A brain-wave-reading device designed to improve sleep did wonderful and terrifying things to my dreams

The last week has been extremely unusual, to say the least.

My dreams have been more colourful, detailed, vivid, and realistic than at any other time I can remember.

This means my recent dream of a romantic getaway in the hills was almost as wonderful as a real vacation, while my nightmare of being chased down a dark alley by an armed stranger was more terrifying than anything I’ve experienced in years.

Not to mention that two other reveries — one of missing a plane to a conference and another of failing to catch a bus to a party — were also distressing.

In the end, they were all just dreams. And I must admit that I’m happier for remembering them than waking up with no memory of any dreams at all, which describes about 90% of my mornings on an average week.

So what made this past week so different?

The headband for sleep

It all started when I began wearing the Sleep Shepherd Blue headband to bed.

This headband is the latest model that uses a sleep tracking device invented by Michael Larson, a mechanical engineer at the University of Colorado.

To be clear, the purpose of the Sleep Shepherd is not to enhance your dreams.

Rather the headband is designed to help you fall asleep. The device also comes with an app that tracks your sleep positions, cycles, and overall quality.

Here’s an example of the Sleep Shepherd’s display showing one of my nights, which includes an hour-by-hour description of my sleep cycle pattern at the top, the time I finally fell asleep and woke up, and how many hours I spent in light vs. deep sleep:

Larson said he first developed the device to help his daughter, who suffers from an autoimmune disease that affected her quality of sleep.

She was taking medication to help her get through the night, but Larson wanted a more natural, drug-free solution. Thus the Sleep Shepherd was born.

A member of the Sleep Shepherd team, Joe Gribble, told Business Insider that most of Sleep Shepherd’s customers say they have experienced a sleeping disorder at some point.

However, the company is clear about saying that their products are not a medical device and are not “designed to be a diagnostic tool, form of therapy, or clinical intervention of any kind.”

According to its makers, the way Sleep Shepherd ushers you into dreamland is by feeding a stream of what I can only describe as humming noises into both ears — though Patricia Marx at The New Yorker said it sounds like what you’d expect to hear before a nuclear disaster.

You can judge for yourself by listening here.

The science of beats

The sounds are what scientists call binaural beats.

These beats create a type of auditory illusion that can occur by playing two different pure-tone sounds, such as those emitted by running a wet finger around the edge of a crystal glass or the sound made by two different tuning forks, one near each ear.

For example, if you strike just one of the tuning forks, your brain picks up the exact sound waves the fork is emitting at a specific pitch, or frequency. But when you hit two tuning forks with different frequencies at the same time, your brain interprets a completely different pitch from either of the forks.

Instead of hearing both pitches independently in each ear, you hear only one pitch, which has a frequency equal to the difference between the two initial frequencies.

It’s like a mathematical exercise for your brain: For example, if you place one tuning fork that emits a tone at 150 Hz to your right ear and another that emits at 170 Hz near your left ear, when both are struck at the same time, you will hear a tone with a perceived pitch that would most closely match one with a frequency of 20 Hz.

Scientists have been studying this intriguing phenomenon for more than 100 years, but just in the last 15 years, they have begun to find evidence to suggest that binaural beats may have a positive, measurable affect on mood, anxiety, and sleep.

The Sleep Shepherd takes advantage of this sleep effect by playing two different tones — one in the left and one in the right — to create that distinctive humming, which I’ve been listening to in bed for the last seven days.

But there’s a little more to it than that. The Sleep Shepherd has to know what frequencies to play as well. It gets this information from your brain — specifically from your brain waves.

The band contains three “state-of-the-art” electroencephalography (EEG) sensors that it claims are designed to measure the frequency of your brain waves. The sensors are located above the left eye and both ears as shown below:

Brain waves are a measure of neural activity in the brain. During the rapid, high-frequency activity of the day, the average brain emits brain waves that an EEG would peg at anywhere between 12 to 48 Hz. As we fall asleep and enter the first stages of slumber, however, brain waves measure between 0.5 and 8 Hz.

