Scientists say this major piano chord can help cure nightmares
28 October 2022, 13:24 | Updated: 28 October 2022, 14:29
A nightmare-curing major chord. Could it be true?
In a study conducted on patients who had been diagnosed with a nightmare disorder, 36 volunteers were invited to rewrite their most frequent nightmares in a positive light. Then, while they were sleeping, they were played a repeated piano chord, which they had been taught to associate with positive experiences.
The chord was C69 – C major, with a major sixth (the note ‘A’) and a major ninth (‘D’) added.
“Thanks to this new therapy, the patients’ nightmares decreased significantly, and their positive dreams increased,” the scientists write in their summary of the study, published in Current Biology.
As well as causing poor quality sleep, nightmares are often associated with other health issues like anxiety, which in turn can lead to insomnia and bad dreams. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many reported experiencing more nightmares and interrupted sleep than usual.
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This study made use of a frequently used, non-invasive method to treat nightmares, called imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT). Patients are invited to rewrite their most distressing, and frequent, nightmares with a happy ending, and then to ‘rehearse’ telling themselves that rewritten narrative, in a bid to trick their brain into overwriting the original nightmare.
But while this method can reduce the frequency and severity of nightmares, many patients aren’t receptive to it.
Separately, in 2010, scientists found that playing sounds or music that people have been trained to associate with a certain experience, while they are sleeping, can boost the memory of that stimulus, in a method known as targeted memory reactivation (TMR).
This study’s authors wanted to know if they could combine the two methods. “There is a relationship between the types of emotions experienced in dreams and our emotional well-being,” said psychiatrist Lampros Perogramvros, of Geneva University Hospitals and the University of Geneva.
“Based on this observation, we had the idea that we could help people by manipulating emotions in their dreams.”
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All the volunteers were invited to rewrite their recurring nightmares and rehearse them in a single IRT session. Then, they were split into two groups, with only the second group given a TMR session in which they were exposed to music.
The second group were played sounds while sleeping at home in their own beds. They were each given a headphone headband to play the sound – the aforementioned piano chord, C69. It played every 10 seconds during REM sleep, when nightmares were most likely to happen.
“The aim was for this sound to be associated with the imagined positive scenario,” explains Sophie Schwartz, a professor at the University of Geneva. “In this way, when the sound was then played again but now during sleep, it was more likely to reactivate a positive memory in dreams.”
Over the following weeks and months, the groups kept track of their nightmares in sleep diaries. They were assessed after two weeks, and then once more after three months without any treatment.
At the beginning of the study, the first group had, on average, 2.58 nightmares a week, while the second group experienced an average of 2.94 nightmares a week.
By end of the study, the first group were experiencing 1.02 weekly nightmares, while the second group, who were played the repeated piano chord, had just 0.19. This group also reported an increase in good dreams.
After three months, these numbers increased slightly to 1.48 and 0.33. But researchers said it was still an impressive reduction, suggesting that using TMR to support IRT produces better results.
“We were positively surprised by how well the participants respected and tolerated the study procedures,” Perogamvros says.
“We observed a fast decrease of nightmares, together with dreams becoming emotionally more positive. For us, researchers and clinicians, these findings are very promising both for the study of emotional processing during sleep and for the development of new therapies.”