In the late 19th century, Sigmund Freud, the paradigm-shattering explorer of the human-mind, became the first modern thinker to come up with a comprehensive theory of dreams.
His ideas may not have stood the test of time, but if Freud was alive now, he would no doubt be fascinated with the new scientific findings about our dream world.
With exponential improvements in computing power and sensor technology, a new field of ‘brain-hacking‘ has emerged. By measuring electrical activity in the brain and/or applying appropriate stimuli, scientists and inventors claim they can directly influence brain states, enhancing memory, concentration, creativity and even emotions.
One of the most interesting areas to emerge from this is lucid dreaming technology. Whilst Hollywood movies such as Inception portray a fantasy vision of dream-engineering, back in the real world, Daniel Schoonover and his team are working to turn science-fiction into reality.
Daniel’s company iWinks is the epitome of a highly innovative and successful startup, raising nearly $1/4 million on Kickstarter and has been featured on CNN, Newsweek and Forbes.
But uniquely, Aurora assists lucid dreams with two multi-coloured LEDS which respond to your EEG signals, and provide your own personal dream-cues.
Aurora also functions as a sophisticated sleep monitor, including an open research platform to allow developers to further explore sleep and brain-computer-interface research. We spoke to Daniel to find out more:
(Update: iWinks has provided an excellent review summarizing the scientific evidence behind the benefits of lucid dreaming – click here to download: Scientific benefits of Lucid Dreaming )
Jeff Mann (JM): Hi Daniel, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. How did you get involved in the sleep/dreaming tech space?
Daniel Schoonover (DS): Our lean team is a group of engineers and neuroscientists with over 20 years of combined experience in brain-computer interfaces, sleep tracking and embedded systems.
This unique skillset makes us ideal to conquer the sleep tech space and with our first device, Aurora Dreamband, we have already pushed the field beyond accurate sleep tracking to actually improve sleep on a nightly basis.
JM:Aurora has been in development for some years now, can you explain the challenges along the way, and what you’ve learnt in the process.
DS: Aurora faces many challenges, partially because customer expectations for lucid dream induction is very high, but also because the technical challenges involved in building a wearable device that:
1) accurately tracks sleep
2) delivers lights / sound stimulus at the right moment during REM to induce lucid dreaming
3) is comfortable to wear to sleep
4) Contains all essential algorithms/software on board the device.
The last point was originally a stretch goal in our KS campaign and even though we didnt raise the funding tied to that goal, we decided it was the best way to build the product and committed to it anyway.
That upgrade set us back in development by about one year but we are happy to say that we are past it and have a really efficient workflow for collecting data, upgrading the algorithm and deploying new solutions to devices in the field.
So I would just say: keep it simple.
JM: We’ve seen a lot sleep technology innovations recently. What makes Aurora unique?
DS: We sure have and are excited to see where the field is going. There really isn’t anything in the market quite like Aurora. While the space is getting quite crowded, we have yet to see a wearable device that accurately tracks sleep while also immediately improving sleep quality.
Aurora does this using scientifically-validated REM sleep enhancement techniques. And we have been working closely with sleep clinics towards validating our tracking algorithms – all on a shoestring budget.
JM: Compared to other sleep trackers on the market, how does Aurora compare? What is your view on the current sleep tracking market, and the multiple different approaches that manufacturers are taking?
DS: Since we are are measuring EEG (brainwaves) from the forehead – and EEG is the gold standard for sleep tracking – our accuracy blows all of the movement-based trackers out of the water. On top of the accurate sleep staging, we can also provide valuable insights on users’ brain states, which is not possible to measure from the wrist.
So when you look at our sleep graphs in the morning, you can trust that you were actually in deep sleep for X minutes because of the brainwave insights, instead of wondering if perhaps your hand was just a little more still during that time because it was tucked under a pillow.
As far as non-contact sleep sensors go, it really depends on what you want to get out of your sleep insights. Estimated heart rate (via ballistocardiography) and movements might be a sufficient metric for sleep tracking if they aren’t interested in digging too deep into their sleep performance.
For power users who are looking for a more detailed understanding of their brain during sleep, EEG is a minimum requirement, and Aurora delivers on that.
JM: Lucid dreaming is often misunderstood. and has been associated with ‘New Age’ or pseudo-scientific ideas. What is the actual scientific basis so far for an understanding of how lucid dreaming works?
DS: Yes one of our biggest problems as a startup has been educating the public about lucid dreaming. There are unfortunate associations connecting the field with “sub-optimal markets” from a business development perspective, though for a crowdfunded startup like us this demographic has been incredibly supportive.
Our backers have been more than patient while staying committed to helping us with user testing and providing valuable insights.
However make no mistake about it, lucid dreaming is a scientifically validated state of consciousness were one is both dreaming and self-aware within the dream. This phenomenon has been repeatedly validated by various scientific research labs all over the world.
The first comprehensive peer-reviewed study came out of Stanford University in the 1980’s and since then the field has really exploded with research and uncovering new benefits.
One of our favorite modern scientific studies placed lucid dreamers in an MRI and the results showed that a lucid dreaming brain appears as a combination of both the waking and normal (non-lucid) REM dreaming brain!
JM: Can you explain how, apart from recreationally, people might benefit from lucid dreaming in terms of their ambitions, goals and general self-improvement? Are there any verifiable techniques or practical methods that people can use?
Lucid dreaming is much more than fun and trippy dreams. Lucid dreamers are less stressed out, and better able to focus their attention during the day. They enjoy increased levels of self-awareness and better understand how their actions influence others.
Lucid dreamers are also better problem solvers – they are more likely to independently and quickly reach a problem’s solution. Lucid dreamers are more likely to be compassionate because they take responsibility for their own actions and ultimately believe that their actions directly influence their success and wellbeing.
Practicing skills during dreams have been shown to engage the same parts of the brain that control motor and high-level cognitive function of those skills during wakefulness. So skiing during your dreams has been shown to make you a better at skiing the next day.
And of course – they’re exhilarating experiences!
If you want to start lucid dreaming now and cant wait to try Aurora, the best methods are to keep a dream journal and to perform reality checks throughout your day. Aurora will provide solutions to both of these, however you can easily keep a dream journal by your bed.
See our website at https://iwinks.org/ for a simple example of how to incorporate reality checks to have more lucid dreams.
JM: You are built the Aurora from the outset with an API, so that developers can create new ways to use your product. What types of applications would you envisage seeing in the future?
DS: If we knew the answer to that, we probably wouldn’t have needed an API 🙂
Aurora is expected to ship its first orders in January 2016. Check out https://iwinks.org/ for more details.
Jeff is the founder and editor-in-chief at Sleep Junkies . A passionate sleep advocate, he started the site in 2012, reaching millions of readers across the globe. Jeff also runs the product curation platform SleepGadgets.io . He is often asked to speak at about current trends in consumer sleep technology at various events.