Hi-tech dreamcatcher defeats sleep amnesia
When Adam Haar Horowitz took to the stage at a conference dressed as a lotus flower, he raised eyebrows.
Then, when he started hitting computers and making gong noises, jaws dropped.
He was acting out a dream he had recently had to illustrate how our night-time fantasies can influence our waking lives, and how technology can help us access them.
It is a subject close to Mr Horowitz’s heart.
“Dreams are such a strange, murky, inaccessible space and there is so much poetry, metaphor and analogy in them,” he told the BBC when it visited him at the Media Lab in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“The idea that you can take something concrete – a technology – that can help you access that poetic and metaphorical side of your own cognition is really exciting.”
To achieve this he has invented a hand-worn device he calls Dormio.
It collects biosignals that in turn track transitions in sleep stages – such as a loss of muscle tone, heart rate changes, and alterations in skin conductance.
The goal is to study a particular stage of sleep – the period between wakefulness and deep sleep, known as hypnagogia.
It is a period of slumber which has fascinated scientists and artists for hundreds of years.
Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Edgar Allan Poe, and Salvador Dali all attempted to access this state by napping with a steel ball or similar object in their hands. When they fell into deeper REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, they would drop the object, waking themselves before they forgot the hypnagogic imaginings.
The Dormio gadget is connected to a smartphone app or robot, which speaks word prompts to the subject as they slip into deeper sleep. These words can be used to influence their dreams or to knock them back into lighter sleep.
“We have found that in the subjects we tested, those words reliably entered the hypnagogic dreams as dream content,” said Mr Horowitz.
“After this slight wake-up, we initiate a conversation about dream content with users via the Jibo social robot and record anything that is said, as hypnagogic amnesia is reported and we don’t want people forgetting their useful ideas.”
After this conversation, the system lets users drift back towards sleep, interrupting again when the biosignals suggest they are falling into deep sleep.