Tech + Health

04.06.14

New Study Shows Dream App Helps People Craft Dreams and Wake Up Happier

Can you control your dreams through sound? One psychologist says yes, and a new study backs him up.

Professor Richard Wiseman started his career as a magician. Now, he claims he has the power to control your dreams. But there's no magic here--it's hard science. Today, Wiseman is a respected psychologist and has developed a new app, Dream:ON. A study has shown the app helps people craft what they dream about right before waking up, and thus, they rise feeling happy and refreshed.

"I'd like to think this is my best trick yet," smiles Professor Wiseman, who teaches in the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, UK. "It's certainly the most ambitious project that I have been involved in. But this was devised with my psychologist hat on."

Dream:ON was made in association with app developers YUZA and released on the iTunes App Store in 2012, meant for use with the iPhone. Since then, the free app has been downloaded over 500,000 times. Users were encouraged to share their experiences with Wiseman and his team so they could study the app’s effectiveness. So far, that has resulted in over 13 million dream reports. The data, described in Wiseman’s new book, Night School, reveals that Dream:ON is indeed effective in shaping the last dream a person has before they wake up.

How Dream:ON Works

In essence, Dream:ON is an alarm clock app with smart features. So, like any alarm app, you need to tell it what time you want to wake up, and set a volume and alarm tone. Next, you’re prompted to choose a “soundscape.”

The team designed over 40 themed soundscapes that mimic environments, all of which are free to download. They range from a peaceful garden with birds chirping to the Wild West with drinks flying at a saloon and horses neighing in the background.

"The first ones were designed to be relaxing, such as the nature soundscape, or somewhat strange, such as the city one," Professor Wiseman explains. "We then asked about 1,000 people to describe their perfect dream, and based the additional soundscapes on their replies—that was the basis for the flying one, the zombie attack, and shades of grey ones."

The study showed that the soundscape you listen to has an influence on the emotional tone of your dream. For example, the nature-based soundscapes create dreams that are especially positive, while city-based soundscapes produce more bizarre dreams.

"If someone chooses a nature landscape (e.g. “Peaceful Garden” or “Relaxing Rainforest”), they tend to experience dreams that involve greenery and flowers. In contrast, when they select a beach-type soundscape (e.g. “Ocean View” or “Pool Party”) they are more likely to dream about the sun beating down on their skin," states the app's website.

All soundscapes also come with a “lucid'” version which allows you to become conscious of when you're dreaming, and thus more able to influence the direction of the dream.

Smart Sensors For Smart Sleep

There is some evidence that you’re working through your problems when you dream, and so it’s possible that boosting the emotional tone of the dream would help people work through their problems.”

Once you’ve set up the app, you need to place your phone face down at the corner of your mattress—not under any pillow though. Dream:ON uses the phone's accelerometers to measure movement through the night.

"When you dream, you are paralyzed and don't move around. The app picks up on this lack of movement. However, we only target the last dream of the night, which is about 30 minutes long and happens almost directly before you wake up, so even without the movement data it is likely that you will be dreaming when the soundscape plays," Professor Wiseman says.  

There's also a second "Smart Alarm" feature that wakes you up from light sleep. "The smart alarm waits until you are moving around before it sounds. However, it won't let you oversleep and so would sound when you want to wake up if it hasn't already sounded."

Users are encouraged to write about their dreams when they wake up in a dream journal, and a smart graph plots when you wake up, sleep, and reach deep sleep. You can even share this data on social networks.

I tried out the app for the past few days. The nature soundscape made me dream about finding a lake, the city soundscape inspired dreams of a mall, while the "Comedy Club" soundscape made me recollect a funny incident in the past. Those were the effects I desired out of the app—however, I'm unsure whether my expectation to dream those events, purely because I was testing this app, played any part in it.

Wake Up And Smile

Dream:ON targets the final dream because it has shown to influence people's morning mood. "I think the main thing [with the app] is altering the mood of people when they wake. Good mood is good for creativity, relationships, happiness, and so on," Professor Wiseman says.

"Also, there is some evidence that you are working through your problems when you dream, and so it is possible that boosting the emotional tone of the dream would help people work through their problems," he adds. For example, depression patients have been known to have long, frequent, and negative dreams. While he has no data to support this, Professor Wiseman conjectures that dream influence could possibly be a radically new therapeutic tool in the fight against depression.

Dream:ON is a free download from the iTunes App Store and you can find out more about the study at Professor Wiseman's website.