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Have you ever had the bizarre experience of seemingly waking up inside your own dream? You can tell you’re not fully conscious—there’s a dreamscape all around you, after all—but you’re aware enough to be able to control parts of the phantasm. These so-called “lucid dreams” can be extremely meaningful and transformative moments for the roughly half of adults who report having them at least once in their lifetime. That’s why a new tech startup, Prophetic, aims to bring lucid dreams to a much wider audience by developing a wearable device designed to spark the experience when desired.
ABSTRACT breaks down mind-bending scientific research, future tech, new discoveries, and major breakthroughs.
Prophetic is the brainchild of Eric Wollberg, its chief executive officer, and Wesley Louis Berry III, its chief technology officer. The pair co-founded the company earlier this year with the goal of combining technologies, such as ultrasound and machine learning models, “to detect when dreamers are in REM to induce and stabilize lucid dreams” with a device called the Halo according to the company’s website. “It's an extraordinary thing to become aware in your own mind and in your own dreams; it's a surreal and spiritual-esque experience,” said Wollberg, who has had lucid dreams since he was 12, in a call with Motherboard. “Recreationally, it's the ultimate VR experience. You can fly, you can make a building rise out of the ground, you can talk to dream characters, and you can explore.” “The list of benefits of lucid dreaming is long,” noted Berry in the same call. “There’s everything from helping with PTSD, reducing anxiety, and improving mood, confidence, motor skills, and creativity. The benefits are really outstanding.”Prophetic does not make any medical claims about its forthcoming products—Halo is tentatively slated for a 2025 release—though Wollberg and Berry both expressed optimism about broader scientific research that suggests lucid dreams can reduce PTSD-related nightmares, promote mindfulness, and open new windows into the mysterious nature of consciousness
To explore those links further, Prophetic has partnered with the Donders Institute, a research center at Radboud University in the Netherlands that is focused on neuroscience and cognition, to generate the largest dataset of electroencephalogram (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) observations of lucid dreamers, according to the company.
The collaboration will also explore one of central technologies behind Prophetic’s vision, known as transcranial focused ultrasound (TUS). This non-invasive technique uses low-intensity ultrasound pulses to probe the brain, and interact with neural activity, with a depth and precision that cannot be achieved with previous methods, such as transcranial electrical stimulation or transcranial magnetic stimulation.“It is great to see and support the development of lucid dreaming devices for home use that implement potent technologies such as transcranial ultrasound,” said Nico Adelhöfer, a researcher at Donders’s Sleep & Memory Lab who is working with Prophetic, in an email to Motherboard. “While high-density studies in the lab are necessary to fully describe lucid dreaming, the ultimate goal of this research is broad applicability. This cannot be achieved when subjects have to come to the lab to experience them.”“Home devices to improve sleep experience including lucid dream induction have been around for quite a few years, but they were rather bulky and had rather low induction rates,” he added. “Safe focused neuromodulation is a recent technological development that has huge potential not only for lucid dream induction but to flexibly alter other parameters of sleep and cognition as well. It is exciting to see what will be possible and what the limits may be.”
At this point, both the possibilities and limits of Prophetic’s concept remain unclear. While ultrasound devices have been widely used in medicine for decades, the process of stimulating parts of the brain with TUS is a relatively new development. Within the past few years, scientists have shown that TUS “has the potential to be used both as a scientific instrument to investigate brain function and as a therapeutic modality to modulate brain activity,” according to a 2019 study, and “could be a useful tool in the treatment of clinical disorders characterized by negative mood states, like depression and anxiety disorders,” according to a 2020 study.
What is not known, yet, is whether TUS can induce or stabilize lucid dreams, though the Prophetic team is banking on a positive answer to this open question. Its wearable headband prototype, the Halo, was developed with the company Card79 and can currently read EEG data of users. Over the next year, Prophetic aims to use the dataset from their partnership with the Donders Institute to train machine learning models that will stimulate targeted neural activity in users with ultrasound transducers as a means of inducing lucid dreams.“Ideally, the user would not notice the device at all, but would see effects only in slight changes in dream experiences that appear natural and non-artificial,” explained Adelhöfer, who is himself a longtime lucid dreamer. “The direction of change in dreaming depends on the exact parameter settings. An insight moment might be triggered, leading to a questioning of the current (dream) reality by the dreamer, and consequently to a lucid dream, which, when combined with full perceptual immersion, is easily one of the most curious and exhilarating experiences for humans to have.”
“Depending on the device specifics and steering range of its ultrasound transducers, it is further conceivable that the emotional tone of the dream might also be modulated, for example reducing negative emotions, which may be possible via targeting the amygdala located deep within the brain,” he continued. “Sleep studies for this specific target are still underway. Modulating specific content of dreams with technology might be possible in the future with ultrasound as well, but would need quite a few more hardware iterations to achieve the high resolution and reliability required for this task.”Wollberg and Berry expressed confidence that their approach will work based in part on the successful induction of lucid dreams by other methods, including a 2014 study that found “stimulation in the lower gamma band during REM sleep influences ongoing brain activity and induces self-reflective awareness in dreams.”It remains to be seen whether future iterations of the Halo could use TUS to achieve a similar, and perhaps more powerful, outcome. It’s a concept that naturally evokes some of the most memorable pop culture stories about the manipulation of dreams, such as Inception, The Matrix, and "Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace," which is for my money the scariest Treehouse of Horror story in The Simpsons canon. Obviously, most of these fictional works generate drama from the worst imagined outcomes of messing with dreams, and scientific verisimilitude tends to be a much lower priority for storytellers. That said, the Prophetic team is cognizant of safety and privacy concerns that people might have about these emerging techniques, which are addressed in their technology roadmap. Adelhöfer also noted that safety is a key issue for all kinds of research avenues into sleep and dream modulation.“Current technological developments suggest that high-level dream content control is fully within the realm of possibility in the medium-term future,” Adelhöfer said. “Unclear are the limits set by mental well-being when one intervenes with and constrains the dream generation process. No doubt the experimental modulations by novel techniques such as TUS will help cartograph these limits and understand the meaning of dreams.”Prophetic hopes that the Halo could contribute to this quest to understand dreams and consciousness, assuming it is launched in the coming years. As an active lucid dreamer, Wollberg feels that this technology could help people harness their own dreams in ways that could enrich their lives even after they wake up.“One of the key things that lucid dreaming has given me in my waking life is that the world is more enchanted,” Wollberg said. “When you have experienced something so extraordinary, it really imbues life with a certain level of enchantment and mystery and profundity.”