As we fall asleep, the rhythm of our brain waves slows down, which is where the Sleep Shepherd comes in.

Scientists have found that you can actually control brain wave frequency with sound. So, the idea with the Sleep Shepherd is that our brain wave frequency will attempt to match the frequency of the device, but the device always stays one step ahead.

Griebel says it works by “always playing a binaural tone just below the current brainwave frequency.” So, as our brain attempts to match the device, the device continues to lower its frequency farther, and down the brain follows into sleep.

Does it work?

The Sleep Shepherd claims to improve your quality of sleep. So the big question, then, is this: After seven nights of use, do I feel more rejuvenated and alert?


To be completely fair, though, I don’t have trouble sleeping. I generally log at least 7.5 hours of sleep a night.

Therefore, it’s possible that my quality of sleep has little room for improvement: I rarely feel tired or groggy during the day.

However, I was still fascinated by the dreams I had while using the Sleep Shepherd. Obviously, something changed while I was using it.

But as far as my vivid dreams being a measure of my quality of sleep, experts say they can’t be so sure the two are necessarily linked. At least not as I’d imagined.

The science of dreams

When I asked professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, Raj Dasgupta, if having better sleep equates to more vivid dreams, his response blew my mind.

“The answer is yes — to an extent,” Dasgupta said. Meaning it depends on how you define vivid dreams. “I’m assuming that when you say vivid dreams you mean REM dreams.”

Dasgupta went on to explain how we have two primary stages of sleep: non-REM (rapid eye movement) and REM. Contrary to popular belief, we dream during both of these stages, but the types of dreams we experience in each stage is different.

It’s that difference that could be key to solving the mystery behind my sudden, vivid dreams.

“Have you ever had a dream and you know you dreamed, and then you woke up in the morning and you’re trying to recall that dream but it’s kind of hazy, like an old VHS tape, and you’re like ‘I know I dreamed but I can’t recall anything.’ Those are probably going to be what we call non-REM dreams. When you have those DVD, Blue Ray type dreams, those are probably going to be REM dreams, or vivid dreams.”

Another point, made by Donald Wilson, a professor of child psychiatry, neuroscience, and physiology at NYU Langone Medical Center, convinced me that the dreams I was remembering were most likely REM dreams — because they were so disconnected from my normal life.

“You can dream through any [sleep] state. The kinds of dreams are a little bit different in those states. When you’re just falling asleep and, to a certain extent, in the first stages of non-REM sleep, those tend to be more … about something you just did today. Once you go into REM sleep, that’s when you have the sort of crazy dreams … where things don’t necessarily have to make sense.”

Wilson added that scientists have found that by improving the non-REM sleep cycle, the brain is better able to store memories.

In other words, my ability to recall my vivid dreams could be a sign that I was sleeping better — that is, so long as I was experiencing REM sleep and not merely having a better time remembering my dreams.

However, the fact that I don’t normally remember my dreams isn’t necessarily a bad sign.

“It’s totally normal to not remember dreams most of the time,” Wilson said. “A lot of the chemicals in the brain that are important that we use when we’re awake to make sure we remember something … they go down [during sleep] so it’s not too surprising that you don’t at least consciously remember what it was you just dreamed about.”

The future

The headband I tried out for a week is still not available to the public. (The Sleep Shepherd team was nice enough to lend me a prototype.)

The team is currently in the midst of its second Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the Sleep Shepherd Blue headband. Already, it’s raised over 20 times more than its goal, and nearly half a million more than it’s first campaign.

During its first KickStarter campaign last year, the team raised $51,000. With 13 days left in its second campaign, the team’s already raised more than $517,000.

“We knew this campaign would be more successful, but have been pleasantly surprised with just how much more,” Griebel said. “The increased funds are being used primarily to increase our stock so that we are better prepared to approach large-scale retailers at the close of the campaign. We will obviously also be devoting many of the funds towards continued improvements on future versions.”

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