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Moran Cerf talks about influencing people through dreams at TED2016 Conference

Watch Cerf discuss his research on dreams and behavior change at annual conference

By Glenn Jeffers


Moran Cerf, an assistant professor of marketing at Kellogg and a professor of neuroscience at Northwestern, discussed his research about dreams and behavior change at the 2016 TED Conference in Vancouver this past February.

Cerf used the 18-minute talk to delve into his research on how dreams are processed, and how we can influence behavior during sleep. Cerf based his talk on the research conducted on patients undergoing neurosurgery.

“Dreams are like a movie we watch in our heads every night,” Cerf said. “We barely remember the content when we wake up, and if we do, we barely understand it. But now, we have an interesting idea of how they work and even how to gain access to them.”

Cerf, a noted neuroscientist, spoke alongside former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, Uber Founder and CEO Travis Kalanick and Andrew Youn ’06, founder of One Acre Fund, which helps farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa grow crops to feed their families. The conference — widely known for bringing together some of the most innovative researchers, academics, business leaders and scholars — was held February 15-19.

“We’re all intrigued by what Moran is going to tell us,” said Angela Y. Lee, the Mechthild Esser Nemmers Professor of Marketing at Kellogg and chair of marketing department, in advance of the conference. “Neuro insights and applications are relatively new to Marketing. Given the technology and where knowledge is, [neuroscience] is definitely something that we could leverage and try to have a better understanding of as marketers.”

Using dreams to influence behavior

Cerf’s research focuses on how the brain actually creates dreams and uses them to filter, analyze and catalog short-term memories. As we sleep, Cerf said, our brains sift through the memories of the day, deciding what to erase, enhance and keep. From there, the brain creates dreams to help interpret and process those memories.

In recent years, Cerf said, neuroscientists have discovered that the brain is susceptible to external influence while people sleep.

“In those moments, your brain actually listens and rehearses,” Cerf said. “When your brain rehearses memories during sleep, you can intervene using sounds and smells and things that the body responds to without waking. This process can help navigate the brain towards certain thoughts and memories.”

The result, Cerf said, is that, “you can actually change behavior.” Cerf cited a recent study where people were able to significantly decrease the desire to smoke cigarettes after being subjected to external stimuli while asleep and dreaming.

“During this small window of time when the brain can rethink what it wants, you can make it find the choice of smoking less rewarding, by creating an association in the brain between smoking and bad experiences,” Cerf said. “And when you wake up, you suddenly don’t want to smoke as much.” 

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