Project

Targeted Dream Incubation

Copyright

Catherine Offord

Catherine Offord

What Is TDI?

Targeted Dream Incubation is a method for guiding dreams towards specific themes. It is a proposal both magnetic and unlikely: Can we really engineer dreams, our internal worlds that feel so fundamentally out of our control? 

The incubation of specific dream content has fascinated people for millennia, from Ancient Egyptian spiritual practices and Canadian Indigenous  dream sharing rituals to contemporary treatments for PTSD-related nightmares. Reliable techniques have proven elusive in the laboratory, yet it's crucial to know that Targeted Dream Incubation (TDI) is a modern instantiation of an ancient technique. Here is a great summary of the myriad ways people have historically interfaced with dreams.

How Does TDI Work?

The key to TDI is a special state of sleep called hypnagogia, or NREM 1. This is a term for the entrance to sleep, where it turns out that the brain undergoes a gradual, piecemeal descent into unconsciousness, not at all like the On/Off switch most people assume occurs as sleep begins. There are in fact 9 separate stages of descent into sleep even before we are fully unconsciou… View full description

What Is TDI?

Targeted Dream Incubation is a method for guiding dreams towards specific themes. It is a proposal both magnetic and unlikely: Can we really engineer dreams, our internal worlds that feel so fundamentally out of our control? 

The incubation of specific dream content has fascinated people for millennia, from Ancient Egyptian spiritual practices and Canadian Indigenous  dream sharing rituals to contemporary treatments for PTSD-related nightmares. Reliable techniques have proven elusive in the laboratory, yet it's crucial to know that Targeted Dream Incubation (TDI) is a modern instantiation of an ancient technique. Here is a great summary of the myriad ways people have historically interfaced with dreams.

How Does TDI Work?

The key to TDI is a special state of sleep called hypnagogia, or NREM 1. This is a term for the entrance to sleep, where it turns out that the brain undergoes a gradual, piecemeal descent into unconsciousness, not at all like the On/Off switch most people assume occurs as sleep begins. There are in fact 9 separate stages of descent into sleep even before we are fully unconscious, and each of them is a kind of hybrid state where the brain is transforming electrically and chemically. In TDI we aim for the middle of this descent into unconsciousness, at a moment when the brain has begun to enter the dream-state but the senses are still engaged and, crucially, subjects can still hear.

At this moment, we take TDI Step 1 and simply play an audio reminder to "think of theme (X)", whatever the  intended theme may be. This may seem too easy to you, but consider this: Think of Obama playing volleyball underwater. Those words, even written, conjure an automatic mental image, a bit different for each of us but including each of the elements suggested. This creation of a visual image from heard words happens also at sleep onset, but to a greater extent, since the brain is more suggestible and more visual as dreams begin. Words spoken outside become images inside, and slip into the dream. This is not surprising in the context of sleep science today, where we are learning that even a sleeping brain is listening and, for instance, we can deepen sleep by 81% simply by playing the audio clip "sleep deeper" (Cordi, 2014).

Once the "theme (X)" audio has played and the TDI imagery has been generated, the subject is left undisturbed to descend deeper into sleep and let that imagery grow into the dream. But if subjects get too far into sleep, they are likely to forget their dream! This leads us to TDI Step 2, where we play audio prompting a dream report, i.e. "can you tell me what you are thinking about?" Subjects mutter a dream report for ~30s, after which they are allowed to fall back asleep again. When sleep onset begins, TDI Step 1 is prompted again. This cycle continues, allowing for serial dream incubations and serial dream reports. 

To do this work, we need a sleep sensor to track sleep onset. At MIT, we began this work using the Dormio device for tracking sleep so we could incubate dreams, but since then have also used the Masca, the Hypnodyne, and even typical polysomnography to enact TDI and produce targeted dreams. Much like lucid dreaming, targeted dreaming is a method focused on a specific state of sleep and specific stimuli to change dreams in a certain way—and it can be done using a variety of technologies to track sleep, play and record audio. And we're working on new ways to do low-tech dream incubation, including activities you can try at home. We're beginning to draft a book of these DIY dream hacks, and you can take a look here. 

