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Listening to a specific piano sound while practicing a type of therapy that can ease nightmares reduced people’s bad dreams when the same sound was played as they slept

Mind

27 October 2022

Listening to a noise that we associate with a positive experience while we sleep, with the same sound also being played during a specific type of therapy, makes bad dreams occur less frequentlymonkeybusinessimages/Getty Images
Nightmares could be reduced by hearing a tone while you sleep that you previously associated with a positive ending to a bad dream during therapy.
Up to 8 per cent of people report having problems with nightmares. The standard treatment is image rehearsal therapy (IRT), which 30 per cent of people don’t respond to. IRT involves rehearsing a previous nightmare but changing it to have a more positive ending.
To aid memory recall, some treatments involve an individual hearing a specific sound as they form memories and then having this same sound played to them while they sleep. This is often done during the non-rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep, whereas dreams and nightmares are more common in REM sleep.
Testing the potential of this approach for nightmares, Lampros Perogamvros at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, and his colleagues first separated 36 people who had more than one nightmare per week into two groups.
Both groups were taught how to carry out IRT themselves at home, which they did for 5 minutes a day over two weeks. Only one group, however, listened to a neutral piano tone while they carried out their IRT.
During these two weeks, both groups wore a headband every night that monitored their sleep phase by detecting brain activity. When they entered REM sleep, both groups were played the tone that only one group was exposed to during their at-home IRT. This tone was played at 10 second intervals.

At the end of the two weeks, the group that had heard the tone during IRT reported having one-fifth as many nightmares as the IRT-only group. This effect continued until the end of the experiment follow-up period, at three months.
The group that heard the tone during IRT also reported having more positive dreams.
By carrying out this treatment in people’s homes, it could become a widespread intervention to ease nightmares, says Mark Blagrove at Swansea University, UK.
“You could not only have people treated with IRT in the clinician’s room, or therapist’s room, but people could possibly be sent home with these devices that spot the stages of sleep and have the auditory signal that was played when they were doing IRT presented again during sleep,” he says.
To better understand how the different stages of sleep correspond to nightmares, future research could test playing the sound during non-REM sleep phases, says Blagrove.
Journal reference: Current Biology, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2022.09.032

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