Tech Is Commodifying Sleep. Will the Future of Sleep Put Our Dreams on Sale?
The rise of sleeptech has turned rest into something that can be tracked, optimized, and gamified.
In The Future Of, we unpack technology’s growing influence on our lives to answer the pressing question — What lies ahead?
Advertisers have our attention already. Some believe our dreams may be next.
When a beer company used a method called “targeted dream incubation” to play advertisements in people’s dreams, nearly 40 scientists signed an open letter that warned of dream advertising and the commercial use of dream technology. The future of sleep could be in the hands of tech and advertisers if we’re not careful.
With technology infiltrating sleep, it is no longer just about rest and rejuvenation. Instead, it has transformed into a lucrative business opportunity. With sleep tech, sleep can now be tracked, analyzed, optimized, and as the advent of ‘Pokemon Sleep’ – the game that incentivizes sleep like it did walking – shows, even gamified. “The bedroom is one of the spaces that are still relatively untouched by play technologies. Sleep patterns are a valuable source of data for marketers, so there will be attempts to monetize them,” Paolo Pedercini, a game designer and associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University, told VICE.
While games that incentivize good sleep may be rarer as of now, trackers and other devices have already instituted themselves as an integral part of many people’s sleep rituals. But research says that in the quest to perfect sleep scores, constant monitoring is adding to the existing anxieties around sleep and leading to greater self-diagnosis of sleep disorders. This pursuit of the ‘ideal sleep’ based on sleep tracker data has been named as a condition of its own – orthosomnia.
In decades to come, the sleep technology market is only expected to grow further, birthing a range of predictions for the future of sleep. Beyond calming apps and trackers, advancements in science may allow sleep to be personally optimized, genetically modified, and even offer us a semblance of control over our dreams. There’s research that makes these dystopian narratives plausible, if not probable.
“Anything you could imagine an advertising campaign for, at all, could arguably be enhanced by weaponizing sleep,” Robert Stickgold, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School told The Guardian.
In 2020, scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) published a paper showing it was possible to shape dream content, at least to an extent. The researchers had managed to guide people’s dreams towards certain themes using a technique known as “targeted dream incubation” (TDI) – which they defined as “a protocol for reactivating memories during sleep in a manner that leads to incorporation of the targeted memory, or related memories, into dream content.” For their experiment, they combined an app with a wearable sleep tracking device, ‘Dormio’, to determine when the subject entered the early dream stage of hypnagogia that is similar to the state of lucid dreaming where a person is aware they are dreaming and can consciously shape their dreams. Hypnagogia is a state of mind that lead study author Adam Haar Horowitz described as “trippy, loose, flexible, and divergent” – one where individuals can still hear and process audio while they move from wakefulness to sleep.
At this stage, recorded audio was played to insert “targeted information” into people’s dreams. For example, the audio stimuli that asked people to think of a tree led to results where 67% of subjects had dreams that incorporated a tree in some form or the other. “Often, they are transformed — a ‘tree’ prompt becomes a tree-shaped car — but direct incorporation is easily identified,” Haar Horowitz said.
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With this revelation, dream research reached new heights where Dormio interacted directly with a dreaming brain and manipulated dream content, said Stickgold, who co-authored the paper. “The potential value of Dormio for enhancing learning and creativity are literally mind-blowing,” he continued.
But not everyone is thrilled at the idea of targeted dream incubation. An issue of particular concern is that individual dreamscapes could become fertile ground for advertisers and marketers to peddle their wares. This concept may seem far-fetched when viewed only in the context of MIT’s dream experiments, but the issue was further catapulted into the limelight when Molson Coors, a beer company, announced an advertising campaign that would infiltrate people’s dreams in 2021. The idea was that subjects would watch a video of “clean mountain air, refreshing streams” and fall asleep to an eight-hour soundtrack that would embed suggestive imagery in people’s minds and make them dream of Coors. The company reportedly incentivised people by offering discounts and free drinks, and even had Zayn Malik participate in the dream incubation by letting the world watch him sleep – and dream – on Instagram Live.
This was the campaign that scientists, including Stickgold and Haar Horowitz, raised the alarm over in an open letter. Coors is not the only one that has tried to use people’s dreams to drive profits, the letter said. Xbox’s Made From Dreams used targeted dream incubation to make gamers dream of their favorite video games while Burger King created a “nightmare” burger for Halloween in 2018, claiming that “a sleep laboratory study had ‘clinically proven’ it would induce nightmares.” In fact, the American Marketing Association New York’s 2021 Future of Marketing survey revealed that 77% of over 400 marketers aimed to use dream-tech for advertising by 2025, as noted in an article in Big Think.
“TDI-advertising is not some fun gimmick, but a slippery slope with real consequences,” the scientists wrote in their letter. While TDI requires subjects’ active participation at present, it is not too hard to imagine a time when devices and smart speakers in bedrooms “become instruments of passive, unconscious overnight advertising, with or without our permission,” they said.
If used ethically, researchers claim targeted dreaming could have several benefits – from enhancing creativity and improving learning to treating addiction as well as psychiatric conditions such as depression and PTSD. For instance, a study found that smokers’ exposure to the smell of cigarettes and rotten eggs while sleeping led to a 30% reduction in smoking the next week. This shows that dreams can influence behavior, which is why the possibility of subliminal advertising in dreamscapes raises an ethical conundrum. As the letter’s signatories pointed out, “While the Federal Trade Commission has indicated that subliminal ads during wake violate its statute requiring truth in advertising, there is no similar indication regarding exposure to advertisements during sleep.”
Although dream research is still in its nascent stages, scientists have advocated proactive action and policies that can, in their words, “keep advertisers from manipulating one of the last refuges of our already beleaguered conscious and unconscious minds: Our dreams.”
In February, the creators of the popular app ‘Pokemon GO’ revealed their latest mobile game – ‘Pokemon Sleep’ – to be launched this year. As the name suggests, all one needs to do to catch rare pokemon this time is sleep. The game acts as a tracker – the number of hours you sleep determines which pokemons you unlock. It’s the latest in a range of technological innovations that are attempting to tackle the burgeoning problem of sleep deprivation and exhaustion in novel ways. Technology, along with its spawn of addictive apps that keep people hooked to screens, has often been blamed for disrupting circadian rhythms. Now, it is also offering solutions to fix broken sleep patterns and improve sleep quality – for a price.
This doesn’t bode well for the near future; in a population that’s getting less sleep than ever, sleep becomes a resource accessible to a few. The commodification of sleep also brings up the question of access. Socioeconomic analysis of sleep and health has revealed that the poor and socially-disadvantaged minorities sleep less on average than the wealthy.
Meanwhile, futurologist Ian Peterson wrote in a 2011 report that was commissioned by Travelodge that dream management will become a reality by 2035, where “video, audio, smells, and tactile experiences produced using the bed or bed linen will play a key role in the sleeper’s dreams.” Individuals will potentially be able to link dreams to those of others, play games in their sleep, and even record and replay their dreams with the help of brain monitoring. They could even learn new skills, or a new language, while they’re asleep, he claimed.
Peterson further added that with advancements in augmented reality and virtual reality, even the ambience in hotel rooms will be designed to provide the perfect sleep experience for guests. Advanced technology will eventually be embedded in everything from mattresses and pillows to pajamas. Sleep was once a necessity, but the predictions for its future turn rest, quite literally, into a luxury. If a future where individuals are heavily dependent on technology to sleep becomes a reality, those who might need rest most will be unable to afford the smart pajamas that claim to track a person’s vitals while they sleep or sleep robots that promise to lull one into a deep slumber, further widening the “sleep gap.”
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While eight hours is often considered the recommended amount of sleep required to feel rested (and to maximize one’s productivity), new research is also revealing that the number of sleep hours an individual needs may actually differ from person to person, and is encoded in their genes. “There are many people who think everyone needs eight to eight and a half hours of sleep per night and there will be health consequences if they don’t get it… But that’s as crazy as saying everybody has to be 5 ft. 10 in. tall. It’s just not true,” Louis Ptáček of the University of California San Francisco, told TIME magazine.
Ptáček, along with professor of neurology Ying-Hui Fu, first discovered a rare gene that promotes “natural short sleep” in 2009. In 2019, they found two other gene mutations that are connected to naturally shorter sleep. By further studying this genetic basis of sleep in those that need fewer hours of rest, the researchers believe they will be able to pinpoint how sleep is regulated, which could help improve sleep efficiency.
These insights could potentially allow future genetic engineering to optimize sleep, such that it reduces the number of hours one needs to feel rested. According to the Washington Post, this technology could prove immensely beneficial to the military, who could genetically modify sleep genes to create the super-soldiers popular in works of science fiction. They could potentially soldier on for days without being impacted by the common effects of sleep deprivation.
What these technological developments underline is that the future of sleep, once a private matter, may no longer that. As our awareness of sleep issues grows, so do business prospects of sleep tech. “There is now a lot of accepted knowledge that sleep is fundamental to all aspects of our physical and mental health… But we’ve also created anxieties that have provided many business opportunities,” professor Guy Leschziner, who runs sleep disorder clinics in the UK, told Harper’s Bazaar. “Many of today’s products in the vast sleep industry stretch science to their advantage, and can often fuel greater anxiety. We have pathologised sleep,” he said.
Ananya Singh is a Senior Staff Writer at TheSwaddle. She has previously worked as a journalist, researcher and copy editor. Her work explores the intersection of environment, gender and health, with a focus on social and climate justice.