Sleep. It's the one thing we all do and the one thing that few of us are willing to screw around with — if only because a bad night of sleep can ruin an entire day. Still, hundreds of sleep tricks, hacks and dream induction techniques exist that are supposed to give you a better night of sleep, and they've all been ported to your phone. But do any of these really work? If so, are these apps worth using? We'll take a look at the science supporting various sleep apps, and then see how it really feels when your sleep and dreams are tinkered with.
I tested two types of apps when researching this post: sleep tracking and dream induction. Sleep tracking is supposed to help you see how much sleep you're getting, how good it is, and then wake you up at the optimal time. Dream induction, as the name implies, is all about helping you create and remember your dreams. Both types are based on a fairly simple understanding of our sleep cycles, so before we get into the results of my tests, let's take a quick look at the basics of the science they're based on.
The Science Behind Sleep Tracking and Dream Induction
To get a good understanding of what these apps are trying to accomplish, it's helpful to understand the basics of what happens when you sleep, when you're most likely to dream, and when the best time to wake up is.
The Different Stages of Sleep
When you sleep you alternate between two basic sleep states, non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM). As you begin to fall asleep, you enter NREM, which has four individual stages. About 90 minutes later you enter REM sleep, and that cycle continues throughout the night.
During REM sleep you typically don't move, which is the key detail that a lot of the apps below use to judge where you are in your sleep schedule. It's thought that most dreams occur in the REM period, but it's still not clear why.
The end of an REM cycle is usually the best time to wake up because it's one of the lightest stages of sleep you go through. This is why most of the sleep-tracking apps attempt to wake you up near the end of a REM cycle and why most dream apps start to induce dreams at the beginning of your REM cycle. Image by RazerM.
Controlling Dreams Through External Stimulus
You can control your dreams in a variety of ways. The process is different depending on what type of dreams you're trying to induce, but with a little training and some help from external stimuli, you can induce dreams to solve problems, influence nightmares and even dream about a specific person. In an interview with Scientific American, Dr Deirdre Barrett describes how certain inputs can control a dream:
The auditory seem to work best [to induce dreams], such as water or a voice saying something. Very strong stimuli wake us up. You want it to get in some narrow threshold where it gets detected by the brain and processed but it doesn't wake you up, and then there's a shot at it getting incorporated into the dream.
Alternatively, you can influence your dreams without apps and a bit of mental preparation. Dr Barrett adds:
If you want to problem-solve in a dream, you should first of all think of the problem before bed, and if it lends itself to an image, hold it in your mind and let it be the last thing in your mind before falling asleep. For extra credit assemble something on your bedside table that makes an image of the problem. If it's a personal problem, it might be the person you have the conflict with. If you're an artist, it might be a blank canvas. If you're a scientist, the device you're working on that's half assembled or a mathematical proof you've been writing through versions of.
Barrett also suggests that if you have trouble remembering dreams it's best to wait a few minutes after you wake up to sit and think about how you feel to try pulling the narrative thread together to help you remember the dream.
Now that we know the basics of sleep cycles and that it's possible to influence dreams, let's take a look at the apps that are supposed to help you do both.
Apps that Track and Help You Improve Sleeping and Waking Up
We've talked before about how to achieve better sleep with the help of technology that involves tracking your sleep patterns and comparing it with your daily activity, as well as ways you can reboot your sleep cycles to get better sleep. I don't have a lot of trouble sleeping or waking up, but I was curious to see if I was waking up at the right time every day and if I was doing anything weird in my sleep. To find out I picked two iPhone apps, Sleep Cycle to track my sleep and Sleep Talk to see if I talk in my sleep (and if that's indicative of a certain sleep state).
Tracking Your Sleep Patterns with Sleep Cycle
Since most of the apps that can supposedly induce dreams work on the same basic premise as Sleep Cycle, I used it to get a baseline for what an average night of sleep looks like.
