Story at a glance

  • A centuries-old method used to shape a person’s dreams could become an effective tool for advertisers to subtly manipulate consumers, potentially creating a way to weaponize sleep, experts say.
  • Elements of dream manipulation can produce positive results for people trying to quit addictive substances.
  • But experts worry that entities could use the science behind dream incubation for more nefarious purposes.

A centuries-old method used to shape a person’s dreams could become an effective tool for advertisers to subtly manipulate consumers, potentially creating a way to weaponize sleep. 

A group of experts wrote an open letter in June speaking out against corporate use of dream incubation, The Guardian reported. Dream incubation involves “techniques employed during wakefulness to help a person dream about a specific topic.”

“TDI-advertising is not some fun gimmick, but a slippery slope with real consequences,” the letter warned. “The potential for misuse of these technologies is as ominous as it is obvious.”

Bob Stickgold, a cognitive neuroscientist and professor of psychiatry at Harvard medical school, told The Guardian that “anything you could imagine an advertising campaign for, at all, could arguably be enhanced by weaponizing sleep.” 


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Yet elements of dream manipulation can produce positive results. For example, a 2014 study revealed that a group of smokers who smelled cigarette smoke while sleeping smoked 30 percent fewer cigarettes the week following the test. But experts worry that entities could use the science behind dream incubation for more nefarious purposes, according to the outlet. 

“Something like 30 million people have these listening, Alexa-type devices in their bedroom. And those devices can play anything they want whenever they want and advertisers could buy advertising time, [for adverts] they want played at 2:30 in the morning,” Stickgold said.

“You could have this sort of 1984 situation where advertisers buy advertising time on these devices, and nobody ever knows they’re hearing them,” Stickgold continued. 

Stickgold told the outlet that to make the process work, an  advertiser would have to introduce something, like a sound, during a person’s waking hours then replaying the sound while the person sleeps to trigger the potential dream. 


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Experts have expressed the need to fight dream manipulation, and pointed to possible federal regulations that would prohibit “advertisers from manipulating one of the last refuges of our already beleaguered conscious and unconscious minds.”


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Published on Jul 06, 2021