Can a gadget manipulate the content of your dreams? MIT scientists develop a device that can do that and more

Home / Can a gadget manipulate the content of your dreams? MIT scientists develop a device that can do that and more

Imagine strapping on a wearable device before you hit the bed. You fall asleep, and at a certain point, the gadget guides your dreams and even records them. This is not a work of science fiction — but a reality, created in a lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

MIT scientists have developed a sleep-tracking gadget named Dormio. It can alter dreams by manipulating a sleep stage called hypnagogia, which occurs when the mind transitions from experiencing drowsiness to a time when it loses consciousness. Individuals that enter hypnagogia can hear audio while they dream, unlike the Rapid eye movement (REM) stage, where most of the dreaming happens. They have published their findings in the Journal Consciousness and Cognition.

The device may help boost creativity or improve memory. It may help build new commercial technologies that can affect sleep onset, sleep quality, sleep-based memory consolidation, and learning, Dr Pattie Maes, professor of media arts and sciences from MIT, said in a statement.

“Dormio takes dream research to a new level, interacting directly with an individual’s dreaming brain and manipulating the actual content of their dreams,” says Stickgold. “The potential value of Dormio for enhancing learning and creativity are literally mind-blowing,” Robert Stickgold, director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, explained.

(Helen Gao)

The team used Dormio to track the daytime napping sessions of 25 participants. Armed with sensors, the device monitors muscle movements, heart rates, electrical changes on the skin surface, and if the fingers were bent or relaxed to track sleep. If the subject has entered the hypnagogia stage, Dormio sends an audio cue and records the audio of dream reports after a participant wakes up, Haar Horowitz told Live Science. The sound cue could be a word like trees or tiger.

According to the findings, about 67% of the subjects reported dreaming about trees after listening to the audio cue “tree”. It suggests that sounds can shape dreams. One participant recalled following the roots with someone, which was then transporting the person to different locations. One saw “a tree from my childhood, from my backyard. It never asked for anything.” The same subject, in later awakenings, described “trees splitting into infinite pieces” and “a shaman, sitting under the tree with me, he tells me to go to South America,” according to Live Science.

“We showed that dream incubation is tied to performance benefits on three tests of creativity, by both objective and subjective metrics,” Haar Horowitz states. “Dreaming about a specific theme seems to offer benefits post-sleep, such as on creativity tasks related to this theme. 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.”

The researches hope that the device may help enhance creative minds. But as many of the mechanisms that control sleep and dreaming are not well understood, it’s too soon to say precisely how nudging a dream’s content or achieving a state of awareness while dreaming could directly benefit a sleeper in other ways, he told Live Science.

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