I am laying in my bed, drifting slowly into blessed sleep and wandering in a cloud of hypnagogic dreams. Right before I am overcome by the void, it hits me. Some beautiful idea: the best song lyrics ever written, the most ingenious and compelling short story plot, the coolest comic book possible. I should write this down, I think, I have to write this down. No, it’s such an impossibly good idea, of course I’ll remember it, and sleep’s siren song is irresistible. In the morning, I remember having a great idea. I cannot remember what that great idea was. I am an idiot.
But I’m not a unique idiot. The mysterious state between waking and sleeping—called hypnagogia—has puzzled scientists, thinkers, and artists since time immemorial. It’s a sort of known quantity that the random half-dreams and playful free-associative thoughts of hypnagogia are a wellspring of creative inspiration. The trouble is if you fall into deep sleep afterwards—and you usually do—you’re not going to remember those flashes of brilliance. An MIT graduate student is trying to change that.
MIT master’s student Adam Horowitz has invented a device called Dormio as a way to harness the creative power of our dreams. Dormio has gone through a couple different generations, but essentially the way it works is this: a sensor measures some biometric tied to sleep states (e.g., muscle tone or eye movement) and tells a “robot” when you are in the hypnagogic state. The robot then says a word or phrase to prime your thinking. Yes, I have seen Inception. It was OK.
When the sensor detects that you are moving from hypnagogia to deep sleep, the robot says your name and lets you know that you are falling asleep. The goal is not to wake you up, it’s to keep you in a “suspended state of hypnagogia.” Once that state has been achieved, the robot asks you what you’re thinking about and records your answers.
In tests, all of the volunteer subjects reported seeing the prompt word in their dreams, this means, says Horowitz that they have invented a “kind of workable system for dream control.” That’s besides the point, though. Horowitz says that having conscious access to the thoughts of their dreams improved subjects’ creativity.
After three sessions with Dormio, subjects were asked to complete an “Alternative Uses Test,” in which they were asked to come up with alternative uses for the prompt word they were given by Dormio, as well as write a story about the prompt word. In this case it was “rabbit” or “fork.” A majority of people performed better on the Alternative Uses Test after the Dormio sessions and a majority also reported that the thoughts induced by Dormio felt more creative. The volunteers also spent an average of 158 seconds longer working on their stories after the Dormio sessions than before.
It’s a kind of 21st century riff on an old technique. Thomas Edison was also fascinated by hypnagogia and used a rudimentary version of the same technique. In Edison’s case, he would fall asleep holding steel balls in his hand. When he was falling into deep sleep his grip would loosen and the balls would fall to the floor, waking him up. Others throughout history have used different techniques for the same ends.
Horowitz intends on making Dormio available and inexpensive to the public, and it’s interesting to think of a wave of innovation in creativity itself on the rise. With things like the rising popularity of LSD microdosing among scientists and tech people, increased practicing of lucid dreaming, and an easy to use hypnagogia harnessing machine on the way, is it possible we could see an increase in pure human creativity in the near future? That could do nothing but good, and maybe it’s exactly what we need.