30-05-2023 | By Robin Mitchell
Recently, researchers from MIT published their work on an electronic glove that can be used to control dreams and help inspire creativity. Why is trying to control dreams generally challenging? What did the researchers develop, and how could it be used to help boost creativity?
The challenges of controlling dreams
For as long as humanity has existed, dreams have played a crucial part in our development. The things that we can imagine are truly astonishing, whether it’s the tallest buildings piercing clouds at tremendous heights or being as small as an ant, finding our way through an alien world that seems to make no sense. It is also believed that dreams have helped to give many people inspiration, especially in the science and engineering world (just like the invention that Homer developed in The Simpsons, only to be woken up just before its reveal).
But as amazing as our dreams can be, they have always been extremely challenging to control. Most dreams consist of random ideas, images, and themes that are often influenced by things we have seen during the day, but sometimes, we can have lucid dreams whereby our self-awareness of dreaming allows for the most incredible degree of control. While there are techniques that can help us lucid dream, they are not without their challenges and can even present danger.
To control one’s dream, it is often necessary to develop a daily routine that questions whether one is dreaming or not. For example, many lucid dreamers suggest asking, “Am I dreaming?” while walking through any doorway. By doing so, the moment one walks through a doorway in a dream and asks themselves that question, lucid dreaming can be triggered. But this is not always guaranteed and requires extreme discipline and practice.
However, if lucid dreaming can be achieved on a regular basis, there are concerns from researchers that by denying the brain the ability to have natural, uncontrolled dreams could lead to negative consequences such as diminished brain function and poor sleep patterns. Another concern that constant lucid dreaming can introduce is the inability to distinguish between real life and the dream world, potentially leading to poor and irrational decisions. In fact, a study published in Nature found that the N1 sleep stage, which is when dreams are often vivid and creative, can be influenced by outside stimuli1.
But lucid dreaming can also lead to severe nightmares if control is lost, as the brain can often wander with intrusive and negative thoughts. In such situations, nightmares are intensified as they appear to be more real than a typical nightmare. Worse, upon waking, it is possible to enter sleep paralysis whereby motor controls are lost, but the surrounding room can be seen. From there, figures of demented creatures can be seen, with many often sitting on top of those paralysed.
Despite all of these challenges, the ability to control dreams could give humanity new insight into our psyche, improve our ability to think, and even help develop new inventive solutions.
Researchers develop glove capable of controlling dreams
Recently, researchers from MIT published their findings on a newly developed glove that allows individuals to control their dreams and expand their creativity. The glove, which is fitted with sensors, is designed to identify when an individual enters the first stage of sleep, called N1, where dreams are often vivid and creative. At the same time, N1 sleeping can be influenced by outside stimuli as the brain is still partly awake but not so awake that such stimuli will wake up a person. To detect if someone is in the N1 sleep stage, the researchers utilised heart rate sensors along with muscle tone sensors to identify when twitching and reduced heart rate occur. This groundbreaking research has been published in a reputable scientific journal, Nature, which further validates their findings1.
However, once a person enters deep sleep, dreams during the N1 cycle are forgotten, but those that are awoken during N1 sleep will instantly be able to remember everything. Thus, the MIT researchers decided to take test subjects, subject them to suggestive thoughts when falling asleep, and then wake up subjects during N1 sleep. In this case, the researchers specifically talked about trees, and the results were truly astounding.
One test subject recalled being a giant who was using trees to pick their teeth, while another recalled being made of wood. To confirm that the results were consistent, the researchers also had control subjects who were not exposed to any kind of external influence. Overall, the researchers saw a dream control rate of 78%, suggesting that dream control in N1 is possible. At the same time, the researchers also noted that test subjects who were influenced had seen significantly increased levels of creativity after the experiment. This aligns with a study published in 2021, which confirmed that waking up right after drifting into sleep can boost creativity2.
In the study, researchers employed a sleep stage-tracking glove to assist volunteers in achieving dreams centred around trees during their nap sessions.
Drawing from my experience in developing educational kits at MitchElectronics, I can see how the integration of heart rate sensors and muscle tone sensors in this glove mirrors the principles we apply in our designs. This convergence of electronics and neuroscience is a testament to the limitless possibilities in our field.
Targeted Dream Incubation and Its Impact on Creativity
Delving deeper into the methodology, the researchers employed a technique known as targeted dream incubation (TDI)3. This innovative approach guided the dreams of the participants towards a specific theme, in this case, 'trees'. The TDI protocol was applied to two groups: one group was given the 'tree' cue ("Remember to think of a tree."), while the other group was given a neutral cue ("Remember to observe your thoughts."). The results were quite remarkable, with over 90% of the participants in the 'tree' TDI group reporting at least one dream involving a tree3.
The researchers used a device called Dormio to implement the TDI method, which further underscores the convergence of electronics and neuroscience. The study found that participants who underwent a nap with targeted dream incubation performed more creatively than participants who napped without any intervention and participants who stayed awake. This aligns with a 2021 study from Lacaux et al., which also found a creative boost associated with sleep onset on a number-related insight task3.
Furthermore, the study showed that dreaming of a topic during sleep onset is directly related to increased post-sleep creativity on that topic. For instance, if you dream about a 'tree', you will perform better on post-sleep creativity tasks related to a tree than a subject who does not. If you dream about a tree multiple times, you will do better than a subject who dreamt about a tree one time. This is the first study to show that incubating dreams can boost post-sleep creativity on tasks related to the incubated theme3. This discovery could have profound implications for fields that rely heavily on creative problem-solving, such as engineering and science.
How could such dreaming help humanity?
If used correctly, it is possible to use the glove developed by the researchers to help those with creativity issues, thereby allowing for a more positive outlook on life, developing unique solutions, and aiding in career advances. At the same time, this technology could also help aid engineers and scientists to utilise N1 sleep to develop new solutions that may otherwise not be thought of. This is supported by a 2021 study that found waking up right after drifting into sleep can boost creativity2.
However, this sleep technology could also be beneficial in helping those with trauma and PTSD. It is well known that those who suffer from traumatic experiences generally have trouble with sleep and often experience nightmares. But, using the glove and external stimuli, it is possible to provide those with trauma a form of control over their dreams. Furthermore, having pleasant experiences during sleep will further help the treatment process of those suffering from trauma.
In my years of working in electronics, I have seen firsthand how creative solutions can emerge from unexpected places. This technology could potentially revolutionise the way we approach problem-solving in various fields, including engineering and science.
Overall, what the researchers have developed demonstrates that when it comes to dreams, we are still yet to scratch the surface of their meaning and function. If refined, this device could present numerous advantages to humanity, but at the same time, we must recognise that dreams are not real, and trying to live in a dream world detached from reality will undoubtedly lead to decline.
Stickgold, Robert. "Targeted dream incubation at sleep onset increases post-sleep creative performance - Scientific Reports." Nature
3. "Dreaming and Creativity." MIT Media Lab.