(TMU) — Brain activity during sleep and dream states represents one of the many persistently nebulous aspects of the human mind that has defied easy explanation over the years. Researchers are taking a whole new approach to the field, conducting next-level dream research in a clinical, real-life version of Inception. And they believe dreams can be “hacked, augmented, and swayed” and are developing tools to mine the subconscious like never before.
A team of researchers at MIT’s Dream Lab is developing an open-source wearable device that tracks bio-rhythms and engages with a person’s mind while they’re dreaming. The device, which they call Dormio, looks like an old-school Nintendo glove adorned with a full array of sensors and tracking mechanisms that study muscle tone, heart rate, and skin conductance.
When a person drifts into the hypnagogic stage of sleep, the glove emits a pre-recorded audio signal. The researchers believe that because dreams have a synergistic role in mental health, including memories and emotions, they can be tapped and harnessed for a better understanding of and control over mood regulation.
“People don’t know that a third of their life is a third where they could change or structure or better themselves,” said PhD student, Adam Horowitz, who is one of the Dream Lab’s researchers. “Dreaming is really just thinking at night. In dreams, we’re turning any sensory input into part of a story. Whether you’re talking about memory augmentation or creativity augmentation or improving mood the next day or improving test performance, there’s all these things you can do at night that are practically important.”
Dream Lab hosted a workshop in 2019 that explored the realm of “lucid dreaming.” Since then, they’ve conducted a 50-person experiment in which the Dormio glove delivered an audio cue of “tiger,” which subsequently caused the participants to experience a tiger in their dreams.
Dream Lab is making its device open-source and has posted the source code to the biosignal tracking software on Github.
Another Dream Lab researcher, Judith Amores, is experimenting with the olfactory sense to tap further into the unconscious science of sleep. Her project, BioEssence, works similarly to the Dormio except its primary mechanism is a wearable scent diffuser that monitors biorhythms and brain waves. When the wearer reaches the N3 stage of sleep, which scientists believe is linked to memory, the device releases a triggering scent tied to a specific memory or behavior.
“The sense of smell is particularly interesting because it’s directly connected to the memory and the emotional parts of the brain—the amygdala and the hippocampus,” Amores, who believes one day we could alter the content of dreams to treat PTSD and other conditions, says. “And that’s a very interesting gateway to access well-being…you can heal without being fully conscious.”
While scientists consider the therapeutic applications of controlled lucid dreaming, it’s hard not to imagine the recreational potential of being able to steer and author the content of a dream. Professor Tore Nielsen compares the “exhilarating feeling of a lucid dream” to virtual reality. “You can try flying, singing, having sex—it’s better than VR.”
While some may brand the Dream Lab researchers as renegade pioneers on a new frontier of science, not everyone is impressed with their work, nor receptive to their end goal. And though they’ve made both their hardware and software open-source, some have questioned the ethics of dream engineering.
Rubin Naiman, PhD, a psychologist and sleep and dream expert with the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine, for example, says the idea of hacking dreams is arrogant and potentially dangerous. He claims patients “could end up with sleep-onset insomnia.”
“The unconscious, it’s another kind of intelligence,” Rubin explains. “We can learn from it. We can be in dialogue with it rather than dominate it, rather than ‘tap in’ and try to steer it in directions we want.”
However, Amores counters that what they’re doing is not about controlling dreams:“This is about bringing awareness to the capabilities that we already have.”
Would you volunteer to be a test subject? Do you want to hack your dreams?
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