Imagine that you could become aware that you were dreaming, or “lucid,” in your dreams at any time. Countless researchers and laypersons alike have pursued on-demand lucid dreaming since the first books mentioning the phenomenon began to appear in the late 1960s. While various pre-sleep cognitive methods have offered some hope, none suffices as a standalone induction method.
In response to this problem, dream researchers have explored a variety of cognitive-enhancing supplements that have shown promise in increasing the frequency of lucid dreams. In particular, the supplement galantamine — a cholinesterase inhibitor extracted from the snowdrop lily — has become known as the “lucidity pill” among dream enthusiasts interested in ramping up their frequency of lucid dreams. However, the empirical support for this claim has heretofore been lacking.
In 2018, Gregory Sparrow and his colleagues published the results of the first double-blind study of the effect of galantamine on subsequent dream reports. In this groundbreaking study, the researchers explored two different pre-sleep induction techniques:
- ingesting galantamine after awakening in the middle of the night before returning to sleep (G).
- ingesting galantamine after awakening in the middle of the night, and then practicing meditation and “dream reliving” before returning to sleep. (M/DR+G).
As a backdrop to this study, Sparrow had previously conducted dissertation research on “dream reliving” (DR) as a lucid dream induction method. Defined as the practice of reliving a past distressing dream in fantasy as if one were lucid and free to respond differently, Sparrow found that it was modestly effective over baseline and active placebo conditions. More recently, he and his colleagues combined DR with meditation (M/DR) to explore its combined impact on lucidity and several additional measures. In that study, they found that the tandem pre-sleep method had the hypothesized effect of increasing lucidity, reflectiveness, and constructive action. But the effect size for the tandem protocol was not robust enough to make M/DR practical for the average person.
That’s where galantamine came into the picture. By adding galantamine to M/DR, Sparrow’s team hypothesized that it would establish a higher platform of awareness in dreams, upon which the spillover effects of pre-sleep M/DR would exert greater impact.
They rated the resulting dreams on six measures:
- lucidity on a 0-2 scale (non-lucid, pre-lucid, and lucid),
- the subjective level of fear in the dream on a 1-6 point scale.
- four non-lucid “dreamer development” attributes on a 1-6 point scale.
The “dreamer development” attributes were based on the work of Ernest Rossi. While working with the dreams of a psychotherapy patient, Rossi discerned a developmental process in dreams, characterized by heightening levels of, among other things, self-reflectiveness and volition. The specific dreamer development attributes articulated by Rossi and, assessed by Sparrow’s team as outcome measures, were: reflectiveness, interaction, role change, and constructive action. Finally, Sparrow and his team wished to ascertain if G and M/DR+G influenced the level of fear/threat over baseline and placebo levels.
The study data indicated that G taken during an intentional period of awakening in the middle of the night increased lucidity scores in subsequent dream reports about 150% over the baseline and placebo measures, and raised levels of reflectiveness, interaction, role change, and constructive action regardless of whether the participant had engaged in M/DR or not. Thus, the addition of M/DR did not seem to boost galantamine’s independent effect.
But unlike G alone, M/DR+G increased the presence of fear/threat in dream reports over baseline and placebo conditions. Interestingly M/DR without G did not produce this effect: Only the integrated protocol increased the level of fear/threat. While the researchers had not hypothesized this effect, in retrospect it made sense that the experience of re-experiencing a distressing dream prior to sleep would carry over into subsequent dreams.
Since M/DR+G increases the level of fear/threat in dreams, using G alone would be the obvious choice for lucid dream enthusiasts seeking a more pleasurable experience. But for people suffering from PTSD-related nightmares, M/DR+G tentatively offers a real-time trauma resolution method for patients suffering from PTSD-related nightmares.
It may seem counterintuitive to ask someone to seek intentionally to have a “bad dream,” but it’s not surprising within the trauma treatment community. Indeed, the prevailing paradigm for nightmare/trauma resolution involves exposure to and the reprocessing of the distressing emotion and content of the traumatic experience. This exposure and reprocessing procedure characterizes several evidence-based interventions, including Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), or Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT), and lucid dream-based trauma resolution (LDTR). In the context of a trusting therapeutic relationship, M/DR+G may establish the first real-time exposure to emergent trauma-related memory in which the dream ego is endowed with an ideal state of mind for confronting and reprocessing the trauma-related nightmare.
An example of a dream that occurred following M/DR+G during the study is as follows. It exhibits all of the ingredients for trauma resolution: heightened self-reflectiveness, non-reactivity, and a willingness to engage the emergent content.
“…Now a few voices are raised and it gets loud with some people now are getting up off their chairs. About 10 or so people are now fighting in front of me and it’s a bit of mess. The fight breaks up and they all wander away. I get up and move to the table where the fight was and see a lady’s head on the table. It is a dark-skinned head and bald with gentle features. I pick the head up with two hands and place it mid-chest at my heart level and look to the corridor at the end of the room. The presence that has haunted me for a lifetime is lurking there. I have asked for it prior to dreaming and can feel the slightest tingle in my dream body as I look in that direction. Holding the head to my chest, I start to walk into the corridor and into the darkness. The feeling starts to get stronger and stronger and my body is starting to get the feeling of dread that comes with it. Now the head is starting to heat up in my hands and is also going into my chest. It gets hotter and hotter and is now fully inside me and the feelings have changed to a hot radiant warmth that floods my body. I bask in this for a while as I slowly gain awareness and allow myself to wake up. I am now fully awake in my bed and still have this feeling flooding my body.”
On the basis of the study’s findings, Sparrow and his colleagues are now conducting a study with subjects who suffer from Nightmare Disorder, to determine if M/DR+G facilitates the attenuation of PTSD-related nightmares, as well as other PTSD symptoms. He can be reached at gregory.sparrow@ utrgv.edu, and his website is dreamanalysistraining.com.