Ever since the discovery of rapid eye movement or REM sleep in 1953, research on sleep and dreams has grown tremendously but it has also been hampered by two persistent problems: numbers (lack of studies with large numbers of participants from varying cultural backgrounds) and the inability to experimentally manipulate dream content.
The rise of the smartphone and its associated apps will potentially solve those two problems so we can expect a real revolution in sleep and dream research in the near future!
With respect to the numbers issue a sleep and dream app can be downloaded in two minutes on literally millions of phones. Even if 2% of a million users actually record their dreams in association with the app (and record how the dream was altered by the app activated external stimuli) we will have tens of thousands of experimentally altered dreams from people potentially distributed all around the planet!
Consider for example if you had an app that could reliably detect REM sleep (via an accelerometer). When the movement data detected a REM profile the phone would then emit a wake-up alarm and turn on a recording function so that the individual just awakened can speak his or dream into the phone. This can be done via auto-dialing a number that rings a recorder at the Lab or right into the phone’s recorder or an app designed for recording audiofiles etc. Once the individual records his or dream the audiofile is transmitted to the lab for analysis.
Most dream apps can transmit the dream audiofiles directly into a website where it is automatically content analyzed and aggregated into a huge database with other dreams sent by people from all over the world!
Now add to this ‘dream scenario’ the fact that the app can also emit/play a stream of sound or spoken word messages when you enter REM in order to potentially influence whatever ongoing dream content the sleeper is experiencing. Then after 10 minutes of this stimuli the wake-up alarm goes off and the individual reports whatever dream he or she was having and then these ‘altered’ dreams are content analyzed against unaltered dreams to see if and in what way dreams can be altered.
With tens of thousands of such dreams we will be able to statistically detect patterns like what kind of stimuli influences dreams in what kind of ways etc
The research and therapeutic potential of such studies should be obvious to anyone. If we can identify consistent findings such as the recitation via the bedside smartphone of positive mood words for 100 repetitions while the individual is in REM episode 3 will alter a dream monster from a threatening figure to a nonthreatening figure then clearly this might offer some hope and relief to sufferers of repetitive nightmares.
Is all of the above scientific wishful thinking? Not at all. Consider the following developments:
DreamON is a smart phone app launched last year by a group in Scotland. You activate the app, choose a soundscape (such as peaceful ocean waves ) to work with for the night and then place the phone on your bed. The phone uses its accelerometer to detect movements or the lack thereof to identify when a person enters REM. Once the individual is likely to be in REM the soundscape is triggered and played on the phone’s speaker. The idea is to test the hypothesis that the soundscapes will reliably alter dream content in positive ways. Upon awakening the individual is asked to record their dream which is then sent to a central database.
Do people use this app? One night after the app became available, the Dream:ON team reported that they had received data from 100,000 users!
Harvard PhD student Daniel Nadler developed an iPhone app similar to DreamON called Sigmund. Instead of soundscapes Sigmund uses a list of 1,000 keywords that can be played while you are in REM sleep. After you select one to five words from the list, a female voice reads the words you select during your REM cycles.
To appreciate the potential power of an app like this, consider long established research effects from the literature on ‘attachment’ as in the mother-infant attachment and romantic attachment literatures. In those literatures it has long been established that subliminally presenting attachment-related words to an individual dramatically alters emotional state of the individual. You can enhance the feeling of being securely or insecurely attached via these subliminal techniques. Thus it seems plausible to suppose that using similar attachment-related content words presented to the individual while they are in REM sleep should have substantial effects on dreams and subsequent daytime emotional state.
One of the most impressive smartphone apps that I have seen is Dreamboard (www.dreamboard.com). The creators of Dreamboard are interested in long term work with dreams and thus they are in it for the long haul which in my opinion is the best way (i.e. longitudinal study) to unlock the secrets of dreams.
Dreamboard collects reports of your dreams over time and identifies themes and information sequences that appear from dream to dream. The Dreamboard tool can prompt users to remember details from their dreams and over time I expect the dreamboard tool will be able to select cue words from your own personal archive of dreams thus dramatically enhancing the power to remember details of YOUR dreams as well as the links between past and current dreams.
The power of this tool to investigate dream functions, including memory processing in dreams is clearly tremendous. That power will increase as the numbers of users of dreamboard increases and the number of longitudinal dream series increases.
All of these new technologies to study dreams have just been invented so the data and the insights on dreams that we will derive from these new technologies is at present only a promise but it is a promise I predict will be kept.