It may sound like the plot of Inception, but scientists have figured out how to plant ideas into other people's dreams.
Researchers at MIT Media Lab's Fluid Interfaces have been testing a new technique called targeted dream incubation (TDI), which allows them to insert certain topics into someone's dreams.
Past studies have shown that when sleepers enter a rare dream state known as lucid dreaming, they gain awareness that they're dreaming and can thus have some control over what happens in their mind.
TDI achieves a similar result by targeting people during hypnagogia, a semi-lucid dream state that occurs as someone is falling asleep.
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At this moment scientists introduced "targeted information" to the subjects of a study, the results of which were published in the August issue of the journal Consciousness and Cognition.
The study involved 25 participants taking daytime naps. Before going to bed they would record audio prompts in an app such as "remember to think of a tree" and "remember to observe your thoughts".
They wore hand-mounted Dormio sleep trackers to monitor their heart rate and detect when they entered hypnagogia, at which point they were most "open to influence from outside audio cues", said lead study author Adam Haar Horowitz.
The tracker would then co-ordinate with the app to wake the participants up with their own pre-recorded vocal prompts. This was repeated several times, with the sleeper recording a brief journal entry into the app each time they were woken up.
"Simply put, people tell us whether the prompts appear in their dream," Haar Horowitz told Live Science.
"Often, they are transformed — a 'tree' prompt becomes a tree-shaped car — but direct incorporation is easily identified."
The researchers found that 67% of participants mentioned dreaming about trees following the prompt. Each time they were awakened their dreams became more bizarre and immersive.
Lucid dreaming is rare, with only about half the population ever experiencing it in their lives. The MIT researchers seem to have found a different way to allow people to shape the plots of their own dreams by interrupting hypnagogia.
Tomás Vega, a former graduate student researcher with MIT's Fluid Interfaces Group, tested the Dormio tracker on himself, using an audio prompt to plant an idea in his mind — the Oompa Loompas from the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory singing their theme song.
"I started dreaming about being in a chocolate waterfall, surrounded by Oompa Loompas singing 'Oompa Loompa, doopity doo,'" he said — but there was a twist.
Vega is lactose intolerant, and the dream waterfall was made of dairy-free dark chocolate.
"It was a lactose-free waterfall," he explained.
"So, is my lactose-intolerance knowledge in my consciousness or in my subconscious? I induced this dream content, but there were still some constraints, like, 'You cannot just dream about milk chocolate because that's going to harm you."
The researchers hope targeted dreaming could be useful for a range of benefits, from learning languages while asleep to curing post-traumatic stress disorder.
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