Researchers create device to turn microdreams into real brainpower

24 Apr 2018

Image: Realstock/Shutterstock

It sounds like science fiction, but researchers have found a way to turn so-called microdreams into powerful bursts of creativity.

Almost in limbo between being asleep and awake is a feeling that many of us may have experienced before. While we’re not quite asleep, we may still have vivid and intense ‘microdreams’.

Known as hypnagogia, this state of mind has always fascinated scientists because these dreams are often forgotten when we enter sleep and wake up the next morning. For those who remember – including the likes of Mary Shelley, Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison – it can prove to be a breeding ground for new ideas.

Future Human

According to Motherboard, a team of MIT researchers led by Adam Horowitz has developed a relatively simple device called Dormio. It is believed that this device could help prolong the limbo dream state to drastically improve a person’s thinking power and creativity.

So far, Dormio has gone through two iterations, the first of which contained an Arduino board installed on a glove with a small pressure sensor.

When the subject put their hand into a clenched fist, the glove’s sensor would pick up when the person’s muscles were relaxing as they entered sleep, as well as electroencephalograph (EEG) sensors monitoring activity in the brain.

When the hypnagogic state is selected, a nearby robot would prompt the person with a preprogramed phrase designed to lead the subject’s dreams. Such examples included: ‘remember to think about a rabbit’ and ‘remember to think about a fork’.

‘Ideas were not coming from me’

In initial testing, the test subjects reported that they remembered seeing the words prompted during their dream state, suggesting it does work.

One subject was quoted as saying: “Ideas were not coming from me, they were just passing through my head.

“I felt I was nowhere really, in this kind of nowhere space where all of these ideas exist, and it made so much sense that all these ideas existed in this nowhere space.”

Improving the design

However, this method proved to be too expensive and complicated to accurately measure, so the second iteration took out the palm sensor and replaced it with sensors designed to detect muscle tension. It also removed the bulky EEG and replaced it with a heart-rate sensor.

This updated system was tested on 15 individuals and again showed it could maximise the amount of time a person spends in dream limbo, and guide them based on external suggestions.

The next iteration of Dormio will integrate the ability to monitor eyelid movement – a key sign of when a person has entered the stage of sleep, known as rapid eye movement. The device aims to be comfortable and non-invasive, making it easier for subjects to fall asleep with.

While we still know little about the real mechanisms of sleep, Horowitz and his team believe they are on to something quite special.

“The idea that you can access cognition that lets you see yourself with this technology is very exciting to me,” Horowitz said.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic