By Debbie Burke
The paranoid hairs on the back of my neck stood up when I read several articles by scientists from MIT, Harvard, and University of Montreal about emerging techniques for manipulating dreams.
Search engines are already scary-smart at reading our minds and predicting our behavior. Type a few letters into the search bar and instantly the rest of the word or phrase appears. Google is like a long-time spouse who finishes sentences for you.
Soon, similar mind reading may be extended into your dreams as you sleep.
According to an article by Rob Pegoraro in Forbes.com, as a 2021 Superbowl promotion, Coors Beer offered people free beer in exchange for their participation in a study of “targeted dream incubation,” billed as “The World’s Largest Dream Study.” Subjects were shown Coors’s videos of snowy mountain views and crystal streams several times then fell asleep to the soundtrack of those ads.
Upon waking, the subjects reported dreams of waterfalls and being in snow. The most telling—and chilling—reaction of all came from one woman: “I think it was… something to do with… Coors.”
Subliminal advertising in commercials first became a hot topic way back in 1957. Marketer James Vicary claimed sales of popcorn and Coca Cola increased because of messages inserted into ads. The messages supposedly flashed so quickly the eye could not see them. He later admitted his study was a gimmick not supported by evidence.
According to Chron.com, consumer concerns prompted the FCC to issue a statement:
The FCC stated that all broadcasting licensees should not use subliminal advertising techniques because the techniques are deceptive, which runs counter to the purpose of the FCC. The statement is still on the FCC’s website as its stance on subliminal marketing.
Nevertheless, the concept caught on. This article from Business Insider cites examples.
Dream manipulation is nothing new. Ancient peoples as far back as 5000 years and perhaps longer recognized the enormous power of dreams.
Cultures around the world, from Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and even remote isolated islands, developed practices to guide dreams toward a specific goal. Some goals included:
- Connection with a deity;
- Seeking solutions to problems;
- Overcoming traumatic events;
- Predicting the future.
To attain these goals, different rituals included:
- Rubbing ashes or paint-like substances on a person’s face;
- Eating raw flesh of a particular animal before sleeping;
- Inflicting pain, e.g. Native American Vision Quests;
- Going to sacred locations to sleep.
Today, many conditions, including anxiety, PTSD, poor school or work performance, eating disorders, etc., are commonly treated by using suggestions during sleep.
Here at TKZ, we frequently talk about how authors can solve story problems by using prompts before they go to sleep. Writers often dream their way through roadblocks.
Technology already tracks our physical activity, heart rate, exercise, location, proximity to stores, and far more. Some years ago, while shopping for a new smartphone, I was shocked to find an app that monitored vaginal secretions. Whoa, guys, that is way too intrusive.
When such monitoring goes beyond the physical body and digs into the deepest recesses of the mind, the slope gets downright slippery.
What if a person’s dreams can be manipulated so businesses can profit from them?
With marketers now seeking high-tech ways to manipulate consumers in their sleep, concerned scientists are sounding ethical alarm bells.
In open letter signed by more than 40 scientists in June, 2021, Robert Stickgold, Antonio Zadra, and AJH Haar wrote:
TDI [targeted dream incubation]-advertising is not some fun gimmick, but a slippery slope with real consequences. Planting dreams in people’s minds for the purpose of selling products, not to mention addictive substances, raises important ethical questions. The moral line dividing companies selling relaxing rain soundtracks to help people sleep from those embedding targeted dreams to influence consumer behavior is admittedly unclear at the moment.
…it’s only a matter of time before tech companies that make watches, wearables, apps and other technology that monitor our sleep start to sell that data for profit, or use those tools to hack our dreams while we slumber.
Our dreams might turn into nightmares we can’t wake up from.
This technology opens a vast plot playground for authors of sci-fi, crime, and thriller writers to explore nefarious uses for dream hacking.
TKZers, please name books or films where dream manipulation is used.
How would you incorporate dream hacking into a plot?
Do you give yourself pre-sleep suggestions?
Debbie Burke’s books won’t hack your dreams but many reviewers say they keep them awake at night. Please check out Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion, for sale at this link.