MIT’s Targeted Dream Incubation Device Is Fresh Out Of Inception

It's hoped that Dormio could improve creativity, memory and mood by directing our dreams. LuisMarquezPhotography/Shutterstock

Rachael Funnell 30 Jul 2020, 16:09

It's long been understood that some among us are lucky enough to experience lucid dreaming where we can act out whatever scenarios we like from the comfort of our beds. Now, new research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is attempting to take dream manipulation one step further by controlling what people think about through playing audio cues during the earliest stages of sleep. If you can't already see the parallels with Inception, I suggest you watch the film again.

The new paper, Dormio: A Targeted Dream Incubation Device, published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, is presented by researchers from the Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces group and introduces a novel method called “Targeted Dream Incubation” (TDI). It centers around a period of sleep known as hypnagogia (the earliest sleep stage) when our brainwave activity is similar to that seen in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The difference is that during hypnagogia sleepers can still detect sounds.

“This state of mind is trippy, loose, flexible, and divergent,” said lead researcher Adam Haar Horowitz in a statement. “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.”

In order to track what was happening during the TDI experiments, the researchers formulated a sleep-tracking device called Dormio that could track the progress of hypnagogia and alter the person’s dreams by delivering auditory cues (unfortunately they didn’t opt for "Non, je ne regrette rien").

Dormio assesses incoming physiological data from the sleeping participants and selects precise times in the sleep cycle to deliver the auditory cues to change the dream’s direction. This protocol, implemented through an app in conjunction with a wearable sleep-tracking sensor device, not only enables more accurate dream reports but also can help the sleeper in their waking life as their guided dream content can be used to complete tasks such as creative story writing or improve their mood and memory.

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

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