Are the advertisers coming for your dreams? | Science

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Some researchers fear a dystopian scenario in which smart speakers feed sleepers subliminal advertisements without their consent.

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By Sofia Moutinho

If you’ve ever crammed in for an exam right before bed, you may have tried something dream researchers have been trying for decades: bringing knowledge into dreams. Such efforts have had glimmers of success in the laboratory. Now brands from Xbox to Coors to Burger King are teaming up with scientists to try something similar: “Engineer” ads in the dreams of consenting consumers, via video and audio clips. This week, a group of 40 dream researchers rejected an online letter calling for the regulation of commercial dream manipulation.

“Dream incubation advertising is not a fun gimmick, but a slippery slope with real consequences,” they write. on the opinion site EOS. “Our dreams cannot become just a playground for corporate advertisers. “

Dream incubation, in which people use images, sounds, or other sensory signals to shape their nighttime visions, has a long history. All over the ancient world, people invented rituals and techniques to intentionally alter the content of their dreams, through meditation, painting, prayer, and even drug use. The Greeks who fell ill in the 4th century BCE slept on earthen beds in the temples of the god Asclepius, hoping to enter enkoimesis, an induced dream state in which their healing would be revealed.

Modern science has opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Researchers can now identify when most people enter the sleep phase where a large part of our dreams take place – the state of rapid eye movement (REM) – by monitoring brain waves, eye movements and even snoring. They have also shown that external stimuli such as sounds, smells, lights, and speech can alter the content of dreams. And this year, researchers communicated directly with lucid dreamers – conscious people while they dream – leading them to answer questions and solve math problems while they sleep.

“People are particularly vulnerable [to suggestion] when he sleeps, ”explains Adam Haar, a cognitive science researcher with a doctorate. Massachusetts Institute of Technology student who co-wrote the letter. Haar invented a glove that tracks sleep patterns and guides its wearers to dream on specific topics by playing audio cues when the sleeper reaches a sensitive stage of sleep. He says he has been contacted by three companies in the past 2 years, including Microsoft and two airlines, asking for his help on dream incubation projects. He helped with a gaming-related project, but says he wasn’t comfortable participating in advertising campaigns.

The work of Harvard University dream researcher Deirdre Barrett has also caught the attention of companies. In a 1993 study, she asked 66 students taking a dream course to select a problem of personal or academic importance, write it down, and think about it every night for at least a week before going. in bed. At the end of the study, almost half said have dreams related to the problem. Similar work published in 2000 in Science, in which Harvard neuroscientists asked people to play the computer game for several hours Tetris for 3 days, found that just over 60% of players said have dreams about the game.

This year, Barrett consulted with the Molson Coors Beverage Company about an online advertising campaign that ran during the Super Bowl. Following his instructions, Coors, which features mountains and waterfalls on its logo, asked 18 people (including 12 paid actors) to watch a 90-second video. with waterfalls, fresh mountain air and Coors beer just before falling asleep. According to a YouTube video documenting the effort, when participants woke up from REM sleep, five reported dreaming of Coors beer or seltzer. (The result remains unpublished.)

Barrett said Science she does not consider the intervention to be a real “experience”, and she has recognized in a recent blog post that the company’s advertisement used scientific terminology “with connotations [of] mind control experimentation ”, against his advice. She also believes advertising strategies like these will have little practical impact. “Sure, you can run ads to someone while they sleep, but when it comes to having a lot of effect, there’s little evidence.” Incubating dreams “doesn’t seem very profitable” compared to traditional advertising campaigns, she says.

That’s not to say that future attempts couldn’t do better, says Antonio Zadra, a dream researcher at the University of Montreal who signed the declaration. “We can see the waves forming a tsunami that’s coming, but most people just sleep on a beach and don’t know it,” he says. Harvard neuroscientist Robert Stickgold, who led the Tetris study, is even more adamant: “They come for your dreams, and most people don’t even know they can do it. “

The authors of the letter say that in the absence of regulations specifically regarding indream advertising, companies could one day use smart speakers like Alexa. to detect the stages of sleep of people and play sounds that might influence their dreams and behaviors. “It’s easy to imagine a world in which smart speakers – 40 million Americans currently have them in their bedrooms – will become instruments of passive and unconscious advertising overnight, with or without our permission,” says the letter, which the authors sent to the United States. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

Such a world deserves to be prepared, says Dennis Hirsch, law professor and privacy expert at Ohio State University, Columbus. But he believes the US Federal Trade Commission Act, which prohibits deceptive advertising “in any medium,” already applies to indream advertising. He adds that US law is evolving to include more specific prohibitions on subliminal messages.

Tore Nielsen, a dream researcher at the University of Montreal who did not sign the declaration, says his colleagues have a “legitimate concern.” But he believes that interventions like this will only work if the dreamer is aware of the manipulation and willing to participate in it. “I’m not too worried, just like I’m not worried that people might be hypnotized against their will,” Nielsen says. “If this is indeed happening and no regulatory action is taken to prevent it, then I think we will be on the right path to a Big Brother state … whether or not our dreams can be changed would probably be the youngest. our worries. “

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