Every morning, sleep researchers lose an enormous data set as people wake up and have their first cup of coffee.
Nightly dreams go largely forgotten, making the sort of broad questions scientists ask about them difficult to answer. Do the rich dream differently than the poor? Do our nighttime thoughts differ from city to city, or from country to country?
The makers of a new app think they have an elegant solution to not only help people remember their own dreams, but to build a database of these unconscious thoughts that can be shared among friends and used by scientists to gain a better understanding of what we think about when we sleep.
SHADOW, a Kickstarter project launched by Hunter Lee Soik and Jason Carvalho this week, would combine an alarm clock with a dream journal. The app would use an "escalating alarm" to gently and gradually bring you out of a dream into the "hypnopompic state" between sleep and wakefulness during which dreams are best remembered. From there, the app would prompt you to record your dreams by voice or text, so that they can be archived for posterity (or just for your therapist).
The pair is asking donors to choose to contribute toward an iOS, Android or Windows Phone version of the app, with the winning platform to be built first.
Much like fitness or money-management apps born of the "quantified self" movement, SHADOW turns dreams into yet another set of personal data to be picked apart by cloud-based computers. Perhaps you have bad dreams when your bank account dips below a certain amount, Soik suggested. Or maybe you dream pleasantly after taking more than 10,000 steps in a day. Such a digital dreamcatcher, in tandem with other apps, could tease out those patterns.
"We don't really know what's out there because we've never been there," Soik said.
The app's data-gathering potential may also be a dream come true for sleep scientists and dream researchers. Current clinical studies of dreams have maybe a few dozen participants each. An app like SHADOW could offer researchers hundreds or thousands of cases to analyze.
If SHADOW grows large enough, Soik plans to encourage researchers to request and analyze users' dream data, with push notifications sent to dreamers so they can grant permission. SHADOW is taking initial steps toward such a project by signing on six sleep scientists as advisors.
Siok, a former creative consultant on Kayne West and Jay-Z's "Watch the Throne" tour, said he got the idea for the app when he took a six-month break from work and started catching up on his sleep. He found he wanted to write down his dreams, but there was no app on the market to meet his needs, he said.
"It snowballed from me falling back in love with sleep to wanting to have dream app for myself," he said.
SHADOW's default setting keeps all dream data private, but the team hopes to build out a more social network, one that could feed users the number of other people who dreamed about the same topic, say, or snippets from publicly available dreams.
That raises at least one disconcerting prospect: SHADOW might reveal that your dreams aren't that interesting or original after all.