Controlling Your Dreams Isn't Just Sci-Fi Anymore

Inception, anyone?

Key Takeaways

  • A team at MIT says that they have discovered a new way to guide peoples’ dreams. 
  • Targeted Dream Incubation (TDI) uses an app along with a wearable sleep-tracking sensor device. 
  • An array of gadgets on the market claim to offer the ability to control your thoughts while asleep.
A teenage girl sleeping on a couch with a flower blanket
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Modifying your dreams may seem like science fiction, but it may soon be possible in real life, researchers say. 

A number of gadgets are marketed as being able to manipulate dreams, but scientists have expressed skepticism about these claims. Now, a team at MIT says that they have discovered a way that actually works. The team’s new technique, outlined in a recent paper, is winning praise from researchers.

"I think this approach has real promise," Tore Nielsen, a sleep researcher at the University of Montreal, said in a phone interview. "It could be useful for everything from just entertainment value all the way to treating your post traumatic nightmares."

Be Like Leo in Inception

Lucid dreaming, when you're conscious during a dream, was made famous in the 2010 film Inception. In the movie, Leonardo DiCaprio stars as a professional thief who steals information by infiltrating the subconscious of his targets.

MIT’s real-life version of dream control, called Targeted Dream Incubation (TDI), uses an app along with a wearable sleep-tracking sensor device. The gear helps record dream reports and also guides dreams toward particular themes. It does this by repeating information when a person begins sleeping, which researchers say allows the incorporation of this information into dreams.

"It could be useful for everything from just entertainment value all the way to treating your post traumatic nightmares."

The MIT team used previous research into sleep, which found that during the earliest sleep stage called hypnagogia, people can still hear sounds while they dream. 

"This state of mind is trippy, loose, flexible, and divergent," lead researcher Adam 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."

To take advantage of this stage, the team developed Dormio, a sleep-tracking device they claim can alter dreams by tracking hypnagogia, then deliver sounds based on physiological data.

"Dormio takes dream research to a new level, interacting directly with an individual’s dreaming brain and manipulating the actual content of their dreams," said Robert Stickgold, director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Healing and Teaching the Mind

The ability to control your subconscious could have a wide array of benefits, experts say, perhaps even one day helping to treat mental illness. 

"Posttraumatic stress disorder has this effect where people who've been through traumatic events have recurring nightmares," Achilleas Pavlou, a sleep researcher at the University of Essex, said in a phone interview. "And these recurring nightmares are affecting their lives. You could then become lucid and change the nightmare into a neutral or a positive dream, and that can have carryover effects in your waking life."

A sleeping girl floats on a bed in the sky and dreaming
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Other possible uses for such control include teaching music or sports skills. 

"There's some preliminary research to show that you can actually train in your sleep," Pavlou said. "That's because, in your dreams, you're actually activating the same neural pathways as if you're doing it in real life."

The Wild World of Dream Gadgets

An array of manufacturers sell gadgets they claim offer the ability to control dreams. These gizmos range from the Aurora, which allegedly lets users "Sleep Smarter. Dream Bigger" thanks to a brain sensor embedded in a headband that connects to an app. 

Another device intended for dream tweaking is the Remee, a sleeping mask that, according to the product website, "uses a series of smart timers, [with] light patterns… displayed throughout the night." Hypnodyne's ZMax is another sleep-monitoring headband that delivers light, vibrations, and sounds and also allows "audio-recording of dream experiences." Neuroon’s sleep mask provides sleep tracking and its website says a lucid dreaming feature is "coming soon."

Hypnodyne's ZMax

A study released last year, of which Pavlou was a co-author, attempts to check the veracity of such claims.

"Only Neuroon and ZMax provide minimal technical information on how their algorithm detects REM sleep online, but none makes the data fully available," the study found. "Most importantly, only DreamLight has been empirically tested with published results; thus, we conclude that better-controlled validation studies are necessary to prove the effectiveness of LD induction devices." 

Nielsen says he’s skeptical of the claims of many of these sleep gadgets. 

"I would say that these companies that are offering these devices, at least for brain stimulation, are really premature," he said. "They're jumping the gun. Obviously, they want to get in there first with their product, and they take a single study or two, and assume that this is the final word, but in fact, it's not."

Dreaming of the Day 

Researchers say the day is near when controlling your thoughts during sleep will be reality. "In terms of modifying dreams, there's definitely a future," Pavlou said. Nielsen predicts that "in five years, maybe we might see something really quite effective."

But progress still needs to be made before people can order up a dream to your exact specifications.

"We're not there yet," Pavlou said. "We still don't fully understand the requisites for successfully incorporating external stimuli such as sound into the dream." 

Pavlou is currently studying how to make a stimulus go into a dream without waking someone up. "If it's a sound, and I think that once [we have] fully understood the mechanisms, then we'll be able to know [how to] modify dreams the way we want to," he added.

"There's some preliminary research to show that you can actually train in your sleep."

For now, though, Pavlou is still working on the basics. 

"I'm trying to understand how the brain is processing stimuli when it's asleep," he said. "One of the key things has to do with awakening thresholds. For example, if I play a sound [around] 30 decibels, that might wake you up or that might not wake you up. And that is because the brain attenuates external stimuli differently [in] each individual."

Even if dreams can be controlled, it remains to be seen just how much. Eventually, Nielsen believes "we'll be able to help people to have more lucid dreams, but whether it will be all the time, that remains to be seen.

"I suspect that there's going to be pushback from the dreams themselves. I don't think dreaming is necessarily going to be easily tamed."

Those looking to control their own reveries might want to hold off on purchasing any technology for right now. But the day when crafting a specific dream is as easy as downloading a song could be getting closer.