Sleep Cycle is pretty simple: you start up the app, set the phone face-down on your bed, and then fall asleep. The app uses the accelerometer to see when you're moving, and then decides what cycle of sleep you're in based on your movement.
I averaged about seven hours of sleep a night with only about two of those hours dedicated to deep sleep. This seems fairly normal.
Sleep Cycle also features a timed smart alarm that's supposed to wake you up when your body is best suited for it. In my case this worked surprisingly well, and when I woke up to the smart alarm, I typically felt good and refreshed, even though it was about 20 minutes earlier than my alarm was usually set for.
Since Sleep Cycle only uses your phone's accelerometer, it's not perfect and the one caveat is that you have to sleep alone (this is true for all the apps featured here). If you're looking for something with a bit more accuracy, you may want to look into Wakemate, which features an app and a wristband to track your movement accurately. However, for my basic purposes Sleep Cycle works well.
Do You Talk in Your Sleep? Sleep Talk Has the Answer
Sleep Talk is an iOS and Android app that does one simple thing: it listens to you sleep and records when you talk. I ran it throughout the course of these tests to see when or if I talk in my sleep and if dreams had a role when I did.
The results aren't that spectacular in my case. I only spoke once in the course of a week, and according to Sleep Cycle, I was in REM sleep at the time. As best as I can tell, I muttered, "Checkmate". I have no idea what the context of this was, because I don't remember having a dream that evening, but it's a surprisingly action-movie sounding thing to mutter out in my sleep. (Action movie and not chess? I guess we just learned something about Thorin - Oz ed). No other recordings were made during my tests.
Apps that Induce Dreams and Influence Your Sleep
With my sleep control set and my average sleep hours and times logged, it's time to start experimenting with dream apps. Just so we're on the same page, I should mention that I remember my dreams very rarely. If I had to put a number on it, I'd say I remember them as little as 5 per cent of the time. So as a test subject to see if these apps can not only induce dreams but help you remember them, I'm a decent choice. I chose three different apps that are supposed to induce or help you remember dreams.
Influencing Dreams with Dream:ON
Dream:ON is a free app created by Dr Richard Wiseman as a social experiment to track your sleeping habits and induce dreams using music and verbal cues. The app collects your sleep data for a massive study that's supposed to shed some light on how and why dream induction works. It has the same smart alarm feature as Sleep Cycle, but instead of resting quietly while you sleep, Dream:ON starts playing music (or a story) called soundscapes that are designed to create a specific dream. It does this when it thinks you're in REM sleep, which, as we know, is when research suggests you're most likely to dream. I used the app three separate nights with three different results.
The first night I tried Dream:ON I tried the "Into the City" soundscape, because I figured if I was going to let an app induce dreams it should be of familiar sounds. I didn't have any success with it. If it did cause a dream, I don't remember it. That might be because whatever city sounds the app played were too reminiscent of the sounds that are outside my window every night, so I decided to try it again.
This time I set the soundscape to "Peaceful Garden", which, according to the app description, was supposed to sound like "taking a stroll through a garden of tranquility". This time around I actually woke up a little when the music started but fell back asleep to a dream where I was a tiny fish being chased by a giant fish. After the chase I hid in a tiny claustrophobic room and was stuck there until I woke up in a panicked sweat. It was not the type of dream I'd really like to induce.
Undiscouraged, I decided to give it one more chance. This time I went all out and purchased one of the in-app purchases, "Wild West", because I've always wished I was a cowboy. The description describes this one as "a classic Western adventure, as you become embroiled in the heart of a shootout to save the day". I set my phone on the edge of my bed and went to sleep. Then I dreamt of being a cowboy in the west, but for some reason a Fresh Prince of Bel Air-era Will Smith was with me and we were having a shootout with Tommy Lee Jones. We won the shootout and then I woke up about 25 minutes after the alarm had gone off.
Since I was dead asleep when Dream:ON started playing this time around, I can't say for certain what it was doing to initiate this western fantasy, but I can say it worked. I vaguely remember hearing a story being told about cowboys, but I'm not certain how much of that was the app and how much was in the dream.
