Beethoven, Poe, and Tesla all claimed to use a bizarre creative technique to come up with some of their ideas–a method that involved accessing their dreams to hunt down brilliant concepts and bring them into the conscious world. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are trying to build on the fabled process with an interface for dreams. They call it Dormio.
Led by MIT Media Lab Fluid Interfaces Group’s Adam Haar Horowitz, Dormio is a device designed to influence and extend the semi-lucid sleep state called hypnagogia. We all pass through this cognitive wonderland just before falling completely asleep. It’s a mental dimension that often features a distorted perception of space and time; you may lose your very sense of self, and you’ll often experience lucid dreams or come up with ideas that are free of the logical constraints and cognitive filters of the conscious brain. Even though we all experience hypnagogia, the wild visions and ideas that come with this phase of sleep are usually forever lost after a night of sleep. Geniuses like Edison and Dalí had a clever trick for recalling their ideas, though. They would take naps while holding a steel ball in their hands–which would fall as soon as they left their hypnagogia phase, instantly waking them up with a fresh memory of their lucid dreams.
Dormio is a much more advanced version of that steel ball trick, and aims to lengthen, influence, and record the “microdreams” we all experience in this state.
Using an electronic glove that contains sensors to monitor muscle tone, heart rate, and skin conductance, it monitors when you enter hypnagogia and when you’re falling into real sleep. At that point, Dormio gently nudges you with an audio cue emitted from either the team’s smartphone app, or a nearby Jibo robot with a cue word. The researchers used “fork” or “rabbit,” but it can be any word. The subtle noise is meant to bring you back into hypnagogia without completely waking you up, and in fact, the team found that the chosen word often gets conceptually incorporated into the user’s lucid dreams. Meanwhile, the app or bot will start a conversation with the semi-conscious sleeper, recording anything you say. Once the interaction is over, Dormio lets users fade out into slumberland again, repeating the process to “incept” their dreams and record dream reports.
If you think this sounds like snake oil, it’s not. Edison, Tesla, Poe, or Dalí all used the steel ball trick to make wild conceptual connections that are clearly evident in their work. One famous example of this was German organic chemist August Kekulé, who came up with the molecular structure of benzene during a hypnagogic trip: He saw molecules forming a snake that was biting its own tail.
The inventors of Dormio see the device as a more effective version of the steel ball. Here’s what Horowitz writes about his motivation on the project’s website:
I find the idea that there is a state of mind which composes and constructs my conscious self, but remains inaccessible to me, both frustrating and alluring. Hypnagogia is a “me” that I am unfamiliar with, a “me” that slips past memory as we drift into unconsciousness. Good neuroscience, to me, is 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. I have no doubt that Hypnagogia holds applications for augmenting memory, learning, and creativity. Yet also, after having explored the state myself, I find it to be a deeply valuable and inspiring sort of self-seeing which was inaccessible to me previously. As Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel said, “human creativity…stems from access to underlying, unconscious forces.”
I asked Adam about the future of Dormio and other sleep-related technologies via email. The objective is to keep iterating the devices and integrating them with neuroscience labs. Their work is part of the long history of Dream Incubation that goes all the way back to Ancient Egypt. “There is a flood of contemporary interest in sleep as more and more science comes out on the mechanisms and importance and mystery of sleep”, he says, “I see two parallel paths which would be both significant. Firstly, that use of the system allows a glimpse for people of their own Hypnagogia […] Secondly, I hope further that the system is useful to the amazing scientists who have been advising me so far, and to that larger sleep science community.”
If you want to try it, you can be a bit of an Edison and build one yourself: Dormio is open source and you can get the software for biosignal tracking on Github. The circuit board design is online, too, and you can follow these step by step instructions to make one. The team hopes that perhaps one day Dormio could become a commercial project–for now, it’s a first step towards creating interfaces that allow us to interact with our subconscious the same way we interact with our conscious mind.
After all, we spend one-third of our lives sleeping. We need an app for that.