Interfacing With Sleep: MIT Researchers Develop System For Dream Control During Hypnagogic Consciousness

“There is a borderland between waking life and the uncharted wilderness of sleep that we all traverse each night, but we rarely stop to marvel at the strangeness of this liminal world. If we do, we find that it is full of hallucinations both wonderful and terrifying, a mental goulash of reality and fantasy.

Usually we pass through this state of half-wakefulness on our way to deep sleep within minutes. We may experience microdreams during the transition, but the content of these microdreams appear to be random and we usually don’t have any memory of them when we wake. A team of researchers led by MIT master’s student Adam Horowitz wants to change that.

Horowitz and his colleagues at the MIT Media Lab have developed a relatively simple device called Dormio to interface with this unique stage of sleep. Their hypothesis is that this liminal period between wakefulness and sleep is a fount of creativity that is usually lost in the ocean of sleep. The thinking is that if you’re able to descend into that stage of sleep and return to consciousness without descending deeper into sleep, you will benefit from the intensely associative thinking that characterizes the strange microdreams experienced during the transition to sleep.

So far Horowitz has tested the device on 8 subjects and found that it is able to reliably maximize the amount of time users spend suspended between wakefulness and sleep, as well as shape the content of the microdreams they experience. In other words, these MIT researchers have developed a low cost device that allows users to interface with sleep.

The technical name for the awareness of the brief period between wakefulness and sleep is hypnagogia, and its something of a mystery for neuroscientists. The reason for this is that determining when someone is actually asleep is a matter of debate among scientists. It’s kind of like trying to determine when someone is ‘actually’ dead: Is it when the heart stops beating, when they lose consciousness, or when cells finally stop replicating?

“Hypnagogic imagery or hallucinations is a normal state of consciousness in the transition from wakefulness to sleep,” Vladas Noreika, a psychologist at Cambridge who was not involved with Dormio, told me in an email. Unlike other sleep states that allow for awareness, such as lucid dreaming during REM sleep, hypnagogia doesn’t require special training to induce its effects. It’s a common phenomenon that is a natural part of the circadian rhythm.

“The big questions are whether we become more creative in this state of consciousness, and why in some cases hypnagogia leads to a full-fledged dreaming, whereas in other cases to dreamless sleep,” Noreika added.

These strange experiences explain why hypnagogic consciousness has been coveted by some of the most brilliant scientific and artistic minds in history. Thomas Edison, Edgar Allen Poe, Vladimir Nabokov, Mary Shelley, Albert Einstein, Salvador Dali, August Kekule, and Richard Wagner all expressed their fascination with hypnagogia and claimed that their experiences in this twilight zone of the mind resulted in sudden bursts of creativity or mental clarity. The idea that “conscious access to underlying, unconscious forces” is at the root of creativity was also echoed and reformulated in a more scientifically rigorous way by the Nobel biophysicist Eric Kandel in the 90s.

In any case, it’s hardly surprising that many of these same thinkers developed a life hack to induce hypnagogic consciousness at will to reap its creative benefits.

“I felt I was nowhere really, in this kind of nowhere space where all of these ideas exist.”

The most famous example of purposely induced hypnagogia is probably Thomas Edison’s steel balls trick. According to possibly apocryphal tales, Edison was able to reliably induce hypnagogia by falling asleep with steel balls in his hand. As he drifted off to sleep, his muscles would relax and he would inevitably drop the balls on the floor and the noise from the fall would jolt him back to wakefulness. During these micronaps Edison would never fully fall asleep, but he would experience the strange hallucinations and insights characteristic of hypnagogia.

Dormio has now gone through two iterations, and Horowitz said he and his collaborators are now at work on a third. The first generation of Dormio consisted of an Arduino microcontroller mounted to a glove with a small pressure sensor in the palm that Horowitz designed with his colleagues Ishaan Grover, Sophia Yang and Pedro Reynolds Cuéllar.

Horowitz said the third generation will work just by monitoring eyelid movement in sleeping subjects. The goal is to make Dormio as comfortable, cheap, and non-invasive as possible to make it easier for users to fall asleep while using it.”

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“Current HCI research overlooks an opportunity to create human-machine interaction within the unique cognition ongoing during dreams and drowsiness. During sleep onset, a window of opportunity arises in the form of Hypnagogia, a semi-lucid sleep state where we begin dreaming before we fall fully unconscious. To access this state, we developed Dormio, the first interactive interface for sleep, designed for use across levels of consciousness. Here we present evidence for a first use case, directing dream content to augment human creativity. The system enables future HCI research into Hypnagogia, extending interactive technology across levels of consciousness.”


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