I had a lucid dream once. It started out like a regular dream. I was on top of a car, clinging on for dear life as it hurtled along a cliffside highway in the moonlight. I became so panicked that (I think) something switched in my brain and suddenly it was very obvious I was dreaming, that what was happening wasn't real. The fear turned to glee as I enjoyed the ride. It's not so scary when you know there's no way you can actually get hurt.
It was fun, but I never actively tried to experience it again. So when foc.us—a startup that has created an at-home electrode set designed to stimulate the brain for all kinds of goals, including lucid dreaming—reached out to me, I was a little apathetic.
But a lot of people desperately want to lucid dream, and actively attempt it every night. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of books on the subject. Online forums give lucid dreamers and lucid dream hopefuls guidance, tips, and troubleshooting. A sizeable chunk of scientific research has been devoted to the phenomenon. There was a little movie, Inception, which introduced the idea to a whole new generation of dreamers. We humans seem rather obsessed with the possibility of controlling our dreams.
I can sort of understand the appeal. Certainly there is a desire to live out fantasies, whether it's the ability to fly, or something a little raunchier. And studies have suggested people who naturally dream lucidly are more creative and better at problem-solving. Some researchers have suggested we may be able to practice skills, come up with new ideas, and work out problems in our dream. I didn't care much about the sex stuff, but the idea of being able to work even while asleep did appeal to me (we are a sick generation), so I asked foc.us to send me a unit to test out.
The foc.us "moovs" kit (specifically for dreaming) consisted of a pair of electrodes, a dozen pairs of disposable adhesive electrode gel pads, and a tiny transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) device reminiscent of an iPod nano. The user pops some gel pads on the electrodes, places them on each temple, plugs it into the device and fires up one of the programs. The lucid dreaming program is designed to stimulate the brain after a ten-minute countdown, giving the user time to fall asleep.
Originally, foc.us was designed for gamers to stimulate their brain before playing as a way to improve focus, according to Michael Oxley, the CEO and founder of foc.us. But after the device was released online last year, users starting hacking it for different uses, Oxley said.
"There were some strong papers about increasing working memory and increasing focus, which is ideal for gaming," Oxley told me over the phone. "But a lot of our customers weren't using it for that. They were using it for other benefits and one of the most popular ones we saw was for lucid dreaming."
Oxley said a paper published in Nature last year, which showed lucid dreams could be induced through stimulating gamma waves in a sleeping person, inspired a lot of customers to try to use foc.us in the same way. So the foc.us team wrote a new program specifically designed to try to ellicit lucid dreams.
"A positive charge will excite a part of the brain and a negative current will sort of turn off that part of the brain," Oxley said. "The higher function areas at the front of the brain are active during lucid dreams, so the idea is that if we excite that while people are dreaming, they'll have a greater chance of having a lucid dream."
Oxley said he uses the device nearly every night, and while it doesn't always work, when it does it's very exciting. Unfortunately, my experience was not quite so thrilling. Though the lucid dream program on the foc.us delivers a relatively low electrical current of 1.5 milliamps, it was too high for me. The electrodes immediately started to sting my skin and I had to take them off after about three seconds. So, I enlisted my less-sensitive coworkers to test it out, but the results were just as disappointing.
"I couldn't imagine there is big market for people who want to strap electrodes to their head every night just so they can fly around and have sex."
Adrianne Jeffries, our managing editor, clawed the electrodes off in her sleep. No lucid dreams for her. Editor in chief Derek Mead said the device made him feel "really weird."
"I've tried cranial stimulation devices before, so was more concerned about trying to fall asleep with wires everywhere—I'm a terrible sleeper, and a thrasher I've heard—than getting zapped, but it was a bit weirder than I anticipated," Derek said. "The current made my cheap LED bed lamp have a shutter effect I didn't expect, and after the first 10 minute session I didn't notice anything so I turned it off, hoping I'd stimmed myself enough. No dreams that night either, but I have enough wild dreams on my own."
Fellow staff writer Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai said he thought it worked for him, maybe, but it was difficult to tell for sure.
"I felt some sort of weird pain in my head," Lorenzo said. "It was like someone was squishing my brain. When I fell asleep, I think I had a lucid dream, but I think my brain just wanted to believe I had a lucid dream. I don't remember what it was about."
So Motherboard didn't find much success on the electrically-stimulate lucid dreaming front. Oxley told me they're still improving the device (he wants to make it wireless and be able to detect when someone is asleep, rather than relying on a countdown), but it's $300 for the full kit, and there are plenty of free ways of trying to lucid dream. Even if the device worked perfectly, I couldn't imagine there is big market for people who want to strap electrodes to their head every night just so they can fly around and have sex, but Oxley said I'd be surprised.
"We were amazed," Oxley said. "We sold out our first two batches way quicker than we thought we would and now there are two or three big, VC-funded companies out in Silicon Valley doing the same thing. While it's currently a small market, it won't be long before Apple starts selling a brain stimulator."
Maybe, and maybe it will work, but either way, I probably won't be buying it. I'll just stick to doing my work the old-fashioned way: while conscious.