Scientists Developing Device to Influence Dreams, Testing It at MIT

adding audio cues during hypnagogia, changing dreams

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Scientists are working on a “Dream Incubation” device to influence dreams, Science Alert reported. A wrist-worn device uses audio cues to remind people to think of specific objects while falling asleep. Why are dreams and sleepless nights so strange?

woman dreaming colorful thoughts
Scientists are working with sleep study patients on how to influence dreams during the fluid first stage of sleeping, intermediate consciousness just before full sleep begins. Photo by Baranov Dmitry/Shutterstock

According to Science Alert, controlling someone’s dreams may soon put a little more “science” into science fiction. “Scientists have developed an experimental device and protocol for manipulating the content of people’s dreams while they are sleeping, by making them recall specific cues that can trigger targeted dream themes and experiences,” the article said.

“In a new study, a team led by neuroscientist Adam Haar Horowitz from MIT describes how a wearable electronic device—called Dormio—enables what the researchers term ‘targeted dream incubation’ (TDI), during the fluid first stage of sleep where the sleeper experiences a borderland state of consciousness called hypnagogia.” The article explains that while hynpagogia shares many features with REM sleep, a key difference is that in hypnagogia, the sleeper maintains the ability to process audio, allowing influence over dreams.

Scientists have documented the stages of sleep, including the famous REM sleep during which dreaming occurs, but many questions still remain and are being answered all the time.

A Hard Day’s Night

Stress during the day makes it more difficult for us to fall asleep, and unfortunately, less sleep makes our daily lives more stressful. This can be a perpetuating cycle, resulting in serious disruption to our lives.

“One of the things that’s known is showing that stress itself has an effect on some of the energy stores in the brain,” said Dr. Robert Sapolsky, the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University and Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery in Stanford’s School of Medicine. “This compound is called glycogen and glycogen is a storage form of energy in the brain—and stress decreases the extent to which glycogen is built back up again during sleep.

“Stress is not only making it harder to fall asleep, but once you’re asleep it’s reducing the quality, the efficiency, [and] the restorative energetic effects of sleep.”

Part of the reason it’s harder to rebuild your glycogen supply, Dr. Sapolsky said, is because a lack of sleep doesn’t just reduce the time you have to rebuild it. He said you not only have less sleep, but you have fragmented sleep and sleep that switches from one stage to another almost unpredictably.

“That just wreaks havoc with the ability of your brain to restore energy stores during the slow wave sleep.”

Origin of Crazy Dreams

So why do we have such crazy dreams, like showing up to school with no clothes on or being chased by the villains from 1980s slasher films?

The frontal cortex has lower than normal levels of activity in people with sociopathic personalities; people with repressive personalities have overactive frontal cortices,” Dr. Sapolsky said. “The frontal cortex is reining in the limbic system’s emotionality.”

So how does that tie in with sleep?

“During dreams, the frontal cortex’s metabolic rate drops down to the floor and the limbic system runs wild—that’s why dreams are dreamlike. It just goes out of control at that point because this part of the brain that imposes linear rational regulation of your emotional brain is out to lunch when you go into REM stage.”

With luck, within our lifetimes, we may be able to reel in some of the more out-of-control dreams we have.

Dr. Robert Sapolsky contributed to this article. Dr. Sapolsky is John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University and Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery in Stanford’s School of Medicine. Professor Sapolsky earned his AB summa cum laude in Biological Anthropology from Harvard University and his PhD in Neuroendocrinology from The Rockefeller University in New York.