Can we control dreams?

Is the movie Inception really science fiction? Released in 2010, the film directed by Christopher Nolan features the character of Dom Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), tasked with implanting an idea in an individual’s mind while they are dreaming in order to commit the perfect crime. But there’s no ulterior motive behind this study, which discusses the development of a device used to for what scientists call “targeted dream incubation.”

The research led by Adam Haar Horowitz (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT) aimed to demonstrate the possibility of manipulating people’s dreams during the first phase of sleep via an electronic device. This first phase of sleep corresponds to what Alfred Maury termed “hypnagogia” in 1848, a transitional state of consciousness during the onset of sleep. Haar Horowitz described it as follows: “This state of mind is trippy, loose, flexible, and divergent. It’s like turning the notch up high on mind-wandering and making it immersive — being pushed and pulled with new sensations like your body floating and falling, with your thoughts quickly snapping in and out of control.”

As the study’s authors point out, previous research in neuroscience has shown that this hypnagogic state shares many similarities to REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, the fifth and final stage of the sleep cycle, in terms of dreamlike sensations and brain waves. But there is one important difference: people can hear and process audio stimuli during hypnagogia, something not experienced during REM sleep. Targeted Dream Incubation (TDI) uses this “door ajar” to gain access to dreaming.

Scientists have developed a specific protocol that uses an innovative portable electronic device, Dormio, to automatically generate dream incubations. Dormio consists of an application linked to a wearable sleep-tracking sensor. The device can not only record "dream reports," but can also guide dreaming toward specific themes by repeating targeted information at the onset of sleep, allowing it to be integrated into the content of the dream. Dormio was designed by a multidisciplinary team at the MIT Media Lab. This sleep-tracking device can thus induce certain themes into dreams by following hypnagogia and providing audio signals based on incoming physiological data.

What’s the point of TDI? Upon waking, the content of a guided dream can be used to accomplish tasks such as creative writing. A first pilot study in 2018 demonstrated increased creativity in six people. As part of his thesis work, Haar Horowitz conducted this new, larger study (49 participants) which extended the initial results. He says, “we showed that dream incubation is tied to performance benefits on three tests of creativity, by both objective and subjective metrics.” Concretely, when the protocol prompted subjects to think of a tree, 67% of the verbal dream reports made direct references to trees upon awakening from a hypnagogic state.

According to the authors, the TDI method and Dormio technology could be used to improve learning through memory consolidation techniques that already occur during sleep, or facilitate problem solving by prompting people to consciously remember their thoughts during the hypnagogic state.
Source: Adam Haar Horowitz, Tony J. Cunningham, Pattie Maes, Robert Stickgold. “Dormio: A targeted dream incubation device”, in Consciousness and Cognition, August 2020 // MIT website : https://news.mit.edu/2020/targeted-dream-incubation-dormio-mit-media-lab-0721

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