Real life ‘Inception’: Headband lets you control your dreams

What if you could control your dreams? Turn a nightmare into a fantasy, fly across the world in one night or even travel to outer space all while you're sleeping?

A new headband that launched on Kickstarter this month promises to do just that by helping you reach what the creators call a “lucid dream” state.

"The easiest way … is to have what we call a reality check," Aurora headband co-founder Daniel Schoonover told "You need something that makes you question the reality you are in."

The headband aims to do just that. First it measures brain waves and eye movement activity to determine when a person enters REM sleep -- a stage of sleep characterized by rapid eye movement where dreams are more likely to occur. Then it emits a series of lights that Schoonover says will not wake up the user, but instead allow her to realize she is dreaming.

She can then take control and enter into a lucid dream state, where the “Inception”-style fun can begin.

That’s the pitch on Kickstarter, anyway, where the team has raised nearly $200,000.

But one sleep specialist says the device may actually cause more problems than it will solve.

"The public is fascinated with dreams,” assistant medical director at Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep Dr. Rachel Salas told “And while everyone would love to tweak their musical abilities or hypnotize themselves to lose weight, I think we're a long way away from this headband being used as a clinical tool."

'The public is fascinated with dreams.'

— Dr. Rachel Salas, assistant medical director at Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep

There are many devices currently on the market that claim to help users sleep better or wake them up during a lighter stage of sleep to prevent grogginess. Salas said most of these consumer gadgets simply cannot truly detect the various sleep stages.

In order to confirm that a person is in REM sleep (where most dreams occur), eye and muscle movement and brain wave activity need to be measured. Salas questions how the headband can detect all of these things; as a board-certified neurologist, she needs the help of multiple devices to measure them all.

Without examining the headband herself, which is not yet available for purchase, Salas is also concerned with the health risks it might present.

"Our society is on their cell phones or computers 24-7 and constantly connected to LED lights," Salas said. "All of this increased light exposure can create sleep disorders."

The lights from the headband may actually "prime or ignite insomnia in users," she added.

Turning yourself into a super hero in a dream is not the only benefit of the Aurora headband.

"We want to improve sleep overall," said Schoonover whose background is in electrical engineering and neuroscience. "Dreams are a part of sleep. We're researching lots of other areas in where the technology can be used."

According to Schoonover, lucid dreaming is said to bring down stress levels and has been proven as an aid in stopping frequent nightmares.

"Another interesting find is that when performing a task in a lucid dream such as playing basketball, it reinforces your natural pathways in real life," Schoonover explained. Practice piano in your dreams and you’ll increase your ability to play in real life.

Aurora is not the only device to claim it can promote lucid dreaming. A device called Luci was also launched on Kickstarter last year, and garnered more than $360,000. Amid allegations of fraud, the backers returned most of the money to the thousands who had backed the idea, the Wall Street Journal reported in November.

"It's a very interesting device and concept with a lot of controversy surrounding the idea," Salas said. "I'd be interested in seeing more research to determine the potential and possibilities of these kinds of devices."

To paraphrase the Latin proverb, Caveat hallucinator: Let the dreamer beware.