Scientists in the US have set up a technique to put ideas in people’s heads in their sleep to make them have bizarre, abstract dreams using targeted dream incubation (TDI).
The experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) were able to steer people’s dreams toward specific themes by repeating information in the earliest stage of sleep.
The earliest stage of sleep is known as hypnagogia, and is commonly related to dreams about psychedelic phenomena.
The procedure employs an essential set-up that involves a wrist-worn electronic sleep-tracking device called Dormio. The device tracks when the wearer is sleeping, and an app, which transmits audio prompts.
During this attempts, the scientists could impact on the dreams of most study partakers to dream about a tree during hypnagogia.
Researchers also used the ‘Dormio’ device to provoke a dream about the chocolate fountain from the classic 1971 film ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’.
Hypnagogia is identical to the deepest sleep stage, known as REM, in terms of brainwaves and experience. But unlike REM, the person is able to hear audio during hypnagogia while they dream, which can affect the content of dreams.
‘This state of mind is trippy, loose, flexible, and divergent,’ said co-author Haar Horowitz at MIT Media Lab.
‘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.’
When the participants wake from hypnagogia, they were asked to submit dream records.
The user determines what they would like to dream about, this ranges from creative problems they are working on to an ordeal they want to reflect on or an emotional issue they want to address.
After which record themselves reciting an audio prompt using the app, which gets replayed in numerous stages of consciousness including wake, sleep onset and sleep.
These audio prompts can contain anything the user wants, but during the MIT’s experiments, they contained sentences like ’remember to think of a tree’ and ‘remember to observe your thoughts’.
The hand-worn sleep tracker then scans the wearer’s heart rate and electrodermal activity.
These alterations enabled the researchers to distinguish when the wearer entered hypnagogia and was likely to assimilate ‘information into dream content’.
During this period, the audio prompts were transmitted to the sleeper at accurate times in the sleep cycle, confirmed by the incoming physiological data.
The moment, entry into hypnagogia was deduced by the app, a timer was triggered, which woke participants up at different times between one and five minutes, to enable participants ‘to experience various depths of sleep’.
Then, participants were aroused with the words ‘you’re falling asleep’ and were asked to recount what was going through their mind, with vocal responses recorded.
‘This loop of events was repeated for 45 min, enabling the collection of multiple hypnagogic reports’, the experts say, at which point participants were fully awoken.
‘Dream reports’, which were then collected via audio and transcribed into typed text, revealed some far-fetched tree-related dream settings.
Generally, 67 per cent of dream recounts from sleeping participants cited dreams involving a tree.
One subject said of their dream: ‘I was following the roots with someone and the roots were transporting me to different locations. At each location I was trying to find a switch.
‘I could hear the roots of the tree pulsating with energy as if they were leading me to some location.’
‘Dream reports increased in bizarreness and immersion with each awakening’, according to the experts at MIT.
One participant who dreamed longer recounted: ‘I’m in the desert, there is a shaman, sitting under the tree with me, he tells me to go to South America…’
Tomás Vega at MIT Media Lab examined the system by prompting himself to dream about one of his favourite films – ‘Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’.
His audio prompt comprised of the chocolate factory’s workers, the Oompa Loompas, singing their signature song.
‘I started dreaming about being in a chocolate waterfall, surrounded by Oompa Loompas singing ‘Oompa Loompa, doopity doo,’ Vega told Live Science.
‘So, is my lactose-intolerance knowledge in my consciousness or in my subconscious?’ he said.
‘I induced this dream content, but there were still some constraints, like, you cannot just dream about milk chocolate because that’s going to harm you.’
‘Most sleep and dream studies have so far been limited to university sleep labs and have been very expensive, as well as cumbersome, for both researchers and participants,’ said study author Pattie Maes at MIT Media Lab.
‘Our research group is excited to be pioneering new, compact and cheap technologies for studying sleep and interfacing with dreams, thereby opening up opportunities for more studies to happen and for these experiments to take place in natural settings.’
This was also evident in some historical figures like writer Mary Shelley and artist Salvador Dalí who were inspired creatively by their dreams.
An instance is, Dalí’s 1944 surrealist masterpiece ‘Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening’ which illustrates a dream of his wife Gala in the moments before awakening.
Dali also generated a memorable dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 thriller Spellbound.
‘Apart from benefiting scientists, this work has the potential to lead to new commercial technologies that go beyond sleep tracking to issue interventions that affect sleep onset, sleep quality, sleep-based memory consolidation, and learning,’ said Maes.