It’s been said that Thomas Edison took naps clasping steel balls in his hand. As he fell asleep, his grip would relax, the balls would drop, and he would jolt awake, hearing a clanging noise as they hit the floor.
It sounds like the bizarre routine of a mad scientist, but it is a technique MIT researchers are now trying to recreate, albeit with a little more scientific rigor and reliability.
The idea is to induce the transitory period between wakefulness and sleep, which you can think of as like the twilight zone between night and day. Or, as one researcher puts it, a “natural fragmentation of consciousness” where you are neither fully conscious nor entirely unconscious. The period is tricky to define – while some people may be able to hold full conversations, others will experience visual and auditory hallucinations.
It's a state scientists call hypnagogia, where many believe we are at our most creative.
To trigger hypnagogia, a team of scientists at MIT Media Lab led by Adam Horowitz have invented Dormio, a machine they claim can literally shape the content of your dreams. Their findings will be presented at the Computer-Human Interface conference in Montreal later this week.
"Hypnagogia is characterized by phenomenological unpredictability, distorted perception of space and time, loss of sense of self, and spontaneous, fluid idea association," the researchers say on the lab's website.
"Using Dormio, we are able to influence, extract information from, and extend hypnagogic microdreams for the first time."
It's worth noting, these microdreams (or hypnagogic dreams) are different from lucid dreams that occur in the REM stage of sleep. Unlike in lucid dreams, where the participant is active, the participant in a hypnagogic dream is passive – though this doesn't mean they cannot control the direction of the dream, even if they do need a little help.
In tests, napping volunteers wore a glove built with sensitive tracking technology that can monitor muscle tone, heart rate changes, and skin conductance. When the data reveals the sleeper has hit hypnagogia, they are gently prodded into a more wakeful state and an audio message is played. This audio message is then supposed to influence the sleeper's hypnagogic dream. Once suspended in that state, the audio asks them what they are thinking about.
"We found all of our subjects indeed dreamed about themes chosen by experimenters prior to subject sleep, and that active use of hypnagogia with the Dormio system can augment human creativity as measured by flexibility, fluency, elaboration, and originality of thought," the researchers add.
Sounds spooky but researchers hope to make the technology cheap, accessible, and comfortable for all, allowing everyone to enhance their creativity by tapping into this hypnagogic state.
It's not available to the public just yet, however. So for now, we'll have to stick to Edison's steel balls.