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The Inspiration

During sleep onset, a strange introspective window arises in the form of hypnagogia, a semi-lucid sleep state where we all begin dreaming before we fall fully unconscious¹. Hypnagogia is characterized by experiential unpredictability, distorted perception of space and time, and spontaneous, fluid idea association. Edison, Tesla, Poe, and Dalí each accessed this state by napping with a steel ball in hand² to capture creative ideas generated in hypnagogic microdreams when it dropped to the floor below...
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Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee (Around a Pomegranate) A Second Before Waking

Dalí used hypnagogia for painting inspiration. Edgar Allen Poe used it for poetry writing⁵, saying “There is a class of fancies, of exquisite delicacy, which are not thoughts; they seem to be rather psychal than intellectual... I am aware of these ‘fancies‘ only when I am on the brink of sleep, with the consciousness that I am so...it is a glimpse of the spirit’s outer world...the delight experienced has, as its element, but the absoluteness of novelty.” Scientists from Edison to Tesla write about use of hypnagogia for gaining creative insight on difficult problems as well. 

During hypnagogia,” says Professor Barrett of Harvard Medical, “the prefrontal areas of the brain are less active…[this creates] less censorship from the mind, and more freely allows novel sounds and imagery to be imagined by the individual. This is flexibility.
 

The Project

In this project we modernize this Steel Ball technique, using conversational interfaces implemented both on a cellphone or social robot Jibo, an EEG system, a muscular sleep stage tracking system, and auditory biofeedback. With this Dormio system in place we are able to influence, extract information from, and extend hypnagogic microdreams for the first time.

It's really quite simple. The Dormio system uses biosignals to look out for the transition from hypnagogia into deeper, unconscious non-REM stages of sleep. It interrupts that transition using audio, but uses this audio as an opportunity--because past work shows⁶ that hypnagogic dreams are subject to inception by outside audio. Your wakeup trigger thus becomes your dream.  

The Device

Our device measures Heart Rate Variability, Electrodermal Activity and Muscle Flexion. It uses an RFDuino and sends this data over BLE, tying it to our Jibo and cellphone app. This information, as well as the information fed by the Muse EEG, is thesholded and filtered to trigger our audio cue as soon as we get biomarkers of the transition out of Hypnagogia. Tomás Vega and Aby Jain, both from the MIT Media Lab's Fluid Interfaces group, led the building of electronics for this device. Oscar Rosello has been building out the form factor with me. Ishaan Grover and Pedro Reynolds-Cuellar have been working on the robotic interaction design, experimental design and the filtering of biosignals. 

 

The Science


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Why Creativity?

Creativity is an altered state of consciousness: in a moment of invention, “the creator breaks free of logic and deductive reasoning, of familiar pathways, of taken-for-granted approaches” ³. The practiced pathways for cognition that structure our understanding of the world are abandoned and new, fluid associations arise. The theoretical framework for the functional neuroanatomy of altered states of consciousness generally, and creativity specifically, has often centered around deactivations in the prefrontal cortex⁴. This center for executive, organizational cognitive function shuts down and “decrease in prefrontal activity creates less censorship from the mind, and more freely allows novel sounds and imagery to be imagined by the individual. This is flexibility,” says Dierdre Barrett of Harvard Medical School. These unpredictable bursts of novel insight and associations can be understood as a fragmentation of normal function, a passing breakdown of structured consciousness into abstraction and fluid association. The question is, how can we engender, direct and capture these bursts to augment creativity?

Tagliazucchi (2013)

Why Sleep?

Amazingly, the same hypofrontality (frontal deactivation) underlying awake creative flexibility is also common to the early stages of sleep that this project focuses on. Conveniently, this hypofrontality happens both regularly and predictably during sleep, as opposed to during waking states. "During hypnagogia,” says Professor Barrett of Harvard Medical, “the prefrontal areas of the brain are less active…[this creates] less censorship from the mind, and more freely allows novel sounds and imagery to be imagined by the individual. This is flexibility.”

 One of our mentors on this project, Dr. Robert Stickgold, has showed fascinating sleep-induced changes in associative memory which offer insight into the generation of abstract ideas in hypnagogia which Dr. Dierdre Barrett refers to above. In these sleep stages, we are primed to our weakest associations, not our strongest associations like in waking state. This allows for distant, fluid idea associations which would be ignored or dismissed in a waking, attentional state.

One of our mentors on this project, Dr. Robert Stickgold, has showed fascinating sleep-induced changes in associative memory which offer insight into the generation of abstract ideas in hypnagogia which Dr. Dierdre Barrett refers to above. In these sleep stages, we are primed to our weakest associations, not our strongest associations like in waking state. This allows for distant, fluid idea associations which would be ignored or dismissed in a waking, attentional state.

 

The Results

We compared creativity of subjects in a condition of hypnagogia, incepted by an audio cue of either "Fork" or "Rabbit", to creativity of subjects in a time-matched control task of lying down awake and considering those same words. 

  • Firstly, we confirmed our ability to control dream content based on introduced audio cues. All of our subjects (n=10) have dreamed of arousal-matched cue words chosen by experiments before use of the Dormio system.
  • Hypnagogic hallucinations induced were multimodal--ranging from time dilation, loss of sense of self, auditory and visual pop-up hallucinations, and more. 
  • Preliminary results indicate subjects (n=6) score higher on the golden standard creativity task, the Alternative Uses Task, after contemplating an object in Hypnagogia versus time matched control condition of contemplation while awake. 
  • Each of our subjects wrote a creative story for longer, showing more motivation, after our experimental condition versus after control conditions. 
  • 66% of our subjects mixed media (drawing and writing) after hypnagogia, versus 0% after control condition (solely writing)
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1.Andreas Mavromatis. 1983. Hypnagogia: The nature and function of the hypnagogic state. Ph.D. Dissertation. School of Social Sciences Theses.

2. Paolo Mazzarello. 2000. What dreams may come? Nature 408, 6812 (2000), 523–524

3. Khatami, Manoochehr (1978). Creativity and Altered States of Consciousness. Psychiatric Annals. Volume 8: Issue 3 (57-64).

4. Dietrich, A. (2006). Transient hypofrontality as a mechanism for the psychological effects of exercise. Psychiatry Research, 145 (1) (2006), pp. 79–83

5. Edgar Allan Poe. 1980. The Unknown Poe: An Anthology of Fugitive Writings. City Lights Books.

6. Robert Stickgold, April Malia, Denise Maguire, David Roddenberry, and Margaret O’connor. 2000. Replaying the game: hypnagogic images in normals and amnesics. Science 290, 5490 (2000), 350–353