Posted on Sep 29, 2020, 6 p.m.
Real-life inception: MIT researchers have been testing a technique called targeted dream incubation which is suggested to allow for the insertion of certain topics into someone else’s dream.
For those of you that have seen the movie Inception, this seems to be right up that sci-fi alley, as scientists from MIT Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces claim to have been able to figure out how to plant ideas into other people’s dreams via TDI.
In the past studies have shown that when sleepers enter the state of lucid dreaming they can gain awareness that they are actually dreaming and then they can have some control over what is happening in their mind as they dream. The TDI technique is suggested to achieve a similar result by targeting people during the period of hypnagogia which is a semi-lucid dream state that occurs as a person is falling to sleep.
The journal Consciousness and Cognition published the report describing the study that involved 25 participants taking daytime naps, who before going to sleep would record audio prompts in an app saying things like “remember to think of a tree” or “remember to observe your thoughts”.
Participants wore hand-mounted Dormio sleep trackers to monitor their heart rates and help to detect when they entered hypnagogia, according to lead study author Adam Haar Horowitz this is the point at when they were most "open to influence from outside audio cues". The tracker would then coordinate with the app to wake up the subjects with their pre-recorded vocal prompts, and this was repeated several times with the subject recording a brief journal entry into the app every time they were woken up.
“Simply put, people tell us whether the prompts appear in their dream," said Haar Horowitz. "Often, they are transformed — a 'tree' prompt becomes a tree-shaped car — but direct incorporation is easily identified."
67% of the participants mentioned dreaming about trees following the prompt, and each time they were awakened their dreams became more bizarre and immersive.
Although lucid dreaming is said to be rare with only half of the population ever experiencing this state, this research appears to have found a different way to allow people to shape the plots and twists of their own dreams by interrupting hypnagogia with the TDI technique and Dormio tracker.
Tomas Vega, a former graduate student researcher with MIT's Fluid Interfaces Group, tested this approach on himself, using an audio prompt to plant the idea of the Oompa Loompas from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory singing. According to Vega, he started to dream about being in a chocolate waterfall surrounded by the Oompa Loompas who were singing “Oompa Loompa doopity doo. But there was a twist to his dream, Vega is lactose intolerant, and in his dream the chocolate waterfall was made from dairy-free dark chocolate.
"It was a lactose-free waterfall," he explained. "So, is my lactose-intolerance knowledge in my consciousness or in my subconscious? 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."
“We showed that dream incubation is tied to performance benefits on three tests of creativity, by both objective and subjective metrics,” Haar Horowitz states. “Dreaming about a specific theme seems to offer benefits post-sleep, such as on creativity tasks related to this theme. This is unsurprising in light of historical figures like Mary Shelley or Salvador Dalí, who were inspired creatively by their dreams. The difference here is that we induce these creatively beneficial dreams on purpose, in a targeted manner.”
In the future, the team hopes that their approach could be useful for a range of benefits such as learning languages while sleeping or helping to cure PTSD. The team is also leading collaborations with artists using this technology to create new artwork and augment artistic creativity in work that mixes sleep science and media art.
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