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Meet dream hacking, the dystopian future of advertising where marketers hijack our sleep

By Malavika Pradeep

May 14, 2022

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If you’ve ever Googled anything with the word ‘sleep’, you might have stumbled across claims like “dreams are a path to your unconscious mind.” On the other hand, if you’ve watched Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, you probably believe they are the windows into your lives in the multiverse. Either way, you might want to know that your dreams are prone to hacking and can be commercialised against your wishes. What in the Inception, right?

Baby steps into dreamscape

For over a decade, Moran Cerf, a former tech hacker who now hacks the brain as a neuroscientist, has been studying decision making and the illusion of choice that grips humanity. In recent research at Northwestern University, the expert attempted to implant an idea—a preference, if you will—into the mind of volunteers without their awareness.

In the experiment, subjects were presented with two cards on a computer, each bearing the image of a human face. The cards were then flipped and the participant was asked to choose the one they found the most appealing, along with an explanation behind their choice. As subjects—who were hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) to monitor their brain activity—made several decisions, Cerf deployed a neat trick. At times, once the contributor had made their choice and the cards were flipped, they were shuffled and a wrong image was presented to them. Let’s say they chose the image on the right, but after the cards were flipped, the image on the left was displayed as their final preference.

The results? Not only did the participants fail to remember that the image presented to them wasn’t the one they originally chose, but they even came up with an explanation to justify their unknowingly-manipulated decision.

Then came part two of the research and this is where things took an interesting turn. The subjects were instructed to do the same process all over again but this time without the need to explain their choices. Now, when they were presented with the same two cards as before, they automatically chose the image on the left that was implanted into their minds. In conclusion, the preferences of the subjects were successfully changed without their knowledge.

“In your brain, there are cells that code values or preferences,” Cerf explained in an episode of NOVA, the primetime science series hosted by PBS. “So imagine you have to choose between steak and fish. When you’re about to make a choice, the fish cells on the left side of your brain start to fire—indicating we want fish. At the same time, the cells on the right start to fire—indicating we want the steak. And there’s kind of a battle between those two.” At some point, a majority of signals from one side ultimately get relayed to your consciousness and helps dictate which choice to make.

But when a false idea is implanted into your brain, it creates a false memory that influences this battle in one direction versus the other. And this manipulation doesn’t just work with something simple or superficial like faces but can change the very fabric of your complex opinions. According to Cerf, this process can even be used to alter our political ideals. “You can’t easily take a Democrat and make them into a Republican or vice versa. But you can definitely take a person who says that they’re scoring say a nine on how liberal they are and, [with] a small manipulation, make them shift to scoring a six.”

Now, in order to change your preferences, habits or addictions drastically, your memories need to be even more vulnerable to manipulation. I’m talking about those moments in your life where your guards are down completely. You know, like in Rick and Morty when the aliens try to steal Rick’s formula in that dreamland of his most dark moments? Yeah, that. And what better time for this than while you’re sleeping? Welcome to the dystopian future of dream hacking.

What is dream hacking?

Dream hacking essentially refers to the concept where a change in your physical sleep environment has the potential of influencing your subconscious and interfering with your dreams. Think of all those times you’ve danced to the sound of your alarm clock in your dreams or felt like you were in the middle of an earthquake when someone shook you awake.

Back in 2014, a team of researchers at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science conducted a study where they took 76 adult smokers who wanted to kick the habit and asked them to track how much they smoked over a particular week. Then, at the end of this period, they asked the subjects to come into the lab for a night of sleep, where they were equipped with an odour delivery system and an EEG. When the smokers fell asleep, researchers exposed them to two different smells—cigarette smoke and rotten food—repetitively without their knowledge. Over the following week, the volunteers were asked to track their smoking habits once again and, it turns out, they smoked significantly less than before the experiment.

This is because the subjects were steered into associating the smell of cigarettes with that of rotten food during their sleep. While dream hacking can ultimately help us heal and tackle deadly addictions,  it could also become a dangerous tool of commercial manipulation.

For instance, the night before Super Bowl LV was hosted in February 2021, beverage company Molson Coors conducted what it called the “world’s largest dream study.” Due to the League’s “exclusive contract with a certain competitor,” Coors failed to run a commercial in the big game. So it did the next best thing: explicitly place advertisements of dancing beer cans and talking fish (along with other stimulating imagery like fresh mountain air, snow and waterfalls) into the minds of their volunteer dreamers. Heck, the company even managed to rope Zayn Malik into its marketing coup and have him sleep on an Instagram Live—while having an incubated Coors dream. Although he did admit the whole ordeal was “kinda messed up.”

Today, a long list of companies are looking to alter and drive purchasing behaviour through dream hacking. A 2021 survey of 400 marketers from various US firms, conducted by the American Marketing Association (AMA), found that 77 per cent of them are currently aiming to deploy dream advertising technologies by 2025. That’s less than three years from now, by the way. In fact, this shift is so concerning that a team of more than 40 experts has even penned an open letter warning the public about dream hacking and slamming advertisers for their ethical implications.

Doritos on your mind?

It’s common knowledge that if you talk or even think about something, chances are it will translate into advertisements on Instagram and Snapchat. Now, imagine spending the day being snooped on by marketers only to hit the bed and unwillingly dream of Doritos. Your mobile phone on the bedside table buzzes and you hear a faint crinkle of the packet along with the iconic crunching and munching of the chips. These sounds then sneak into your dream and boom: you wake up craving Doritos for breakfast. This is a blatant violation of consent and privacy, to say the least, right?

“As research in this field progresses, we can only expect that others will try to use these techniques and findings to manipulate our dreams for product placement and, ultimately, to influence our waking behaviours,” a trio of researchers from Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Montreal wrote in a column for Aeon—adding how one of them has already been contacted by several companies seeking help on commercially-driven dream incubation projects. “A time will come soon when the help of sleep scientists is not needed,” they warned.

Until recently, we all believed most of the memory processing that occurs during sleep happens outside of one’s awareness. With several studies popping up in regards to dream incubation and proving this theory wrong as we speak, comes the real concern. “[This] makes dream hacking a potential threat to our memories and very sense of self—a sense defined in large part by the autobiographical memories that we stabilise and integrate during sleep,” the researchers continued.

The team ultimately insists on proactive responses to these developments as well as protective policies to prevent companies from even contemplating this sort of strategy in the first place. “The Coors dream advertisement was not merely a gimmicky marketing campaign—it was a signal that what was once the stuff of science fiction might quickly become our reality,” they wrote. “We now find ourselves on a very slippery slope. Where we slide to, and at what speed, depends on what actions we choose to take in order to protect our dreams.”

I can’t even begin to imagine the day when Episode and Project Makeover decide to inject their toxic gaming advertisements into our dreams. Well, even if marketers manage to enter their dream hacking era, make sure to fortify your mind and chant “Don’t believe everything you think.”