The two days after I had dreams induced were pretty awful and it was hard to concentrate on anything. That may just be the fact that on both nights I only clocked in six and half hours of sleep as opposed to my average of seven. Still, if you're interested in seeing if specific sounds and (possibly) stories can influence your dreams, Dream:ON is worth checking out at least once. It's a free download, and while one of my experiences was a bit terrifying, the wild west dream made it worth dealing with the other issues. Most importantly, it helped me remember the dreams I had even if it didn't always influence them in the right direction.
Using Brainwave Entrainment with Dream Inducer
Compared to the other apps I tried, the iPhone app Dream Inducer seems a bit primitive. Instead of tracking your movements to decide when you reach specific parts of your sleep cycle, it plays ambient sounds that are supposed to induce different sleep states. It's still unclear what, if any, effect music or tones have on dreams, but if you've ever fallen asleep listening to music you know the brain picks up at least a little of that external stimuli.
Dream Inducer has a large playlist that changes its music and tones as you enter different cycles of your sleep. It is supposed to synchronise tones with a target mental state and then induce one of the sleep states. It uses a practice called brainwave entrainment. To date, studies on the psychological impact of brainwave entrainment are inconclusive and studies on their effects on dreams are even harder to track down.
I used Dream Inducer on two separate nights to see if it had an effect on my sleep. Both nights I slept well, but that's not out of the ordinary for me. Neither night produced memorable dreams. If I had to describe my "feeling" in the morning, I'd say I was a bit more awake, in a good mood and ready to tackle a new day. The big benefit was that Dream Inducer didn't seem to trigger any negative effects, so it's probably worth checking out if you're looking for a lightweight way to possibly influence your dreams and sleep cycle.
Getting Startled Awake Mid-Dream with Dream Alarm
Unlike the other apps on this list that want you to sleep peacefully through the night and possibly influence your dreams a little by playing special sounds, the iPhone app Dream Alarm seeks to wake you up in the middle of REM sleep to help you remember your dreams without any external influence. This is entirely counterproductive to getting a good night's rest, but if waking up in the middle of a dream is one of the easiest ways to remember the dream then I was willing to give it a shot.
I spent one night with Dream Alarm and that was enough. After setting up the app on my bed I fell asleep quickly. Around 3am, Dream Alarm woke me up in the middle of a dream where I was giving a speech to a group of university kids about the benefits of coffee. Not exactly the most exciting dream by any stretch, but the fact I actually remembered it was interesting enough to me.
The problem with Dream Alarm is that it woke me up at 3am, and I couldn't get back to sleep afterwards. The fact I couldn't get back to sleep isn't a fault of the app, but it's a jarring enough experience that I wouldn't recommend repeating it unless remembering your dreams is somehow part of your job.
The final tally on dream apps is about as definitive as the rest of dream research: three dreams in six days, with only one of those dreams clearly influenced by the app. Compared to my regular seven hours of sleep per night, the dream apps did have a small effect on the number of hours I slept and subsequently had a slight effect on my mood throughout the day. More important is the fact the apps did seem to have an impact on the memory of dreams, even if they didn't always have a noticeable influence on them. That might be the direct reason why my mood was altered as well since I'm not used to remembering the weird things my brain comes up with throughout the evening.
Dream science is not an exact science by any means, and I'm not about to even try analysing any of the above dreams. As far as my experiments are concerned, it is possible to improve your sleep and remember dreams better with a some tech tricks, and influencing your dreams works occasionally. It's not exactly Inception-level, but it's probably as close as you can get for now.
That said, I'm still not entirely certain how I feel about induced dreams — it seems that if, as some research suggests, dreams are a way to work out problems and organise your memories — they might be best left alone. I can say for certain that for my own mental health I'll be returning to quiet, tech-free slumber. How about you: have you ever tried to induce dreams or alter your sleep with technology? Share your experiences in the comments.