Every time you go to sleep, you pass through a phase known as hypnagogia. This mental state straddles the line between “sleeping” and “awake.” Sometimes sleep scientists can’t even agree on whether it should be classified as a phase of sleep. Hypnagogia has a reputation for promoting creativity and freedom of thought, so researchers from MIT have been investigating techniques to prolong this state. The result is a device called Dormio, and they think it might be able to boost your creativity.
The neurological basis for hypnagogia is still unclear, but you’ve probably experienced its effects. As you begin to drift off to sleep, you may not realize you’re losing consciousness. In hypnagogia, you can experience fleeting hallucinations and micro-dreams that mix with reality. People in this state can carry on conversations they don’t remember, and may not realize they had been unconscious if awoken. Many of history’s greatest thinkers have sought to dwell in this phase for as long as possible in order to gain insight on their work. For example, Edison was reputed to take naps while holding steel balls. As he fell asleep and entered a hypnagogic state, he’d drop the ball on the floor and wake himself up.
Dormio takes a similar approach by giving the sleeper a little nudge as they enter hypnagogia. The first iteration of the device used an electroencephalograph (EEG) on the head and a pressure sensor in a glove. The subject would don the glove and headband, then make a fist before going to sleep. The sensors in the EEG and glove would detect when muscles relaxed, and brain waves changed to indicate hypnagogia. At that point, a nearby Jibo robot would speak a phrase to prime the sleeper to think about a particular idea and record anything they said. The interruption also served to keep the test subject from falling into a deeper sleep. The Jibo is not strictly required — it could be any device capable of audio playback and recording.
The MIT team enlisted a small group of volunteers to try Dormio, and most reported remembering the trigger phrase and resulting images in their dreamy state. The test subjects took a so-called “Alternative Uses Task” examination after using Dormio. This is supposed to measure creativity, but that’s hardly a simple concept. Still, five of the six scored higher than the control.
Dormio is currently on its second hardware iteration, which uses a more precise flexon sensor in the glove. The EEG was swapped for sensors that measure heart rate and breathing. The Jibo robot also got the boot, with a smartphone app taking its place. This version of the apparatus is cheaper and less bulky, which is important if you’re trying to snooze. The team already has plans for a third version that will use eyelid movement to track sleep states. The goal is to make Dormio so cheap and non-invasive that everyone can get a little creativity boost.