Hunter Lee Soik has a vegan shake called Phood for breakfast and lunch every day. He has no computer, just an iPhone and an iPad, and conducts business while walking everywhere, sending out emails as he paces around parks. Soik lives out of temporarily rented homes in Berlin, San Francisco, New York, or Los Angeles—often found via Airbnb—and wears only black: five odor-resistant Nike T-shirts and three pairs of Levi's, which he washes by hand and air-dries.
Soik, 32, tracks a wide assortment of personal data, including what he eats, where he travels, his pulse, the number of footsteps he takes, and how many calories he burns. But a few years ago, he realized that one aspect of his life was going unmonitored: his dreams. He started wondering if dreaming might be connected to the other quantified-self data that he monitors so closely—and if it would be possible to keep track of his dreams with a mobile app.
So Soik, who previously worked as a freelance creative director for clients such as Kanye West and Italian Vogue, created an app to do just that. Shadow: Community of Dreamers, crowdfinanced with $82,500 raised on Kickstarter and set for wide release in July, wakes people up with an alarm, prompts them to anonymously describe their dreams, and beams those reports into a massive online set, where they can be searched and analyzed. Dreams are coded for age, sex, location, and time, allowing researchers to find population norms—assuming enough people participate. "If we want to make the world's largest database of dreams," says Soik, "we need the world on our side."
Just as apps such as Fitbit, Weight Mate, and Sleep Cycle may overturn assumptions about health, insurance, and preventive care, Shadow's developers are betting that their "mood barometer" can disrupt how we consider mental health. "I think dreaming serves as an emotional mirror," says Kelly Bulkeley, a dream researcher and adviser to Shadow. "If you give me enough dream samples, I can tell you what are the major emotional issues and relationships in your waking life."
Dream research may sound like shamanism, but scientists are spending serious money and time on it. This year, a Japanese team decoded dream traits from brain activity during sleep, and researchers have linked dream content with learning, emotional processing, and creative insight. Scientists now know a lot about the how of dreaming, but the question remains why. People typically spend one to two hours a night in REM sleep, when most dreaming occurs. That adds up to five years of dreaming during the average lifetime. Given how much energy humans burn nightly on dreaming, many scientists believe these hallucinations probably have significance. One obvious possibility is that dreaming relates to mood. Studies have shown that traumatic events do affect dreams: The types of dreams somebody has after getting a divorce can predict whether they will later need antidepressant drugs, and following 9/11 dreams across the U.S. showed increased similarity to post-traumatic-stress-disorder nightmares, even when they didn't include obvious connections such as airplanes or tall buildings.
Shadow is designed to capture those sorts of trends on a broad scale. "The numbers [of online dream reports after 9/11] were nowhere near as high as Shadow will be able to collect and not as systematic, not as international," says Deirdre Barrett, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School who's working with Shadow as an adviser. "For major world events—natural disasters, political events—it will be interesting."
One of Shadow's primary goals is to create a dream database that will help determine norms. How often does the average person have nightmares versus someone with depression? Do children dream differently from adults? How do dreams change after a trauma? And if dream change precedes medical issues such as depression, could dreams be used to diagnose problems before they strike?
Not everyone embraces this sort of thinking. Dreams are hot in science, but they've fallen out of fashion in psychiatry. Sigmund Freud's dream-interpretation and sex-focused theories of childhood trauma and repression have mostly given way to biochemical hypotheses of mental disorders. In his book The Dreaming Brain, Harvard dream researcher and psychiatrist J. Allan Hobson makes the argument—supported by many psychiatrists—that dreams are completely random, triggered by neural firing in the brain stem. And even some psychologists who embrace dreams as part of the therapy process aren't keen on Shadow's approach. "The problem is the notion of coding dreams for meaning," says Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "There is not a 'dream key' that links particular words to particular meanings. It is a problem if you take the complicated work of dream [interpretation], dependent on the patient's associations, and turn it into an algorithm."
But to the extent that people's emotional lives can be quantified, Shadow offers a potentially higher-resolution and objective snapshot of mental life. If dreams could somehow be related to mental health, why not track them with the machines we keep near our bodies all the time? "What we want to do on a psychology level," Soik says, "is create the 'understood self.' If I walk 10,000 steps, does my pulse go faster? Do I record more positive dreams? The goal is to see patterns in the data—and to use that visualization to raise more awareness of yourself."
A version of this article appeared in the March 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.