MIT tests ‘dream incubation’ device that manipulates the content of people’s dreams

Scientists have developed an experimental device and protocol to manipulate the content of people’s dreams while sleeping, reminding them of specific cues that can trigger specific dream themes and experiences.

While building unlimited dreams of Start Still science fiction for now, new research shows that the evolving science of dream control is much more than fantasy, and that information processing during sleep is capable of being designed from the outside.

In a new study, a team led by neuroscientist Adam Haar Horowitz of MIT describes how a portable electronic device, called Dormium, enables what researchers call ‘targeted sleep incubation’ (TDI), during the first stage of fluid sleep where the sleeper experiences a borderline state of consciousness called hypnagogia.

“This state of mind is uneven, loose, flexible and divergent,” explains Haar Horowitz.

“It’s like going up the notch by wandering through the mind and making it immersive: being pushed and dragged with new sensations like your body floating and falling, with your thoughts quickly getting in and out of control.”

010 dream incubation device 3The Dormio wrist device. (Oscar Rosello)

Hypnagogy 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 crucial sensory back door. that allows specific dream incubation to work.

Like a similar experimental method called directed memory reactivation (TMR), which reactivates specific memories that are activated by a signal delivered during sleep, TDI may have applications as a learning tool that can improve memory consolidation, But it has a specific advantage: the Dormio device, worn on the wrist as a sensor-laden glove.

When a person falls asleep using the device, the audio signals are played through an associated application, such as “Remember to think of a tree” (the dream theme used in the experiment, carried out with 49 participants).

The Dormio sensors look for physiological data that indicates that the person has fallen asleep, at which point the system briefly wakes them up, prompting them to tell what was going through their minds while they slept, with their verbal report of dreams recorded by the application.

010 dream incubation device 3The experimental setup. (Oscar Rosello)

After this brief interruption, they go back to sleep, but only for a short time, during a series of repeated dreams, awakenings, and requested recordings, all centered on a state of directed hypnagogy (at least in theory).

“Targeted dream incubation is a protocol for reactivating memories during sleep in a way that leads to the incorporation of specific memory, or related memories, into the content of the dream,” the researchers explain in their article.

“The objective of this study is to assess Dormio’s ability to identify the sleep onset period and successfully manipulate the content of the hypnagogic sleep report through pre-sleep verbal prompts.”

Although the prototype system is still being refined, the experimental results suggest that it appears to successfully influence dreams and can largely document its content.

When Dormio urged participants to think of a tree before and during the “border” sleep state, 67 percent of the dream reports collected by the app mentioned references to a tree upon awakening from a hypnagogic state.

“My dream involved a tree,” said one participant in a verbal report they gave after waking up. “I was following the roots with someone and the roots were transporting me to different places … I could hear the roots of the tree pulsing with energy as if they were taking me somewhere.”

In contrast, the dream reports of a control group, who were only asked to observe their thoughts, made virtually no reference to the trees.

In addition to helping shape people’s dreams, the researchers say their Dormio system and dream incubation protocol could be used for various learning techniques that involve sleep-based memory consolidation, or as a tool. to aid creativity and problem solving by encouraging people to consciously remember the fluid and vivid thinking of their hypnagogic state.

“Dreaming about a specific theme seems to offer benefits after sleep, as in creativity tasks related to this theme,” says Haar Horowitz.

“This is not surprising in light of historical figures such as Mary Shelley or Salvador Dalí, who were creatively inspired by their dreams. The difference here is that we purposely induce these creatively beneficial dreams, specifically.”

The findings are reported in Consciousness and Cognition.