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A piano chord could save you from your nightmares

Sometimes adults need lullabies too.

By Cassidy Ward
Woman resting on keyboard

In the 1964 horror film Nightmare, a young girl witnesses her father’s murder at the hands of her mother. She is then plagued with a recurring nightmare, forcing her to witness the murder over and over each night. By the time the credits roll we know there’s something else going on and the mystery is revealed, but most nightmares aren’t so easily explained or controlled.

Most of us have nightmares every now and again but they are usually blessedly infrequent. Nightmares can have bleed over effects which seep into our waking life, causing anxiety, fatigue, and changes in mood. If you’ve ever had a dream in which someone hurt you and woke to found yourself feeling angry or betrayed, you know how powerful those emotions can be. For an unfortunate subset of the population, that’s something they have to deal with on a regular basis. Nightmares are a normal part of sleep, but are considered pathological if they occur more than once a week and impact waking life. For some people, having nightmares only once a week would be a relief.

If you have chronic nightmares, there is hope of relief. Scientists have experimented with Imagery Rehearsal Therapy, in which a person suffering from chronic nightmares spends five or 10 minutes each day imagining positive alternative outcomes for their nightmare scenarios. There’s evidence that after a couple weeks of practicing IRT the frequency of nightmares decreases. Some patients, however, don’t receive any relief no matter how hard or how often they practice.

That drove scientists from the University of Geneva to look for an alternative or complimentary therapy to IRT, and what they found is music to our ears. Their study, published in the journal Current Biology, utilizes the association between music and memory to block or redirect nightmares.

Researchers call their new nightmare nullifying therapy Targeted Memory Reactivation, and it hinges on the idea that external stimuli like smells or sounds can become associated with specific memories or emotions, and we might be able to trigger those associations during sleep. To find out, the team gathered 36 people experiencing chronic nightmares and broke them up into two groups.

The first group received IRT alone, while the second group got the combo therapy. While the second group was visualizing their positive nightmare outcomes, researchers played a major chord on a piano every 10 seconds. Sleepers were then given an electrode headband capable of measuring brain activity through the skull and sent off to bed. When the headband detected REM sleep, the piano chord was played every 10 seconds, just as it was during the visualization exercise.

The frequency of nightmares was tracked for the next two weeks, and researchers found a decrease in both groups, but the drop off in the group who heard the piano chord was much more significant. At the start of the study, the TMR group reported an average of approximately three nightmares per week. After therapeutic intervention the average nightmare frequency dropped to 0.19 per week, give or take. Not only did the number of nightmares decrease dramatically, but the TMR group also saw an increase in positive dream experiences, and those effects lasted at least three months after the study ended.

It's worth noting that the sample size of the study was small and needs to be replicated before we’ll know if the effects are wide ranging. Still, the researchers are hopeful that it could provide relief for folks who dread sleep, and might even be effective for nightmares driven by post traumatic stress. Waking life can be hard enough, we all deserve a good night’s sleep.

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