MIT Researchers Just Created a Device that Can Alter Dreams


Jul 31, 2020


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Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology just created a “targeted dream incubation device” that can control people’s dreams through an app and a sleep-tracking sensor device. Called dream control, the MIT innovation is the latest step in what has quickly become an evolving science aimed to manipulate dreams to impact emotion, memory, and creativity. 

For a while now, scientists have known about lucid dreaming — a state in which a person is aware of the fact that they’re dreaming, and can gain some amount of control over what they dream. The study of lucid dreams can not only give scientists insight into how consciousness works, but also develop research into how lucid dreams can be used for practical purposes, such as boosting creativity or helping a survivor deal with traumatic memories. For example, people who experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder often experience chronic nightmares related to a traumatic event, which can cause anxiety and insomnia. Inducing lucid dreams for people struggling with PTSD can help give them control over what they’re dreaming, reinforcing the idea that what they’re dreaming is not real and can be changed or improved. 

To that end, scientists have been experimenting with dream control in recent years, built on basic sleep science. When a person is falling asleep, they enter a state called hypnagogia, which is the earliest sleep stage. Individuals in this state can still hear sounds when they’re falling into a dream. “This state of mind is trippy, loose, flexible, and divergent,” lead researcher in the MIT study, Haar Horowitz, said in a statement. “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.”

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Through the targeted dream incubation device, MIT scientists tracked when a person entered hypnagogia, and delivered audio cues through an app that could direct the person’s dreams. In trying out the device, people repeatedly listened to the audio cues, fell asleep, were woken up by the sensor system to relay what they dreamed, only to fall asleep and retry the cycle. A series of these experiments have led scientists to conclude how dream control could help an individual. “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,” Horowitz said. 

The science behind dream control is in its infancy, but scientists have tried other ways to manipulate dreams in the past few years. A 2017 study tested a combination of the three most common tactics to induce lucid dreaming, giving people the control to manipulate their dreams. First, reality testing, in which people ask their awake selves whether they’re dreaming, and perform a task that helps them answer the question, such as breathing through the nose when it’s pinched — impossible when awake, possible when dreaming. Research shows this questioning routine when awake can spill into our dreams, helping us become aware of the fact that we’re dreaming, thereby inducing lucidity. A second tactic is Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (MILD), in which people visualize becoming lucid during a dream, familiarizing themselves with a phrase such as “next time I’ll remember when I’m dreaming.” If performed in combination with the third tactic — Wake-Back-To-Bed (WBTB) — a self-explanatory practice that requires people to wake up a couple of hours before their normal time and then go back to sleep, scientists say can increase awareness of, and control over, lucid dreams. 

Several drugs and devices that promise to help people induce lucid dreams have propped up on the market, to be used in conjunction with the MILD and WBTB techniques. But the research into dream control is still trying to find its footing, with most experiments done in sleep laboratories where the external environment can be controlled. Whether these technologies and techniques become accessible, affordable, and controllable in individual homes remains to be seen. 


Written By Rajvi Desai

Rajvi Desai is The Swaddle’s Culture Editor. After graduating from NYU as a Journalism and Politics major, she covered breaking news and politics in New York City, and dabbled in design and entertainment journalism. Back in the homeland, she’s interested in tackling beauty, sports, politics and human rights in her gender-focused writing, while also co-managing The Swaddle Team’s podcast, Respectfully Disagree.


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