Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed an experimental device and protocol to manipulate the content of people’s dreams while sleeping, reminding them of specific clues that may trigger specific dream themes and experiences.
Christopher Nolan’s film ‘Origin‘ was about the limitless construction of dreams. That, for now, is science fiction, but the control of dreams from the outside seems to be more real than we imagined.
In this new study, a team led by neuroscientist Adam Haar Horowitz of MIT describes how a portable electronic device, called Dormio, enables what researchers call “targeted dream incubation” (TDI), during the first stage of sleep, in which the sleeper experiences a borderline state of consciousness called the hypnagogic state.
The hypnagogic state shares many of the fluid, dreamlike sensations of REM sleep, but with one important difference: People can still hear and process audio during this intermediate state as they go from being awake to being asleep (and vice versa), a back door. Sensory crucial that allows targeted sleep incubation to work.
“The objective of the present study is to evaluate the ability of Dormio to identify the period of sleep onset and successfully manipulate the content”
Targeted dream incubation can be used as a learning tool that can improve memory consolidation, but it has a specific advantage: the Dormio device, which is a sensor-loaded glove that is carried in the hand.
When a person falls asleep using the device, audio tracks are played through an associated application, such as “Remember to think of a tree” (the theme of the dream used in the experiment, carried out with 49 participants).
The Dormio sensors look for physiological data that indicates that the person has fallen asleep. It is then that the system briefly wakes them up, prompting them to say what was going through their mind while they slept and records it in the application.
After this brief interruption, they fall asleep again and a process of repeated dreams, awakenings and prompted recordings begins again, all focused on a directed hypnagogic state.
“Targeted dream incubation is a protocol for reactivating memories during sleep in a manner that leads to incorporation of the targeted memory, or related memories, into dream content,” the researchers explain in their work, published in the scientific journal. Consciousness and Cognition‘.
“The aim of the current study is to assess the ability of Dormio to identify the sleep onset period and successfully manipulate the content of hypnagogic dream report through pre-sleep verbal prompts.” the authors note in statements cited by Science Alert.
Although the system is still being refined, experimental results suggest that it appears to successfully influence dreams and may largely document its content.
When Dormio prompted participants to think of a tree before and during the “border” dream state, 67% of the dream reports collected by the app mentioned references to a tree upon awakening from a hypnagogic state.
In contrast, the reports of the dreams of a control group, which did not receive Dormio’s “advice”, did not present any reference to the trees.
In addition to helping shape people’s dreams, the researchers say their Dormio system and their dream incubation protocol could be used for various learning techniques that involve sleep-based memory consolidation or as a tool for aiding creativity and problem solving, inciting people to consciously remember the fluid and vivid thinking of their hypnagogic state.
“This is unsurprising in light of historical figures like Mary Shelley or Salvador Dalí, who were inspired creatively by their dreams. The difference here is that we induce these creatively beneficial dreams on purpose, in a targeted manner” concludes Horowitz.