Adam Haar Horowitz Dissertation Defense

Dissertation Title:  Words Create Worlds: Targeted Dream Incubation


This thesis examines the potential for targeted dream incubation (primarily through devices) to influence dream content across multiple sleep stages and alter post-sleep cognition. This research emphasizes the execution of a scientifically reliable dream incubation protocol, as well as reviewing oneiric chemicals and cultural practices. Along with a wonderful team, I have developed a wearable system (Dormio) and associated protocol (Targeted Dream Incubation: TDI) that cause experimental subjects to dream specifically and reliably of an experimenter-chosen theme, using stimuli presented in the NREM 1 (N1) phase of sleep in combination with serial awakenings. The experimental work of this thesis centers on four experiments utilizing TDI. Our first experiment demonstrates that TDI in N1 does, indeed, induce cue-related dreaming and can be used to augment creativity across a range of tasks related to incubated dream themes, as seen with both objective and subjective creativity assessment. Still further analysis shows that our TDI protocol can be used to augment creative self-efficacy, the belief that one has the ability to produce creative outcomes. Our second experiment shows that TDI can be used to influence daydreams as well as night dreams, and enables controlled experimental comparisons of these brainstates. This experiment further validates a non-contact version of TDI, in which dream incubation is effective simply via timed audio cues without any wearable sleep staging device. Pushing beyond bench science to clinical practice, a third experiment in collaboration with PTSD focused psychiatrists examines the capacity for TDI to influence people’s levels of self-efficacy regarding nightmares and dreaming (the belief one can control one’s dream content, a key predictor of successful nightmare therapies). We show TDI can significantly improve dream related self-efficacy, as well as reduce nightmare related complaints. Finally, a fourth pilot experiment extends our dream incubation protocols into the REM state, opening up avenues for influencing novel mnemonic and affective dream-related functions.

The results extend the potential bench science and clinical relevance of our suite of dream incubation protocols and technologies. We identify new opportunities for interfacing with human cycles of memory, mind-wandering, emotional adaptation and creative cognition across the full 24 hour spectrum of thought. Our dream incubation system has spawned a series of experiments, both scientific and artistic, and been an impetus for the first conference and first collection of scientific papers on the new field of Dream Engineering. Beyond describing the creation and validation of dream incubation tools, this thesis explores applications and implications of incubating dreams, maps out methods of community building for pluralistic perspectives in dream research, and extends our published writings on the ethics of this research in order to outline an appropriate future for the emerging field of Dream Engineering.

Committee members:

Dr. Pattie Maes
Professor, MIT Media Lab
Director, Fluid Interfaces Group

Dr. Robert Stickgold
Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School
Director, Center for Sleep and Cognition, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center,

Dr. Caroline A. Jones

Professor in the History, Theory, and Criticism section, Department of Architecture, MIT.
Associate Dean, School of Architecture and Planning, MIT

Dr. Matthew Spellberg
Faculty, Outer Coast College,
Junior Fellow, Harvard Society of Fellows

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