Moran Cerf
Gray Matters

Ordering Dreams On Demand

What if we could order up custom dreams? Or watch the latest film by Scorsese or Spielberg while we sleep? Laurie Segall speaks with Moran Cerf, a professor of neuroscience at the Kellogg School of Management, about a whole new frontier of entertainment.

Read an edited transcript below, or listen to the full interview on the First Contact podcast.

This means that suddenly Netflix and Hulu and YouTube…They’re gonna have dreams by Spielberg.


Moran Cerf: The CEO of Netflix, a few years ago, I was in a conference and he said that on stage. He said that the biggest competitor for Netflix isn’t Hulu or YouTube or any of those. It’s sleep. So, the people sleep for hours and they don’t watch movies. Their brain is active and no one uses it.

Right now we have studies in our lab where we try to manipulate dreams. We try to basically create movies in your mind that will come when you sleep and will be content for you. This means that suddenly Netflix and Hulu and YouTube and all of those are gonna have one more canvas for content that they’re gonna start using. They’re gonna have dreams by Spielberg or dreams by, you know…

Laurie Segall: I mean that’s crazy. The idea that you could order dreams, you really think that’s happening? That could happen? …We could have dreams sponsored by Spielberg? …You know, E.T.’s my favorite movie.

Moran Cerf: …It was science fiction a few years ago.

Laurie Segall: …That would be such a great movie. If I could watch E.T in my sleep, because I just don’t have time in the day.

Moran Cerf: I mean, you can think of so many good things.

Laurie Segall: I have some weird dreams, man. Like, I would love to replace them with like warm, happy ones…

Moran Cerf: The big kind of question that you asked me is like, “Is it possible or not?” Right now the science is at the level of we can induce you having a good dream, not knowing what it’s about, but just spray the right smell and your brain goes to a positive dream. That’s it. We can make you have a bad dream. We inject the wrong smell, you have a bad dream. We can sometimes control a little bit of the content. So, if I do anything with water, if I spray water on you or if I dip your hands in the water while you’re dreaming, you will incorporate water in the dream. You will see waterfalls or the ocean or a boat. So, we can kind of induce very basic ideas, which means that we can control your dream in a very, very crude level. But this historically is the gap between a proof of concept and engineering.
So now dreams are no longer something that is totally a kind of a black box for us. We know how to change them, and now it becomes an engineering problem. Like finding the right smell for every particular concept. Realizing what makes you dream of your mom versus your dad. Stuff like that. It becomes a race by engineers rather than by neuroscientists. Neuroscientists have proven that it works, and now we leave it to others to kind of perfect it, which means that you can get soon to a point where you, at the very least, can choose what memory you want to activate in your dream…

Laurie Segall: But in the future we’re, we’re ordering up dreams?

Moran Cerf: …I am gambling on that because companies come to me every now and then and say, “We wanna think about that.” And I help all of the companies do that in a sense…

Laurie Segall: Companies are asking you to do that?

Moran Cerf: Companies, famous companies.

Laurie Segall: Like what?

Moran Cerf: Like the Silicon Valley’s companies that you know. One of them came to me a number of years ago when I gave a TED talk about dream manipulation and one of them was sitting in the audience and said like, “We wanna incorporate it in the next kind of version of our big kind of product.” And I said, “It’s very, very unreal right now. It’s just like a proof of concept. And our lab really is on, on the mission of just showing that something is possible, not in making a product.” And at the time they were ready to do anything. Like they were ready to basically buy our lab and move us to California so we can develop it. And at the time, I mostly didn’t believe it’s possible to do it as fast as they thought. So I said, “Not something in my life,” but since then a lot of companies are after that. So we’re no longer talking about science fiction.

Laurie Segall: Don’t you feel like now, Silicon Valley’s gotta be a little careful about that? …They did a lot of things to us that we didn’t even realize with addiction and mental health and I don’t know if I would trust Facebook or Twitter to do things to me in my sleep.