Dream Weaving at Harvard: Yes there is an App for that Too!

By Peter Bernstein April 17, 2012

Since today is officially tax day in the U.S., and yesterday than ran the beloved Boston Marathon in record hot weather, today seemed a good day to cover things that are both pleasing a cool. Hence, I posit for your consideration, the following which I discovered in of all place The Harvard Crimson, the illustrious university’s daily student newspaper since 1873. How about this for a headline? “New iPhone App Developed at Harvard Lets Users Program Their Dreams.” 

 Really?  Read on.

To quickly summarize here are the highlights of the article.

  • Daniel J. Nadler, a graduate student in government back in 2010 while a tutor in Currier House noticed students barely slept and thought tech could help them optimize the little they got.
  • With help from Yuhki B. Yamashita ’11, a former Crimson editor, and MIT student Doug Feigelson, they developed Sigmund, an app that more than 100 iPhone users at Harvard are now programming the content of their dreams with before they go to sleep. 

The idea is simple. It is based on a concept articulated in the 1983 pop hit by the UK duo the Eurythmics, “Sweet Dreams.”


Feigelson, who recently won Facebook’s intercollegiate hackathon at MIT, built the app and programmed in more than 1,000 pre-recorded words. Sigmund plays a five pre-selected words from the list while you are in theory (according to an algorithm for predicting sleep cycles) the REM stage of sleep with the intention of influencing what you dream. Place the iPhone close to your bed, run the app and if when you wake up you had the dream you wanted.

The Harvard Crimson item quotes Nadler as already having observed that some words might be better than others at influencing the content of dreams. He stated, “Visually strong verbal stimuli such as ‘beach,’ ‘orange tiger,’ as well as personally meaningful subjects that relate to activities, people, and places such as ‘restaurant,’ ‘girlfriend,’ ‘Paris’ are especially likely to be incorporated into your dream content during sleep,” he said.

There is anecdotal information that Sigmund, which costs 99 cents from Apple but is free to Harvard students if they email Nadler, works. And, not surprisingly it seems to do so based on hearing words associated with things that are familiar, i.e., stuff you might be prone to dream about anyway. 

The article concludes by saying that Nadler and Feigelson plan to expand the accessibility of Sigmund to other platforms. program the app for platforms besides the iPhone in the future. Nadler predicts, “It is quite possible that in 20 years, our own dreams will become truly controllable entertainment…They bypass the eyes completely, and while in them, we truly take them for reality. Sigmund is merely the prototype.”

So clearly there is going to be a lot of research on all aspects of this including: 

  • Which words work best?
  • How many is optimal for getting a desired result?
  • Is there the possibility for integration with a dream recording device?
  • When is the optimal time to really influence what is dreamt?
  • Parental control?
  • How do you prevent hacking by people who would like you to have nightmares?
  • What about those of us who can’t remember our dreams?

The list is virtually endless.  Inquiring minds would like to know what it is about Harvard that is producing dream weavers? Is this going to be Mark Zuckerberg’s next big acquisition? Stay tuned.


Edited by Juliana Kenny
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