New iPhone App Developed at Harvard Lets Users Program Their Dreams

UPDATED: April 16, 2012, at 12:32 a.m.

With the help of a new mobile application, more than 100 iPhone users at Harvard are now programming the content of their dreams before they even hit the sack.

Daniel J. Nadler, a graduate student in the government department with a knack for invention, got the idea for the app, which he named Sigmund, in 2010 while he was a resident tutor in Currier House. He noticed that many of the students got little sleep, and he hoped that technology could help them optimize the sleep they did get.

His new iPhone application, which also works as a standard alarm clock, allows users to influence the content of their dreams by setting a series of pre-selected words for the app to play during the REM stage of sleep. A user selects up to five words that he would like to incorporate into his dreams and enters information about his planned sleep schedule. Before going to sleep, the user places the phone about four feet away. During the night, the iPhone softly speaks the words during REM cycles. Sigmund uses an algorithm to determine the timing of users’ sleep phases.

Nadler developed Sigmund with Yuhki B. Yamashita ’11, a former Crimson editor, and MIT student Doug Feigelson.

Feigelson, who recently won Facebook’s intercollegiate hackathon at MIT, built the application and programmed in more than 1,000 pre-recorded words.

According to Nadler, some words might be better than others at influencing the content of dreams.

“Visually strong verbal stimuli such as ‘beach,’ ‘orange tiger,’ as well as personally meaningful subjects that relate to activities, people, and places such as ‘restaurant,’ ‘girlfriend,’ ‘Paris’ are especially likely to be incorporated into your dream content during sleep,” he said.

In order to make his app, Nadler learned about the neurobiology of sleep-dependent learning from a reading-directed research group funded by the Harvard Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative.

Nadler said that he has received “overwhelmingly enthusiastic” responses from users of the application. Though Sigmund costs 99 cents from Apple, Nadler offers it for free to Harvard students who email him.

"It's really fascinating in the sense that you can program your own dreams. For instance, I once put in 'running, mountains, trees, lake' and dreamt that I was running on a trail in the East Sierras," wrote Nancy Y. Xie '13, who has sampled the app, in an email. "However, it tends to work best with activities/things that you are most familiar with"

Nadler and Feigelson plan to program the app for platforms besides the iPhone in the future.

“It is quite possible that in 20 years, our own dreams will become truly controllable entertainment,” Nadler said. “They bypass the eyes completely, and while in them, we truly take them for reality. Sigmund is merely the prototype.”

—Staff writer Laya Anasu can be reached at layaanasu@college.harvard.edu.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: April 16

An earlier version of this article said that the creation of the iPhone application Sigmund was funded in part by the Harvard Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative. In fact, though the app's creator Daniel J. Nadler relied on science from a reading-directed research group funded by the MBB Initiative, he did not directly receive funding from the program.

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