to communicate out. So as I said, you're paralyzed in a dream, but if you give this specific breathing signal or a specific eye signal, then the experimenter who's measuring the, that activity can know what that signal stands for. And so we can confirm the dreamer is answering. So we decided, could we put these things together to actually have a conversation with somebody while they're sleeping?

Perry Roth-Johnson (11:46):

So when you have somebody sleeping in the lab, how do you ask them questions and get answers from them?

Karen Konkoly (11:52):

So we thought that the easiest way to ask them questions would just be to say them quietly during sleep and, and see if they could get incorporated in the dream. So after our dreamers are lucid and give us a signal to say that they're having a lucid dream, then what we did was just, we very softly asked them math problems. And so we, we controlled the volume really careful, just really soft all the answers to the math problems...

Perry Roth-Johnson (12:16):

Math problems like addition and subtraction?

Karen Konkoly (12:17):

Right. So we did simple addition and subtraction problems and all the answers were four or below. And the reason that we chose math problems was because it's easy to know what the right answer is. And so we just wanted to demonstrate that they could hear what we were saying. And they could answer in a, in a meaningful way that showed that they were really comprehending what was said. Um, it's not like we actually needed the answers to those math problems. I mean, we could have done them, but we just wanted to say like, is this technique feasible? And so when they were lucid dreaming, we just very quietly asked them math problems, like one plus three. And then we asked them to answer by looking left/right once for each number in their response. So like we asked, you know, eight minus six and the dreamer looked left/right/left/right to say that the answer was two.

Perry Roth-Johnson (13:09):

Got it.

Jennifer Aguirre (13:09):

I saw some images of your study and I see, uh, you know, the people in the study, I see them with stuff all over like...

Karen Konkoly (13:20):

Oh yeah.

Jennifer Aguirre (13:21):

...their head, like, how successful is the study? Like are, do you get them to sleep right away?

Karen Konkoly (13:28):


Jennifer Aguirre (13:29):

Or is that, has that been an issue in the study?

Karen Konkoly (13:31):

Yeah, yeah. So people in sleep study, typically we wire them up to electrodes and so all over their head, we're attaching these wires with little metal cups that help us look at their brain activity. And so some of them can be comfortable and we've been progressively working on ways to make them more comfortable. So, um, in the original study that we did, where we were talking to people while they were sleeping, we used an EEG cap, which is a little different, it's like a fabric thing. And that puts the electrodes on your head to look at their brain activity. And so people did have trouble falling asleep. We did a morning nap and, um, people would go to sleep early in the morning to help have them have REM and about half of them did not have REM sleep, um, could be because a cap was uncomfortable, could be because mornings, you know, an early morning nap is kind of a weird time to take a nap. It's not like it's. Um, so it could have been, you know, people felt like they were waking up for the day. Lucid dreaming studies also, like it can be a lot of pressure on the participants because they're really responsible for are doing the study. And so they know that. And so that can be tricky. So what we do now is we've really done everything we can to make the study more comfortable. We wallpapered the nap chamber, we, um, we, um, we use the more comfortable electrodes and we also run overnight studies now. So people participants will get wired up at the beginning of the night and then I'll wake up at 4:00 AM and wake them up. And then we'll run the study from 4:00 AM until when they wake up and this way people sleep really well. And they have a lot of lucid dreams and a lot of REM sleep. So that's how, how we do it.

Perry Roth-Johnson (15:11):

Karen, since, uh, this is radio and people can't see what we're seeing. You're you're in the lab right now.

Karen Konkoly (15:17):


Perry Roth-Johnson (15:17):

You were waving your laptop around just a second when you're talking about wallpaper.

Karen Konkoly (15:20):

Oh yes, sorry.

Perry Roth-Johnson (15:21):

Can you describe where you're at and, and, and what it looks like?

Karen Konkoly (15:24):

Yeah. So I'm in a nap chamber in the lab. And so what we do is we're sitting outside on, on the computer and then our participants are in this electromagnetically shielded box with a bed in it. And, um, this is where they're sleeping and then we have some speakers in here that will use to, that will control them from the other room to present the sounds that we need to present. And, um, yeah. And this is, this is where magic happens. So, uh, yeah, we just got a new, a new bed, so it's super comfortable.

Perry Roth-Johnson (15:58):

Do you ever go in there when you're just like tired of working?

Karen Konkoly (16:01):

Yeah. Uh, yeah. Yeah. I meditate in here and I definitely fall asleep and I also, after I do the overnights, I'll come in here and sleep. So I spend a good amount of time in the nap chamber.

Perry Roth-Johnson (16:10):

Last question about your study. What are some of the craziest stories you have heard from people who are participating in it when they're having a lucid dream?

Karen Konkoly (16:19):

Yeah. Yeah. So the there's really interesting stories of people when we're talking to them from the, you know, from the other side of the experiment. And I like to make the comparison of interstellar because in interstellar, the girl, um, you know, she's, she sees a message in the dust coming from the bookshelf and she thinks it's from a ghost or from, you know, a being in another dimension, she goes and tells her dad, there's this message coming. And he's like that, you know, that can't be, you, you can't get a message from another dimension and in the end she finds out it actually is. And so there's an example of, uh, a participant in our study in Germany, he's dreaming that he's in the doctor's office and in the doctor's office, the lights are flickering and he recognizes the flickering as morse code coming, you know, from the experimenter. And, you know, if he were to actually ask that doctor, you know, is there morse from the ceiling, the doctor in the dream probably would've said, you're crazy, no, that can't be, but the truth of the matter is that he was receiving a message from another dimension. He was receiving this morse code message from my colleague in Germany that was presenting him a math problem via flashing lights in morse codes.

Perry Roth-Johnson (17:29):

Oh my gosh.

Karen Konkoly (17:29):

So, um, that's cool. And then actually in that dream, the lights stopped the blinking. And so he had to look in the dream for something else that could deliver him the message. And he finds a fish tank and the fish tank light is flashing, but he's concentrating so hard that he drops the fish tank. And then he tries to go outside to find something else that is flashing. And he looks at the sky and the clouds are passing in front of the sun, uh, in the pattern of morse code and he's able to decode the message.

Perry Roth-Johnson (17:56):

Wow. That's deep.

Karen Konkoly (17:57):

Um, that's so there, there's another, there's another example of, um, uh, participant in France and it, in their group, they ask a dreamer is yes or no questions. And so like, do you chocolate, do you study biology? And the dreamer has answered them. And in the dream he was, I believe, fighting goblins. And then he heard these questions coming from the sky as though it was God, he said talking to him and so he answered him. Um, so it's kind of interesting how to, how to messages can get incorporated into the dream world.

Perry Roth-Johnson (18:29):

Well, it's been wonderful talking to you, Karen. Uh, thank you so much for joining us on the show. Yeah.

Karen Konkoly (18:34):

Thank you so much for having me.

Jennifer Aguirre (18:35):

Yeah. Super excited to have you, Karen. Thank you so much.

Perry Roth-Johnson (18:39):

That's our show, and thanks for listening. Until next time, keep wondering. Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center is produced by me, Perry Roth-Johnson, along with Devin Stewart and Jennifer Aguirre, Liz Roth-Johnson is our editor. Theme music provided by Michael Nickolas and Pond5. We'll drop new episodes every other Wednesday. If you're a fan of the show, be sure to subscribe and leave us a rating or review on Apple Podcasts. It really helps other people discover our show, have a question you've been wondering about, send an email or voice recording to everwonder@californiasciencecenter.org, to tell us what you'd like to hear in future episodes.