In his short story, The Haunted Mind, Nathaniel Hawthorne ably captures the emotional range, haunting mysteries, and inimitable pleasures of the brief moments in the middle of the night when one only half awakens and, mere seconds later, resumes the journey back to sleep. He describes this hypnagogic (between waking and sleeping) state as ‘a realm of illusions’ in which ‘the business of life does not intrude.’ Yet, his protagonist hears the bells of the church tower across the street and wonders ‘half seriously, whether it has stolen to [his] waking ear from some grey tower, that stood within the precincts of [his] dream.’ Indeed, the striking of the bells serve repeatedly as a marker of the nebulous boundary between the protagonist’s waking consciousness and a flickering dream state.

Psychoanalysts have long pointed to dream content as influenced by, and indicative of, the dreamer’s waking life – emotional desires, existential struggles, etc. Research on hypnagogia is equally replete with examples of the waking world penetrating the dream world. Hypnagogic visions often contain elements from recent events or ruminations experienced by the subject. Perhaps you were struggling with a dilemma and that night ‘see’ a solution or maybe you had an unpleasant encounter with someone one day and a distorted image of their face appears to you for a fraction of a second as you are waking up the next morning. It may be difficult to demonstrate that our experiences cause our dreams, but it certainly seems that they lend characters and contexts to our dreams.

But what if we could choose how our dreams are influenced? What if the seemingly random and nearly infinite orderings of our experiences that come to us in our dreams point to a higher order of creativity? And, what if that creativity could be harnessed for our own benefit – creating bespoke dreams meant to overcome those pesky dilemmas previously unearthed by psychoanalysis?

It seems that some researchers are hoping to pave the way to exactly this. Calling their new wearable tech, Dormio, researchers from several universities and hospitals in Boston, Massachusetts recently conducted a study in which they used this device to influence the dream content of participants. Dormio alerts researchers to moments when participants are likely in a hypnagogic state, offering the participant a prompt such as ‘think of trees’. The device then wakes the participants, asking them to report what was ‘going through their mind’. The study’s results suggest that promptings during hypnagogia can, indeed, lead to specific dream content. The researchers report being hopeful that Dormio may be integral to future manipulations of the mind, perhaps allowing subjects to program the content of their own dreams in the hopes of overcoming a personal challenge.

But is the dream state a rich unmined deposit of creative problem-solving or is it ‘a realm of illusions’? Are the bells tolling from a great faraway tower somehow more resonant than those heard daily at the church across the street? Several members of Threshold Worlds are now addressing just these sorts of questions in their ongoing research into hypnagogia and liminal consciousness.

Adam J. Powell, September 2020