Colin Harrington has weird dreams. “So what?” you might be thinking. “That’s like saying you saw a weird French film. Or like saying you discovered a weird sea creature at the bottom of the ocean. Everyone has weird dreams.” But you don’t understand.

Ever since he was small, Harrington has had very intense lucid dreams. These dreams last all night and leave him exhausted in the morning, and unlike many sleepers, he remembers all of his dreams, which sometimes leads to moments where he has to ask himself “Am I remembering something that happened, or something I dreamt?”

As an adult, Harrington went to a sleep clinic to see if anything could be done about his chronic exhaustion. With his head haloed by an EEG reader and two technicians watching through a mirror, Harrington went to sleep. The results: Colin Harrington has weird dreams.

Unlike a normal sleep cycle that moves from REM to deep sleep and back a few times through the course of the night, Harrington slips into REM and stays there, dreaming for hours, without slipping into the restorative deep sleep cycles. The sleep technicians told Harrington that his brain had been as active asleep as it would have been if he’d stayed up all night watching TV.

Besides the physical issues, Harrington just wanted to be able to talk about his unusual experiences with dreams. All too often, however, people would respond by immediately discounting his experiences. “Everyone has weird dreams.” It was hard for him to get people to take him seriously.

If only there was a way he could show people his dreams…

Beyond Sonification

Can you show someone your dreams? Not exactly, but Colin Harrington has figured out a way to turn his EEG readings into sounds and images that are representative of his dreaming state of mind. This project is called “Beyond Sonification: real-time cognitive and affective audio visual composition utilizing an EEG.”

EEG demo

“Beyond Sonification” is one part performance art, one part installation, and one part exercise in amateur neuroscience. Beneath a tent-like dome, Colin Harrington sleeps with an EEG reader on his head. Once he reaches a REM state, his mental mood gets translated into music and images that Harrington has mapped responses to are triggered by events within the dream and then projected onto the dome.

The music engine for “Beyond Sonification” takes the emotional parameters that the EEG reader detects – excitement, meditation, anxiety, engagement, relaxation, focus – and turns that into notes in a musical composition. It takes some subjective leaps to translate combinations of these parameters into emotions – excitement and engagement to mean happiness, meditation and anxiety to mean sadness – but it is more than enough to get a reading of a mood. For happiness, the music engine will stay in the major scales. For sadness, the music will turn to minor scales and descend. Anxiety and other turbulent mental states will cause dissonant notes and increased tempo.

Harrington has been using commercial EEG readers for about 5 years. Working with the software that comes with the EEG readers, he’s created a number of different programs that work with thought to create musical compositions and other art pieces. At Maker Faire New York in 2014, for example, he collaborated with performance artist Lisa Park to create Mindreader.

Beyond Dreaming

“I absolutely feel that it is much easier to explain my sleep disorder to others now that I have a way to visualize it.” Harrington said of the project. “I have to wear a sleep mask and ear buds to not be disturbed by what’s going on, but people outside of the Dome can see when I start dreaming and can see the state of my dream as well as the duration.”

At Maker Faire Bay Area 2016, Harrington brought a half-dome iteration of the project modified for waking brain activity to show in the dark room. While he expected to be the one donning the EEG reader for the majority of the time, he was impressed by the number of people who wanted to try it out for themselves. “It was a lot of fun to see hundreds of different people try on the headset because of the radically different results that we got to see and enjoy including two sets of twins and one autistic boy. For the researcher in me this was an amazing opportunity to see sample sets from such a large group for review and comparison without having an official study.”