Researchers at MIT Created an ‘Inception’-Style Device

Any excuse to take a nap is a good one, but a recent study from MIT and Harvard adds to the growing body of research demonstrating how much your creative potential may be enhanced by a little nap.

Scientists demonstrated in an article that was published on Monday in the journal Scientific Reports that quick sleeps can stimulate the brain to generate innovative answers to challenging issues. The hypnagogic period, often known as the transitional period between waking and sleeping, is when the phenomena takes place.

In a technique known as “targeted dream incubation,” the study’s authors also took drowsy volunteers through a guided dream to assist them achieve this creative sweet spot. In addition to seeming like it was plucked from the pages of Inception, the technique encouraged participants to think more imaginatively about the subject of their dreams.

In a release, co-author of the study and MIT neuroscientist Kathleen Esfahany said, “You can have dream experiences that you can later use for these creative tasks when you are prompted to dream about a topic during sleep onset.”

This current study was based on a study conducted in 2021 by French sleep scientists who discovered that after waking up from hypnagogic sleep, individuals were more likely to be able to complete math problems. The MIT and Harvard team investigated if the same fleeting sleep condition could aid individuals in more creative tasks like storytelling.

Professor of media technology at MIT and co-author of the paper Pattie Maes said, “One of the goals of our group is to provide individuals additional insights into how their brain functions, as well as what their cognitive state is and how they may be able to change it.

The team made a device called Dormio that could help guide people through a process called “targeted dream incubation.” It’s basically a glove that connects to a smartphone app and measures things like heart rate while you sleep. As soon as the user starts to drift off to sleep, the app starts to ask them about their dreams. The app wakes the user up right before they move on to the next stage of sleep. The user then writes down what they dreamed.

The experts put the 49 people who took part in the study into four groups. One person was given a Dormio and 45 minutes to take a nap. During this time, the app told them to think about a tree and kept track of what they said. Another group of people also used Dormio, but they were only asked to watch what they were thinking. The last two groups were awake for 45 minutes.

After 45 minutes, the writers asked the participants to write a creative story that included the word “tree.” The most original stories came from the groups that were told to dream about trees. This was decided by people who read the stories but didn’t know who wrote them. The group that slept but wasn’t on time had more unique stories than the group that didn’t sleep at all.

The subjects were also asked to do “divergent thinking tasks,” which help measure creativity. For these, they had to think of as many creative ways as they could to use a tree. They were also given a list of words and asked to come up with a verb for each one.

Those who were shown the tree thoughts were 78% more creative than those who stayed awake, and those who napped without being shown anything were 43% more creative.

“That suggests that the [hypnagogic] sleep state is not the only thing that makes people more creative,” Esfahany said. “People are more creative because they use the ideas that come to them in their dreams.”

Devices like Dormio are making the tech from the movie “Inception” pretty much a reality. Only instead of helping you bring down a multi-billion dollar company or talk to Leonardo DiCaprio’s dead wife, it could help you finish that book you’ve been working on.

You don’t even have to wait for a product to be put on the shelves. The experts put a simplified version of Dormio online for free. They said it was all part of their plan to make it easier for people to use their creative brainpower. Try it out the next time you’re having trouble coming up with something original.

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