Haunted by Advertisers in Dreams?

Knowledge in Dreams

You may have done something dream researchers have been pursuing for decades – coaxing knowledge into dreams, if you’ve ever prepped for a test right before bedtime. In the lab, such approaches have shown some promise. Now, companies ranging from Xbox to Coors to Burger King are collaborating with academics to try something similar – inserting adverts into the dreams of willing customers using video and audio samples. In an online letter this week, a group of 40 dream experts pushed back, pushing for the regulation of commercial dream modification.

On the op-ed website EOS, they write, “Dream incubation advertising is not some amusing gimmick, but a slippery slope with actual repercussions. Our dreams cannot be turned into a commercial playground for corporations.”

Dream Incubations

Dream incubation, in which people modify their nighttime visions with images, music, or other sensory clues, has a long history. Through meditation, painting, praying, and even drug usage, people all across the ancient world devised rituals and strategies to alter the content of their dreams.

In the fourth century B.C.E., sick Greeks would lie on mud beds in the temples of the god Asclepius, hoping to undergo enkoimesis, a dream state in which their cure would be revealed.

Modern science has ushered in an entirely new realm of possibilities. By monitoring brain waves, eye movements, and even snoring, researchers can now determine when most individuals enter the period of sleep when most of our dreaming occurs—the rapid eye movement (REM) state.

They’ve also demonstrated that external inputs including noises, odours, lighting, and speech can change the content of dreams. This year, researchers contacted lucid dreamers—people who are awake while dreaming—and asked them to answer questions and complete math problems while they slept.

Haunted by Advertisers in Dreams?

Sleep-Tracking Glove

“People are especially vulnerable [to suggestion] when they are sleeping,” says Adam Haar, a cognitive scientist and Massachusetts Institute of Technology Ph.D. student who co-authored the letter. Haar created a sleep-tracking glove that plays audio cues when the wearer reaches a vulnerable sleep period, guiding them to dream about specific subjects.

In the last two years, he claims he’s been contacted by three organisations, including Microsoft and two airlines, seeking for his assistance on dream incubation initiatives. He volunteered for one game-related initiative, but he refused to participate in any commercial campaigns.

Deirdre Barrett, a Harvard University dream researcher, has also received corporate attention for her work. She encouraged 66 college students taking a dream class in 1993 to choose a personal or academic difficulty, write it down, and ponder about it every night for at least a week before going to bed.

Nearly half of the participants said they had nightmares about the condition by the end of the study. In a study published in Science in 2000, Harvard neuroscientists asked people to play the computer game Tetris for three days and discovered that slightly more than 60% of the participants had dreams about the game.

Non-Public Outcome

Barrett worked on an online advertising campaign for the Molson Coors Beverage Company for the Super Bowl this year. Coors, whose trademark contains mountains and waterfalls, had 18 people (12 of whom were hired actors) view a 90-second movie showcasing flowing waterfalls, cold mountain air, and Coors beer before falling asleep, as per her instructions.

Five of the volunteers reported dreaming about Coors beer or seltzer when they awoke from REM sleep, according to a YouTube video chronicling the effort. (The outcome has yet to be made public.)

Barrett told Science that the intervention was not a true “experiment,” and she admitted in a subsequent blog post that the company’s ad used scientific terminology “with overtones [of] mind-control experimentation,” which she advised against.

She also believes that such advertising methods will have little practical influence. “Of course, you can play adverts to someone while they are sleeping,” she says, “but there is little evidence that it has much effect.” Dream incubation “doesn’t appear to be very cost effective” when compared to typical advertising efforts, she adds.

That doesn’t rule out the possibility of future improvements, according to Antonio Zadra, a dream researcher from the University of Montreal who signed the declaration. “We can see the waves constructing the coming tsunami, yet most people are merely sleeping on the beach,” he explains. “They are coming for your dreams, and most people don’t even aware they can do it,” says Harvard neuroscientist Robert Stickgold, who led the Tetris study.

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Alexa may adapt to Sleep patterns

Companies may one day utilise smart speakers like Alexa to identify people’s sleep stages and play back noises that could affect their dreams and behaviours, according to the letter writers, because there are no restrictions particularly addressing in-dream advertising.

“It is possible to imagine a scenario in which smart speakers—40 million Americans own them—become vehicles of passive, unconscious overnight advertising, with or without our permission,” the authors wrote in a letter to U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D–MA).

According to Dennis Hirsch, a law professor and privacy expert at Ohio State University in Columbus, such a world is worth planning for. However, he believes that the US Federal Trade Commission Act, which prohibits “unfair or deceptive” business practises, already covers the use of smart speakers for in-dream advertising. He goes on to say that the legislation in the United States is evolving to incorporate more precise bans on subliminal messaging.

What Dream Researchers has to Say?

Tore Nielsen, a dream researcher at the University of Montreal who did not sign the statement, claims that his colleagues are concerned. However, he believes that such interventions will fail unless the dreamer is aware of the manipulation and eager to participate.

“I’m not concerned,” Nielsen continues, “just as I’m not concerned that people can be hypnotized against their will. If that occurs and no regulatory action is taken to prevent it, I believe we will be well on our way to becoming a Big Brother state… Whether or not we can change our dreams is really the least of our concerns.”


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