Sleep is a forgotten country of the mind. A vast majority of our technologies are built for our waking state, even though a third of our lives are spent asleep. Current technological interfaces miss an opportunity to access the unique, imaginative, elastic cognition ongoing during dreams and semi-lucid states. In turn, each of us misses an opportunity to use interfaces to influence our own processes of memory consolidation, creative insight generation, gist extraction, and emotion regulation that are so deeply sleep-dependent. In this project, we explore ways to augment human creativity by extending, influencing, and capturing dreams in Stage 1 sleep. It is currently challenging to force ourselves to be creative because so much creative idea association occurs in the absence of executive control and directed attention. Sleep offers an opportunity for prompting creative thought in the absence of directed attention, especially if dreams can be guided.
During sleep onset, a window of opportunity arises in the form of hypnagogia, a semi-lucid sleep state where we all begin dreaming before we fall fully unconscious. Hypnagogia is characterized by phenomenological unpredictability, distorted perception of space and time, and spontaneous, fluid idea association. Edison, Tesla, Poe, and Dalí each accessed this state by napping with a steel ball in hand; when the ball dropped to the floor below just as they fell asleep, they awoke to capture the creative ideas generated in their hypnagogic dreams.
Engineering & Experimentation
In this project, we modernize the steel ball technique using a custom sleep onset tracker and auditory feedback which we together call Dormio. With the Dormio system, we are able to reliably influence hypnagogic dreams and collect dream content. We found that active use of the "targeted dream incubation" protocol during hypnagogia can augment human creativity. This Dormio system enables future research into sleep, an underutilized and understudied state of mind vital for memory, learning, and creativity. Dormio has been published at CHI and in Consciousness and Cognition. It has been used for several studies, both at the MIT Media Lab and in independent labs outside of MIT.
This work has been highly collaborative. The following contributors, in alphabetical order by first name, have all made it possible: Abhinandan Jain, Adam Haar Horowitz, Christina Chen, Eyal Perry, Ishaan Grover, Kathleen Esfahany, Matthew Ha, Oscar Rosello, Pattie Maes, Pedro Reynolds-Cuéllar, Robert Stickgold, and Tomás Vega.
To learn more, see the FAQ below and explore the publications related to this project. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to see more photos of the Dormio system.