This technique is similar to one called Targeted Memory Reactivation , or TMR. In this technique, sensory cues are paired with some learning material while subjects are awake and then, during subsequent N2 or N3 sleep, these cues are presented again. When retrieval is tested after sleep, memory for items that were played during sleep (cued items) is typically better as compared to memory for items not played during sleep (uncued items). This is a powerful technique, but it is not focused on changing dreams, and does not involve collecting dream reports. It is focused instead on what the sleeping brain is working on consolidating, and directing it to augment specific memories over others, without regard for how this is experienced by the dreamer. 

Why Incubate Dreams?

We find the idea that there is a state of mind which composes and constructs the conscious self, but remains inaccessible to it during the day, both frustrating and alluring. Hypnagogia is a "me" that the waking "I" is unfamiliar with, a "me" that slips past memory as we drift into unconsciousness. Good neuroscience  can aspire to be effective self-examination. Good technology in service of making neuroscience relevant outside the laboratory, then, should facilitate self-examination. The ends of this project are both practical and philosophical. We have no doubt that hypnagogia holds applications for augmenting memory, learning, and creativity. Yet also, after having explored the state ourselves, it seems a deeply valuable and inspiring sort of self-seeing which was inaccessible to us previously. As Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel said, "human creativity...stems from access to underlying, unconscious forces." To know ourselves, and to be our most creative selves, we are interested in building tools for self-exploration in this sleep state. TDI aims to be a tool to hand people, that they can take home, and on their own terms explore and augment themselves. 

Beyond personal introspection, the reason this method is so exciting to us is that it opens up new avenues for exploring the mind. Scientifically, having a method to control dreams means that we can now do controlled experiments on how dreams influence emotion, creativity, memory, and more. We know from correlational studies and anecdotal reports that different dreams are linked to different outcomes—regarding processing trauma, creative performance, and emotion in the daytime—but we still are lacking solid scientific evidence for a causal effect of guiding dreams to improve these outcomes. So long as we cannot control dreams, we cannot do controlled experiments on dream content.  Therapeutically, TDI gives patients and clinicians a lever of control to gain insight via dreams and to combat nightmares, which take a huge toll in people who struggle with anxiety and trauma. We have already begun a study in association with Westley Youngren and the Veterans Affairs Office to test this application of TDI. Creatively, the rich history of luminaries using their dreams, and specifically the hypnagogic state (Sylvia Plath, Salvador Dalí, Edgar Allen Poe to name a few), to release creative potential points to the possibility of using TDI for targeted creative brainstorming. We've already run one experiment showing TDI can enhance creativity, but the real test is putting it in the hands of creatives all over. 

How Has TDI Been Used?

Firstly, this targeted dreaming method was central to a thesis, linked here. That work focused on augmenting creativity with incubated dreaming. More recently, TDI was just published in a paper in the journal Consciousness and Cognitionlinked here, which was a collaboration between MIT, Harvard and Boston College. This paper forms part of the journal’s larger Special Issue on Dream Engineering, collecting papers from sleep scientists around the world on their methods for researching and guiding dreams. This Special Issue came out of the Dream Engineering workshop which the we hosted at the MIT Media Lab in 2019, gathering a community of researchers from around the world to empower the dream engineering field and link technologists with scientists for new collaboration. Together we’re hoping to spawn questions about the parts of our minds which can be hard to see, and make the tools that make answering them possible, and build dream-based therapies and interventions. To read about our vision for the dream engineering movement, read here. If you want to see what the press is saying about those experiments, here is an article in The Scientist and here is one in MIT NewsIn other labs, TDI is being used in an experiment on PTSD related nightmares at University of Kansas and in an experiment on memory and dreams at Duke.

But dreams and dreaming are not meant to stay behind the doors of a laboratory, and these tools are not meant to stay solely in the hands of scientists. This summer, TDI was used to enable a dream-art collaboration between scientists, artists and professional video gamers. Xbox reached out with an ostensibly simple idea: Gamers will play a game, then TDI will be used to incubate and record dreams about that game, and then a group of artists will make these dreams come to life as films, soundtracks and more

As dream engineers, the project makes perfect sense. Video games have always played a special role in dream science, as the most famous study in our field was done incubating dreams using the game Tetris. This specific Tetris study even inspired the launch video and design for the PlaystationVR Game Tetris Effect. Outside this study, it's known that gamers dream differently, and some evidence suggests more bizarrely.  Other studies have suggested that gamers specifically solve gaming problems in their sleep, and that dream content influences those gaming solutions. 

