What if it were possible to detect the moment during sleep when you were about to be woken up by a nightmare, and you could be sent soothing messages (or smells, or sensations) to shift the valence and prevent the dream from waking you up? Or what if you could wake up and actually see a list of topics or even a movie of the images from your dreams from the previous night even if you had no recall? These are just a couple of the dozens of ideas that were raised in brainstorming sessions at the inaugural Dream Engineering Symposium at MIT in January 2019.

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Dream researchers from around the world gathered to present findings, while MIT innovators presented what is or could be possible to aid in answering the challenging questions about what dreams are and what they do. The participants in past and current sleep laboratory studies often look like something from a nightmare, with equipment strapped to their bodies and countless wires sprouting from electrodes stuck to their scalp. By contrast, at MIT they are developing lightweight, flexible, wireless sleep masks that can collect sleep physiology data unobtrusively, and even remotely.

I was privileged to be one of the presenters at this symposium. As a former science writer, touring the media lab felt like a familiar part of my former work life, as I used to regularly talk to innovators about their technology. But at the conference I was blown away by what is already possible could be possible in the not-too-distant future. In the two decades intervening since my science writing days the state of the art has changed dramatically.

Much of the technology presented at the symposium was aimed at opening the door to lucid dreaming, in which the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming, because this is an optimal vehicle for obtaining real-time dream data. Dream researchers have the difficult problem of trying to study something that is not amenable to direct observation. All they have to go on is real-time sleep physiology data, and then later, people’s reports of what they dreamt about. But these may not be accurate reflections of the actual dream. To work around this, dream researchers watch for the brain signals that the participant is dreaming and wake them up immediately for dream reports, but this is not an ideal solution because it interferes with natural dreaming.

Researchers are interested in inducing lucid dreaming and establishing two-way communication so that they can get a dream report in real time. The trouble is, it is very difficult to ask someone questions and/or suggest they look around and notice that they are dreaming without actually waking them up. Symposium organizer Dr. Michelle Carr has developed a fairly reliable way to train even inexperienced lucid dreamers to become lucid enough in a dream to signal their consciousness by moving their eyes back and forth while staying asleep. She has used a combination of training prior to sleep followed by sound and light signals during sleep that are intense enough to be tangible to the dreamer, but not so intense that the dreamer wakes up—a very fine line.

My part in the event was to ask if we could direct some of this creative energy towards questions of clinical relevance, and I was the lone voice in the crowd. In my clinical practice, I have found experiential dreamwork to be one of the most efficient and effective ways to promote clinical change. Experiential dreamwork is the practice of inviting the dreamer to re-immerse themselves into their dream rather than standing back and analyzing it from the outside. Examples include telling the dream in first-person present-tense, entering into the subjective experience of a dream element or character, and allowing the dream to continue forward from where it ended. I told the researchers how the elements of dreams, and nightmares in particular, contain the perfect raw material for changing deep implicit memories. Dreams contain intense emotional material that is profoundly personal and relevant to the dreamer. Dreams very often surprise us with paradoxical information that, if truly absorbed, contains tremendous energy for transformation. Fairly recent brain and memory research (within the last 15 years) has shown that implicit emotional memories, which previously were thought to be indelible, can actually be erased and overwritten under specific circumstances. Memory reconsolidation research has shown that if a person holds two incompatible ideas in experiential awareness at the same time, the memory becomes unstable and can be permanently changed.

I have observed this kind of change in clinical practice and would love to have a clearer conception of how this happens so I can repeat it more reliably. For example, one client who worked with me confronting a black dog in her nightmare came to session the next week and said she had been cured of a lifelong phobia of grocery shopping, a wonderful but unexpected outcome. I also worked with a rape victim whose recurring nightmare of this trauma shifted to dreaming of more enjoyable and consensual sex after he reimagined a new dream ending. This coincided with a significant drop in his PTSD symptoms.

The idea that such a change in the dream narrative could be made in real time, while the dreamer is asleep, seemed like a distant prospect, but may not be as far off as I thought.

File under: Musings and Reflections, Therapy & Technology