Xbox reached out to some amazing artists to make Targeted Dream based artworks, including film director Taika Waititi (who directed Thor: Ragnarok, Star Wars and Jojo Rabbit), artist Quentin Deronzier and creator Johanna Joskowska. As they proposed, Xbox had gamers play a game, fall asleep, do TDI in hypnagogia using the game name as a dream prompt, collect physiological data with the Hypnodyne EEG and dream report data via audio, and then handed off that data to artists. Each of these artists took dream reports directly from TDI experiments with gamers and made them into visual artwork. Working with a blind gamer, one group of artists (Big Orange) created an immersive 3D spatial sound experience to recreate his dream. 

See the outcome of the Taika film here--the narration throughout the film comes from the actual audio recorded during the dream study. And see a behind the scenes video of the TDI experimentation here. If you want to learn more about the process of transformation from EEG data to dream to film, read this blog post here. We're really proud that TDI was used to make this project happen, and see this as just tip of the iceberg. If TDI can allow a single dream to become artwork, why not collective dreams? Why not an album of dream songs, which both come from sleep and also change sleep when heard? If we can visualize game-based dreams, can't we make dream-based games?

Read More

Dreams are a vast topic, touching everything from consciousness studies to sensor technologies to indigenous healing practices. Scientists like Stephen LaBerge and Benjamin Baird do wonderful work on later-stage lucid dreaming, focusing on the REM state. Scientists like Jonathan Smallwood, Paul Seli and Jonathan Schooler have done work on mind-wandering and creativity, inspiring our idea that fluid thinking outside of executive control in hypnagogia (like mind-wandering) could augment creativity. Work by Deirdre Barrett compiling moments of inspiration found in sleep, and work by Robert Stickgold and Tore Nielsen on microdream phenomenology, all encouraged and informed us. Andreas Mavromatis wrote a whole thesis on hypnagogia, and his writing gave us a sense of the poetry and practical applications of this state (as did Nabokov, Oliver Sacks, Yoga Nidra practitioners, and Edgar Allen Poe writing on hypnagogia). Read Matthew Spellberg writing on dream sharing rituals, read Kelly Bulkeley on dreaming in world religions, and read Stickgold and Zadra on When Brains Dream.

Can this be used for evil/authoritarian mind control?

This question is appreciated, as are any other ethical issues we might be overlooking. But right now, no, it's a terrible tool for mind control. This technology is at the beginning stages, with much perfecting still necessary. But more importantly, in hypnagogia, the subjects we've worked with are not entirely asleep (and not entirely awake), making them much less vulnerable than most people typically assume when they first learn about this project. They're aware that they are in an experiment room, though that awareness drifts in and out. Most, but not all, remember what they said throughout the experiment. But critically, we have had people forcibly wake themselves up when they had a weird enough dream that they did not want us experimenters to hear about it. People are monitoring their environment and aware of their descent into sleep,  limiting the capacity for inserting any ideas people don't want inserted, or extracting ideas they don't want extracted. All that being said, we don't dismiss these concerns at all. Encouraging people to dream about certain subjects may change how they consider those subjects after waking up. And we would not discount some diminished capacity for resistance to new ideas presented in hypnagogia. And we are aware that dreams and psychoanalysis have been used to subjugate colonized peoples before. These are things to keep in mind, though it is also worth acknowledging that hypnagogic incubation specifically has been known about and used for hundreds of years (Edison, Asklepius, the Beaver Tribe, etc.) and not used to nefarious ends, as far as we are aware. To be clear on how this tool can and cannot be used, we are writing  a Dream Engineering Ethic, outlining our principles as a scientific community in the form of a constitution. These tools will be out in the world sooner or later, and the dreamscape is a sensitive space which requires careful, caring exploration. Please get in touch if you think we're missing anything.

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Taika Waititi

Copyright

Christina Chen